19 Tamuz 5777 – Private Grief

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.

20 Cheshvan 5777 – Day by Day

What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again.  There is nothing new under the sun.

I am sinking into the rhythm I had felt around this time a year ago, the damning repetition that drives one mad.  But a full work schedule is necessary for the time being.  The illusion of being so far from home is, again, a daily reminder of my purpose.  Don’t let habit rule you– leave as soon as you can.

As the day of my departure looms, I mull over the years that have led to this season. It is vastly different than I had imagined, but my heart still swells with that comforting anticipation one feels when they dream of their future. I remember the first time I landed in Israel, that citrus breeze rippling through my taxi’s window taking me to my weekend’s stay at a Tel Aviv beachfront hotel; that is almost what I feel now.  The elating vindication of being lost in a distant whim.

However, this time is refreshingly different than my second arrival in this past year, during which I felt blasé.  I landed knowing I had a mission to learn Hebrew as fast as possible, but in those five months it could only be a taste.  I wasn’t there as a citizen.  That changes in a matter of weeks.

It is so good to feel that passion begin to resurface, the workings of a long-lasting hope fulfilled. It is the time to give life its proper name.

As I’ve hinted in my previous post, my focus has slackened when I arrived back in the states, and my mentality has been consistently challenged. It threw me into the brutal wake of a depression I’ve been since battling upward.

Each morning that tempts me to sleep in an hour later, I fight; I throw myself on the cheap Ikea rug at my bedside, and immediately begin pounding push-ups without prior stretching.  My body stands on stilts above the rug, as I shove encroaching thoughts into a figurative bag.

Everything is meaningle

Lower.  Push.

Is this behavior manic?  Maybe? I feel it’s necessary.

I need to prepare, to thrash the chemicals in my head out of order so they can rearrange.  I crave discipline, and it is so hard without accountability.

One morning while working at the coffee shop, I met a man with a thick Australian accent. I remembered my friend Daniel, currently serving in the Nahal Brigade, and all the stories he’d told me of his upbringing in the land down under. I asked this man where he’s from, he said New South Wales. He pointed out the Star hanging around my neck, and we found our connection.

“I served in an undercover unit in Southern Lebanon.”
“No kidding,” I couldn’t contain my shock, such a small world for Jews! “…when did you serve?”
“While the US were tied up in Desert Storm, and Saddam was launching SCUD’s over Israel. It fucked me man, I’ve been seeing therapists for years. It really fucked me.”

The conversation turned down a somber road, but the enthusiasm in his tone revealed his contagious sense of hope. His upward battle? I fastened a hopper into the La Cimbali and began pulling his espresso.

“What is it you want to do?”
Tzanchanim.”
Tzanchanim, and did you have your Tsav Rishon?”
“No, I haven’t made aliyah yet.”

He told me stories of his time serving as a Paratrooper in a branch of Nahal, which admittedly confused me. But these reconnaissance units generally lack jurisdiction; being the best of the best, they are pliable to the army’s will. Wherever they have a use for a special unit, the army finds a way to bend the rules.

“I was deployed so quickly, I didn’t even have time to do my jumps.”
“You didn’t get your wings?”
“Afraid not mate, but I was in and out so quickly it didn’t matter.”

He wrote his name and number on a ripped wedge of newspaper and gave it to me.

“Please call me, I want to help you as much as I can before you leave.”

Actions carry varying consequences.  Your world could be falling apart around you, and you can sit and map out the origin of each and every blame.

But what of inaction?  Wallowing in self-pity and sulking about your day, unloading your problems onto others’ shoulders?  Asking why and why again?

Does inaction, too, have a consequence?

The universe is objectively and indiscriminately just.  Ze mah she’yaish, it is what it is, deal.  You are neither Evil nor Good.  You just are.  He just is.  You may be the most unfortunate soul on the face of the earth, objectively undeserving of every calamity that has befallen you; like Job and worse, this time not bound by the devil’s pact with G-d.

But if you choose to do nothing, the consequence is nothing, and more.

I have believed in this for as long as I can remember.  But I feel I haven’t begun living it until now.

This is will.

Regardless of vying conditions, your boots don’t just stand there, they push through the mud.

Chasing after meaningless wind.

26 Cheshvan 5776 – Covenant

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.

Resurface.

“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.

Go.

