Today is Tisha B’av, a somber holiday where Jews recall the destruction of both holy Temples in Jerusalem According to tradition, they were both destroyed on this particular date of the Hebrew calendar. For some Jews, today is marked by fasting and reading from the Book of Lamentations. For others, it’s a day to contemplate the baseless hatred that supposedly brought about the destruction of the Temples, the infighting among Jews that purportedly gave our enemies the opportunity to destroy us. For some Jews, it’s just an ordinary day of the week, but where almost all the stores are closed for the holiday, making them frustrated that the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate has so much power in this country to impose their vision of Judaism on others. On the night when Tisha B’Av starts, the Rabbinate has the power to fine businesses that open. I’m starting to understand why secular Jews bristle at the power of this theocratic governmental institution.
That all being said, today for me was about moving. While I had planned to go to synagogue last night, I didn’t end up going because I was looking at apartments, scrambling to find a place to live. I successfully found a new place (yay!) and am now writing you from my new room!
To get my things to my new apartment, I took a cab. The driver spoke English with some sort of African accent that sounded familiar. I asked where he was from and he said Nigeria. Nigeria! I knew there were foreign workers here but never knew there were Nigerians! I grew up with several Nigerian friends, so we bonded over our love of foo-foo (a Nigerian food).
Then, we started speaking in Hebrew. I have spent my entire life doing Jewish things and have never heard someone speak Hebrew with a Nigerian accent. It was unique and beautiful and a sign of true respect for my culture like I have rarely experienced. To hear him say he was turning left on “Rechov Yud Lamed Peretz” (a street named after a famous Yiddish author) gave me the tingles. I realized that my culture really is the dominant force here- like it is in no place on the planet. Something that both excited me and make me kind of curious what life was like for this man. I can’t imagine being a foreign worker in most places is particularly hospitable and I know the Israeli government doesn’t have a great track record with guest workers or refugees. I felt empowered and privileged and fortunate and I also felt confused and uncertain. All valid feelings. I’m proud to see my identity validated after a lifetime of pain and discrimination. And I am concerned about the fate of this man, my neighbor, considering he has lived here for 20 years and may not even have citizenship.
As we pulled up to my new place, I heard something curious. The man was speaking in Ibo, a Nigerian language, but I recognized some of the words. Not just the English words, but also Hebrew ones! He’d slip in “balagan” (a mess), “chashmal” (electricity), and other Hebrew words into sentences he was speaking in Ibo. It reminded me of how American Jews sprinkle our English with Yiddish sayings or how Latinos in the U.S. do likewise with Spanish.
This place is a melting pot. Judaism has always been a place where different cultures come together. Long ago in the days of the Temple it may have been Moabites and Canaanites. Today in Israel it’s Polish Jews and Russian Jews and Moroccan Jews and Ethiopian Jews and American Jews and yes, even Nigerians.
As I got out of the car, I heard a politician on the radio say “today, our Temple is the Knesset, it’s modern Israeli society.” An interesting thought. Rather than waiting for us to rebuild the Temples of old, perhaps we should consider that we live in a time where we once again control our own destiny. What should that look like? Who belongs to our people? How do we want to contribute to the world?
As it says in Leviticus: כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ
“The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.”
If the State of Israel is in some ways our new Temple, then can we make space for those who tie their fate to us, for those non-Jews who join us in peace along the journey? Can we give them a holy space in our house?
I very much hope so.