Riptides crash and clutch
onto an exhausted shore–
— a lover apprehends his muse
Riptides crash and clutch
onto an exhausted shore–
— a lover apprehends his muse
In these past few months I have not been as active, there simply hasn’t been enough to write about. However I’ve also been [consciously] working on becoming more reticent and selective of my words, especially with recent events.
I began writing this two days ago before realizing it was the 17th of Tamuz, and had forgotten to fast. Disappointed in myself, I stopped writing. This summarizes how I have felt for the past few months; busy, displaced, erring, and distressed.
I am currently working three part-time jobs in a mad rush to finally pay off student debt and save as much money for Israel as possible, which has been more exhausting than I would care to admit. I am so exhausted that I sleep in on Saturdays, my Shabbat, and often do not make it to synagogue. I do not feel like myself, and I miss home, and these whole final few months have been a challenge to my will and my identity, and most of all, for my patience.
The ongoing process with the Jewish Agency to finalize my Aliyah plans, originally set for February, then July, and now hopefully next month, has brought out my deepest concerns.
I am stubbornly beginning the process of packing, and downsizing, avoiding the full responsibility of being prepared for this move, because I am skating over the possibility of my Aliyah plans being rejected. Due to this prolonged process, I have confirmed with my Aliyah representative that I will remain in the States until August, supplying more time to organize a program placement and strengthen my finances. But my grievances with the Jewish Agency’s lack of transparency or much-needed warranty for seven years of dreaming remain.
The 17th of Tamuz marks the three weeks until the 9th of Av, a notoriously dark day in Jewish history, the greatest of these events being the destruction of the Second Temple by Roman siege in the year 3829 (69 CE). And on this day I fight an ongoing anguish, like a Psalmist lamenting for Jerusalem, so far out of reach. By the end of these three weeks will I hear bad news?
Hesitantly, I understand that despair has, and can, become joy overnight. That with an aggressively positive and disciplined attitude, the busiest schedule, the most tormenting worry, and the greatest obstacles can be overcome with steadfast determination. Private grief can result in unimaginable victories.
While vacationing out West, I walked into Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, astonishing in its sheer size and quantity. I almost became lost in the many floors and labyrinths of stairs and shelves when I found myself in the section-wide Middle East affairs, hundreds of anthologies together; I rebought one of my favorite collective biographies (having given other copies away), Like Dreamers, which tells of the stories of various members of the 66th Battalion (Paratroopers) tasked with retaking the old city of Jerusalem.
Reading the story Chief Intelligence Officer of the Paratroopers, Arik Achmon, I was inspired by his ethic of planning the opening stages of the Six-Day War, while being imbedded in University studies, processing a difficult divorce with his two children, and having virtually no experience in intelligence gathering (Achmon was given officer status by his senior after attending one rushed exercise), to standing on the liberated Temple Mount days later in a battle-weary, sleep-deprived, sore, and grieving state. But on his Hebrew birthday, the steadfast Arik Achmon was able to experience the most coveted opportunity that could not be afforded to Jews in twenty centuries, because of his hard work.
Walking along the placid beaches of Southern California on the final leg of my vacation, the jewel of American luxury, with one of my best friends and his sister, I couldn’t have been further from that present moment.
Looking out to the Pacific with wet sand between my toes, I desired Jerusalem, I wanted and continue to want to be home, to be a part of this history, that Jews in their centuries of fasting on the 17th of Tamuz could finally now realize through their tearful prayers.
I am tired and worried of being in the same constant state of yearning. What could I do with my life that exacts the same yield of passion I’ve had for this mission for the past near-decade?
Nothing. I will have nothing, and in the back of my head sits an unfulfilling library of contingencies.
As I stared into the patterned moonlight on my carpet, I remembered
and the choice I made to walk away.
If miracles are in fact improbable chances
Like the sunrise I watch from the driver’s seat
I am reminded of the impending day
I’ve been aching to leave,
and I now realize:
This is such difficult sacrifice.
There are no guarantees anymore
And I pack these ill-fitting fears away
in the stubborn crevice of a Patagonia duffel bag.