12 Nisan 5775

A few months ago I had attended a film with one of my close friends from high school, someone whose interests remained in the realm of my own as I gradually made a split from my younger identity into what I am passionate for today.  The film was a more rational, somewhat inaccurate take of the story of Pesach, and as two with a heart for ancient near-Eastern study and history, we critiqued and marveled at Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”.

My friend was, within a few days, bound to study internationally in Israel, Palestine and Jordan, and I hastily wrote a brief prayer on a wastingly large piece of paper (a plea, really) for him to tuck into the Western Wall during his time in the Old City in Jerusalem, a tradition among its visitors for belief that the Holy Presence rests on top of the wall, answering prayers.

And I wonder when the plea will be answered, or realized.

A person will often ask me, “what do you do?”  I will always feel a quick hesitant restraint, a glimpse into the dark shame I have wrestled with that I have no viable education nor an adult’s job…
“I’m trying to leave” I’ll say.
“Oh yeah?  Where’s that?”
“Israel.”  The plea.  Take me.

And I will always receive mixed reactions.  Most will respond with a distant awe, as if trying to remember where Israel is on a map.  Some nod and continue, while a few will respond more negatively.  One man has called me “crazy” with a hostile tone of discouragement, another girl refused to carry on the conversation; as though I was wearing a Magen David armband on a field of crimson, a silver skull on my cap.  I understand the negative perception toward Israel, I am aware of her criticizers; I am tired of the passive, armchair-born resentment toward Zionism in our age of passive-aggression.  A schlepper generation, what are they doing to help?

And lately I have been assimilating myself with this behavior; I am no man.  Not yet.  I haven’t proven my worth in dirt as I flip the pages of a biography on the new Jewish dream; the fighters, the paratroopers and kibbutzniks who would throw themselves over an Arab marauder’s grenade to save their wives and countrymen, only to muster the strength to shoot back.  The Tsabra generation; the strong, initiating, native Israeli who I will never be… but for whom I want my children to be.

So my boiling motivation has taken a plunge forward.  My drugging thoughts have disappeared behind the scenes; I need to begin answering my own prayers.  I need to start giving my objective my all.

I will be applying for the Sar-El program, a volunteering opportunity to serve alongside Israeli soldiers to help ease their burden.  I have a contact and the chance is an optimistic one, I have an interview planned with a local community center regarding the position.

Perhaps with the push of hard work augmented by the trust I had written on paper, in the ink of my very heart’s blood, which my friend had placed in that Wall… maybe this is the answer I’ve always needed.

16 Adar 5775

I once felt a variant of guilt; pursuing a place I’ve had no connection to by blood, nor faith…

An arresting feeling that I would always be a foreigner, with no claim, settling in a land that was once farmed by the grandfather of a Palestinian orphan living in some Lebanese refugee camp, or that I might one day wander a desert wadi won by the blood, hand-me-down iron, and chutzpah of Buchenwald survivors I’m not related to; a confused boy whose sophomoric broken Hebrew will never compare to even that of a bronzed, native-born Kindergartener… a guilt that had me trapped in the thought I will be damned as a child in a land of men; a place of such renown that it would forever tower over my being, making me feel smaller than a rat in New York City.  

I’ve felt that I could never be present in spirit at the foot of Mount Sinai, a rabbinical legend said of all Jews and converts not yet born during Moshe’s receiving of the Ten Commandments; this variant of guilt that I would never feel Jewish, thus the next muse, would I ever understand, or begin to help others understand, the Dream of my heart?

Depression wraps its unholy hands around my mind’s neck and attempts to strangle it; for years I have been this asphyxiated near-corpse desperate and thirsty for the fresh air of change, change I have been too weak and fickle to realize or attempt. And like change, motivation is never fulfilled overnight; I will not wake up with a green uniform on my closet with “TzaHa”L” on its breast, hard-earned red beret tucked in it’s shoulder loop; I will not fall asleep in America to wake up in Israel.

Countering these unholy hands, I’ve turned to embracing a holier presence. My longtime swaying and trepid faith in G-d has, with a conscious personal decision, matured into a more stable commitment. As time has gone on I’ve desired discipline, and with this discipline came opportunity, with opportunity came motivation, and with motivation– more discipline.

The guilt is decaying, and my decision, once a fish-tailing tunnel-vision, is locked in my sights.

Kadima!