One Night in Jerusalem

Tonight in Jerusalem was the most jam-packed, exciting night I’ve had in Israel.

It all started with an act of startling generosity.  I was checking out some artists’ studios in Jerusalem and found this particularly beautiful one.  I talked with the artist about her work- including this amazing painting where at first you don’t notice there are people built into the painting and then as soon as she pointed them out, it became obvious.  She said she was inspired by the Exodus from Egypt.  When I told her I was an oleh chadash (new immigrant), she congratulated me and told me “you’ve already made your Exodus”, perhaps the nicest thing anyone has said to me about my aliyah.  She told me she made aliyah from Russia when she was six years old and I felt an instant bond.

We talked about art- I told her I was a poet and a singer and we connected on Facebook so she can see my work.  She asked if I drew and I said I have done a little bit but nothing serious because I hadn’t been taught the techniques.  She said one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  She said when you’re looking for an art teacher, don’t look for technique.  Look for someone who can help you deliver a child.  That sounds strange in English but beautiful in Hebrew.   “Leyaled” in Hebrew means “to midwife”.  Her point was that the person who teaches you art is supposed to help bring something out that already lies within you and needs to be discovered and nourished.  To help you give birth to a new sense of creativity.  I love it!

On my way out, she gave me a free handmade notebook she had created so I could write my poetry.  I made a new friend in the course of 20 minutes in a way that could take literally years in the U.S.  If you’re reading this Dina, thanks for making my night great 🙂

Then, I asked for directions to the central bus station, but I noticed there were lots of police cars.  I asked the security woman what was going on and she said there was a concert.  I asked who and she said “Shlomi Shabat“, one of my all-time favorite Mizrachi singers.  I bought a ticket immediately and headed to the concert with a new sense of energy and excitement.  Also, the concert was held in a stadium inside a 2,000 year old pool called Breychat Hasultan (The Sultan’s Pool).  So it pretty much doesn’t get any better than that.

Except it does.  On the way to the concert, you have to walk downhill.  On the way, I discovered there was some sort of international festival going on.  There were vendors from all over the world- just off the top of my head, I saw artisans from Panama, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and so much more.  I made a special point of stopping at the Spanish-speaking countries’ booths because I miss speaking Spanish and Latin culture.

I spent a good 15 minutes speaking with a Chilean woman who was really amazed at the cohesiveness of Israeli society.  This is interesting because a lot of Israelis feel we have a very divided society.  She pointed out that a lot of countries in Latin America feel unstable and on the brink of civil war.  She talked about Venezuela and how she feared the country would descend into further chaos (a conflict Americans know little about even though it’s in their own hemisphere).  That she felt there wasn’t any glue that bound that society together.  It’s an interesting thought- that for all the conflict here, there is most definitely a strong social connection here that keeps things together despite the tensions.  I think the United States would benefit from such a glue right now, because I had the distinct feeling when I lived there that there wasn’t really anything that united us.  There are sociological reasons for it, but I hope that Americans can learn something from Israel which is that a sense of social solidarity- even with people you don’t always agree with- can help you overcome difficult moments in history.

Then, I headed to the concert.  It was amazing!  Thousands of people singing and cheering.  Israeli flags waving.  Song after song that I’ve sung- some of which I remember listening to on a CD in my living room as a 13-year-old- 18 years ago!  Some Israelis like to hate on Mizrachi music.  I can understand that everyone has different tastes, but for me it is literally the best music on the planet.  It’s danceable, it’s full of religious imagery, it’s fun, it’s upbeat, and it’s full of emotion.  Here’s a song I like by the artist I saw tonight to give you an idea of what it sounds like.

After the concert, I grabbed a cab to the Central Bus Station.  The driver was Arab, so I spoke to him in Arabic, which made him very happy.  Ahmed and I talked about dialect differences between Yafo and Jerusalem, his relationship with Jews (pleasant but not very deep because their neighborhoods are so separate in the city), and the importance of language in building relationships (he decided to learn Hebrew to learn about his neighbors).  We talked about how crappy politicians are and that the real key to building peace is what we were doing- talking to each other.  I tried to give him a tip but he wouldn’t let me.  A truly kind and open-minded person.

Before getting on the bus to Tel Aviv, I heard loud music.  Sure enough, behind me were a bunch of Breslover Hasidim dancing to techno music about their patron rabbi, Nachman of Uman.  I started filming them and then just joined in.  Because life is fun if you jump in!

I then headed to the bus.  Now this part sucked at first.  The ticket people oversold the bus- and this ride is over an hour long- so some people were standing or sitting in the aisle.  I was one of those unlucky people.  The bus was bumpy and it felt really unsafe.  Frankly, it was the most unsafe I’ve felt in Israel.  Which is interesting consider how the news media obsessively cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when really bad drivers are a way bigger threat to security.