Everything is a miracle.
Life is a brutal, messy, heart-wrenching trial as much as life is a glory, a journey, an adventure, beautiful and spontaneous and unexpected.
What a disheveled life.
So awful and worthwhile, and it can all end at any corner, at any given moment, as abruptly as when we were once born out of nothing; one of the things I tendentiously love about life. Maybe not the death, but that element of life that keeps it so alive, and vital, and beating, and existing. One day it began, likewise it ends.
I have been in the United States for about a month and a half, and I am enjoying it. Not without its challenges, being back in the States has been a test for my final self waiting to be absorbed into the place I call home six-thousand miles away.
I turned twenty-four in June, and already feeling a great deal older than the people I lived with during those months of Ulpan, or Hebrew immersion school, I’ve begun to deliberate what I want versus what I need, versus what I must do: All fighting inside me at once every day.
Four months away and I will be back in the ancient rain-laced preserve of an Israeli winter. I am deciding on whether I will be taking one final Ulpan before the Army in August, or an expedited program so I may draft by April. I want to choose the latter, but realistically I must wait to consult with the immigration representative I meet with next month.
It has been a season of closures since I’ve arrived back in the United States, and a supply of conflicting emotions have catalyzed within. Losing my family’s young dog to an aggressive disease and my father’s car I’ve held privy for its sentimental value and making final goodbyes with certain friends, altogether have really closed a chapter on this American life for the time being.
Who knows what happens next?
I am ready to return. I miss the night marches with a rabble of voices yelling out in volition their determination to hold onto the land. I miss the surge and crash of Mediterranean water on my legs and chest, the rare sight of lightning that illuminated the ragged teeth of Mount Carmel, the beating rays of the midday sun and the purple skies of midnight. I long for the night fires in the wilderness with the hevreh drinking to the point that vocalized commitments came out: I will take a bullet for you, and I promise to attend your beret ceremony, G-d forbid.
A concern I’ve slowly begun to scratch the surface of is my coming of age and the responsibilities and steps that traditionally join it. There are women in my life, but not a single desire within me to settle. There are friends beginning families, but I cannot start a family right now. And the pressure is heavy and real.
I have family here in the States, and family in Israel. So in a sense I suppose I am starting a family. And for now Israel is my wife, and I don’t believe we’re divorcing any time soon.
I stare down my path with sober eyes, in its truest, naked, starkest form. After our Sh’ma we lace up and take life head-on, every morning, every day.
I am going to wear those coveted red boots and I need all the strength and focus I can release right now so that I earn them.
“I’ll be going to Layla Lavan.”
“Jesus, going straight into Layla Lavan? You haven’t worked with these guys before?”
“I can’t, you know? With Ulpan and work.”
“I get it, your schedule is full.”
“I mean, I’ve been training everyday, sometimes with friends and most times solo, working myself as much as I can.”
“You’ll be fine, it’s just-”
“It’ll be a baptism by fire.”
“Is it difficult? ” I asked, knowing just how unnecessary the question was, but wanting to get as real of an answer as I could.
“Layla Lavan (white night), or tironut (training) in general?”
“It’s extreme, but do you know how to keep on?”
“Yes, exactly. Shoot for as high as you can. The training is a bitch, but listen Nachshon, it’s worth it. In kravi what you’ll be doing for majority of the time is holding a part of the border. The days are long, but you do jack. Nothing. The only part you need worry about getting through is tironut. If you can survive tironut, it’s cake. It’s so good and rewarding. The army rewards hard work. You even go home on Thursdays for an extended shabbat.”
“Really. Go to the beach, have dinner with your family, fuck your girlfriend, whatever. Get back to the grind on Yom Rishon and repeat for seven months until you’re combat ready.”
He pulls a video up on his phone; a rabble of olive-drab warriors in boonie hats standing before wet earth caked in mud.
“Achat shteim shalosh!”
The soldiers jump forward and smack prone in the mud, their elbows and knees jerking forward in the thick, sinking ground, rifles held above the clay.
“Is that a Galil?”
I continued to watch in awe as the full-gear heavyweights confidently pushed their way through such hampering obstacles like tanks on asphalt.
“…During war week, you’ll sleep every other day. Not much, two hours tops, but your body is going to soak up as much rest as possible. During the days, the m’faked will hand out maps with topography and shit on them.”
“You’re going to go through hellish marches, and will be expected to always stay on alert. If a time comes where the group stops, there is no sitting. You kneel with your rifle in your arms. But after these little missions are finished, you’re going to want to lay around. Don’t. Study the maps as much as you can. By the end of the day, the m’faked will send you out and you need to know exactly how to get back to base. …But honestly, during most marches, you’re expected to carry your rifle at your shoulder at all times, you know, ready to shoot.”
“But, much of the time I’m walking with my arms tucked in my pockets. That’s not how it is in a real combat situation. You’ll know and feel the difference. Last week, we were moving through a Palestinian village looking to arrest a man who was selling weapons. We couldn’t find him all night, but we had other suspects.”
“Do you know what we found? In one suspect’s house, business cards tucked in a stand belonging to a journalist.”
“Is that who took the photo?”
“Yes. At about five AM we were leaving the village, and ahead of us a man was on the ground setting up a tripod. That is why we wear the masks.”
“To protect your identity.”
“Exactly. You cannot touch them, bother them, destroy their camera, by law. You just ignore them and move on. …I’m in the photograph somewhere. Don’t remember where I was. See the guy with his hand over his eyes?”
“Is that you?”
“No, don’t think so. But he’s hiding, you don’t want to be too familiar in the West Bank.”
“It looks difficult. Exhausting. But this was my intention all along. And I’ve always doubted myself, my poor Hebrew, my body, my upbringing.”
“That will all fade soon. I can already tell that you’re one of us, you’re a brother. Honestly, don’t doubt yourself.”
That changed when I came here. Do I have fear? Yes I do. Not of the physical challenges, not of the gibush. I fear for losing myself, who I am in the place I came to find who I am. I made this clear to my American-Israeli friend as we nursed Macabi Beer while pounding shots of whiskey and rolling cigarettes; he called me brother.
The humid night brought in a hazy smog which cradled itself in the Jezreel Valley, likely from the ammonia plant east of Haifa. It fortified the deep feeling of strangeness, one of life’s inevitable turns that leave permanent marks on the always-changing, pliable human conscious. The alcohol wears off in the middle of the night as I lay, looking out the iron-paned blinds of my bomb-proof window, as the haze dissipates and the sun burns the dark away.
Ghosts and unwelcome memories linger, I feel I look down on them from a lonely mountain’s crest. But it is a another day, another chance, a new time under the sun to fulfill the unforgiven minute with sixty seconds-worth distance run.
MOSES DISTANCES himself from the throngs of Hebrews gathering on the shore while he begins an uncertain conversation in the Holy Presence.
During the wait, the Chieftan of Judah feels the shifty waters of the intimidating Sea of Reeds on his feet. His tribe gathers behind him, vulnerable, mortal, panicked; his spiritual and martial commander arguing with G-d even at this vital moment, the faint contour of Moses’ staff angrily waving in the air toward a rageful sky, from where in the distance a stanchion of flames stretches downward; the uncomfortably close thin line epitomizing the nearness of a vengeful Egyptian cavalry to nomadic, fragile life.
I choose You to choose me.
The Chieftan silently, impulsively, hurls his body into the waters. The motherly screams of women on the shore, the silence of disbelief overtaking a once boisterous, stormy crowd, and the shouts of a few indecisive men erupt. The dark waves of the Sea of Reeds pulls at the Chieftan’s robes as he sinks lower beneath the burning salt lido churning around him. The deep, black indigo bathes his chest, his neck, his nose and ears, until he is gone.
I reach out my hands along the Mikvah’s walls to keep my naked body submerged. Resurface. Too hasty I think to myself while the Beit Din, the House of Judgement consisting of my Rabbi, my synagogue’s cantor, and its director, stands waiting for me to immerse again.