Things in Israel often rapidly shift from amazing to awful and back to amazing again.  My evening had been going great and then BOOM this was my plummet downwards.  Once I got tired of my head banging against the seats as I sat, I stood up and started talking to the people in front of me.  I chatted with one woman who, when I told her I was an oleh, told me her niece just moved here from New York.  She said she is a soccer player and doesn’t know anyone here.  Turns out she lives around the corner from me and I offered to show her around.  A new potential friend.  The woman also told me I had great Hebrew, which helped lift my spirits.  Meanwhile, the young woman next to her was worried about missing her train back to Haifa at 1am, so the woman I was speaking with simply offered her a place to stay.  They literally just met on the bus.

And just like that, my spirits began to lift as we approached the bus station.  Any time I feel down in Israel (which, to be honest, happens almost every day at some point), I remember that things here turn on a dime.  And that if I’m feeling sad or angry, things will turn for the better quickly and suddenly.  And it works.  It really happens.

This is a place with some serious sense of social solidarity, generosity, and kindness.  Not words you’d typically associate with the Middle East, but they are absolutely true so please stop reading the New York Times and just come and experience it yourself.

A free notebook.  A Mizrachi concert.  Chileans.  An Arab cab driver learning Hebrew.  Dancing Hasidim.  And new friends on a bumpy bus.

One night in Jerusalem.

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Dancing on Roman ruins

Wednesday I went to Caesarea, a beautiful seaside town of fourth century Roman ruins.

On my flight to Israel, I met a fellow oleh chadash (new immigrant) named Ari. We’ve become fast friends and recently he made the wise observation that I’ve spent almost all of my time in Tel Aviv and that we should go explore other parts of the country. Since he has a British accent and all things sound wiser that way, I obliged him.

I could spend this blog telling you about the amazing Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman ruins. Or the crystal blue sea. Or the snorkeling Ari and I did.

Instead, I’d like to tell you about our cab driver, Akiva. Before I get to that, look at the cool pictures below of our trip!

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When Ari and I got off the train, we had trouble finding the right bus. Caesarea is the opposite of Tel Aviv- it is completely in the middle of nowhere, so it is hard to get around.

Instead of waiting for buses, I ran and hailed a cab dropping someone off and we got in.

The driver’s name was Akiva. Akiva is a Persian Kurdish Jew. He speaks some Farsi and fluent Kurdish. His mom made such good Kurdish food that he said he’d pay $500 just to taste her food again (she passed away at 82).

Before dropping us off at Caesarea, Akiva tells us he can show us the graves of ancient rabbis if we call him for a ride back.

After a day of fun and exploring and a little bit of sunburn, I called Akiva.

Twenty minutes later, Akiva comes walking down the street and tells us to follow him. He said the guards wouldn’t let him bring in his car.

We walk 10 minutes down the road and he motions for us to literally climb with him down a cliff. We make our way down and there is the grave of Rabbi Abahu, one of the Amoraim (great scholars of old- and by old I mean 1700 years old). Rabbi Abahu was actually from 3rd century Caesarea- something people who deny Jewish history in this land would be wise to remember. Our cab driver was not bullshitting us- there’s an actual sign and little books of Psalms that you’re supposed to recite. We leave stones on the grave in the rabbi’s memory.

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It’s customary to pray for something when visiting the grave of a great rabbi. I prayed for our driver Akiva, my friend Ari, for me, for the Jewish people, for the whole region, for the victims of the war in Syria, and for the soul of the rabbi himself. I’ve never prayed at the grave of a rabbi- it was quite a moving experience, especially with the beautiful sea breeze and sound of the waves crashing behind us. Could Rabbi Abahu have ever imagined that his people would return to their homeland 2,000 years after the Romans brutally forced them into exile? I wonder if he prayed that one day his descendants (us) would visit his tomb.

Akiva walked us back up the cliff (it’s worth pointing out that Akiva is probably 70 years old and there’s no cab meter running- this is just out of the generosity of his heart). Then he walked us to another site- an ancient synagogue mosaic. You could even see some Hebrew writing among the tiles. According to (our) Akiva, the famed Rabbi Akiva (1st century C.E.) was buried there as well after he was mercilessly tortured by Roman soldiers.

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First off, I’ve never felt more connected to the land of Israel. Not just because of the stunning scenery that constantly keeps me in awe that I actually live here. But also because my ancestors walked this land. They defended our faith and kept our culture alive so that I can reap the benefits today and pass on that tradition to future generations.

Akiva, our wonderful cab driver, is the epitome of the best of Israeli society. After spending a good 20-30 minutes with us exploring these historic sites, he asks us to follow him again. This time, we headed towards the car. It was another 15 minutes down the road.

This 70-year-old man took an hour out of his day in pummeling heat to show us our heritage. Not because he had to, just because he is kind and he is proud of his people. There is a depth of generosity here- true, unrewarded, and authentic- towards strangers that I have never seen in any other place in the world.

Perhaps that is because we’re not strangers. Akiva, Ari, and I- as different as we might be- our stories are intertwined. We are not strangers. We’re more like long lost family getting reacquainted after a long and painful absence.

There is nothing sweeter in the world than for three Jews to dance on Roman ruins.