The warm water softly beckons on my shoulders and breasts. Going under again, flare of the nostrils, assault on the eyes, the lifting pressure in my head, and… peace. The change. The transformation, the will actualized by the commitment of my heart.
Years of desire and shouting out, I choose You to choose me.
“One more time” I hear my Rabbi softly speak.
I remember the long road that has led upward to this moment. The questioning, the depression, the confusion, the anger, the tears… the silent glimpses of joy like sunlight grinning through cloud shade.
I remember asking myself who the fuck am I, walking dozens of miles from my parents’ home in the middle of night, feet soaked in slush and snow, wondering about the state of my soul after a shouting match with my parents in which I had cursed them with colorful insults and slammed my boots on the floor.
I remember the comfort of a woman holding my hand with a glass of wine in the other, asking me why, then warning me, warning me until my eyes could no longer comfortably look at hers, and finally, not surrendering, not breaking, she began to console me with intoxicating words of how she has not opted from the faith, that we are a tribe, that I am taking on an ancient and heavy commitment, that I cannot opt out either.
I remember the shame of pulling out my active phone during a communal gathering of singing during a Shabbat service in a soldiers’ hostel in Tel Aviv, a gross violation of the Shabbat laws, that caught the attention of a young reservist with leathery skin and a knitted kippah. He eyed me with a sort of stare nixing a brief shock and disdain with an understanding that whispered it is okay, he will get there one day.
I remember forgetting how to pray, and learning again, because of my primitive understanding of Hebrew, and having always prayed to Jesus, until the revelation came one night in 2011 while gazing into the maze of Chicago’s skyscrapers from a hotel room, going through a messy breakup, that I need to stop worshipping a man and my crumbling relationship; that evening I found a sliver of G-d, reaching down into the cold ruins of my consciousness from the starry lights of the many windows, like glimpses of warmth in the sea of black concrete during a chilly downtown night:
Shema Israel Ad-nai Eloheinu, Ad-nai Echad.
was the first prayer I had prayed, battling a massive headache, strangling loneliness, questioning my future and my willingness to stay alive for it.
“Stretch out your hand, Moishe.”
The words penetrate the chosen leader’s focus as the clouds grow darker, a harbinger for night.
Wood smacks stone. The waters flee in furor, light obliterating darkness. Two majestic curtains of sea stretch into the brewing clouds, opening a passage for the Hebrews. The nearly-drowned Chieftan is regaining composure, having been swept under his feet by the power of the parting.
The Hebrews start forward, abandoning carts and deadweight, led by an astonished Moses and Aaron. Trembling with fear, awed in the Presence.
The Chieftan is named Nachshon, son of Aminadav and directly descended from Judah, son of Jacob. His namesake, allusive to the Hebrew word nachshol, “waves”, is the name I am taking on as a Jew.
Reading from a framed prayer, in Hebrew, at the poolside, wet hair covering my eyes from the third immersion in the mikvah, I begin:
Blessed are You, Ad-nai
Ruler of the Universe
Who has sanctified us with the mitzvot
and has commanded us concerning immersion.
My Rabbi begins a beautiful Hebrew prayer, the most beautiful prayer, and I hear him speak my name as though it were written in a book. My identity rose out of the water that day. My desire, my current life, and my future, family, children, home, I will go with G-d and mend the world in an everlasting covenant; I will speak of these words to my children, speak of these words while I sit at home, when I walk along the way, and when I lie down and rise up. I will bind these as a sign upon my hands, between my eyes. I will hang them on my doorposts and upon my gates.
The waters are open, blown back by a strong Eastern wind; my life’s Egypt behind. I am free. I belong. And the journey has only begun… although I am still imperfect, although I still, like a child, continue to learn from misunderstandings and petty mistakes, I am untouched by regret, rather, yolked by delight that I am going where I am meant to go.
And it has not been effortless, this choice will not be without complication. My identity was once scarred by a controlling, aggressive darkness, unconfident and insecure. Difficulties in the road ahead are surely waiting for me. The future is uncertain for all of us, no matter where we are in life.
Stretch out your hand, Moishe, take a breath, go with faith.