Going Back to Israel: What Will It Be Like Now?
As I write this I am doing the last minute things before I leave for Israel – packing, cooking a chicken for Shabbat and for my husband to eat while I am gone, learning how to use my new digital camera… There is always too much that gets left to the last minute! By the time you read this, I will be in Mitzpeh Ramon visiting with my husband’s son Yonaton and his wife Shoshana, viewing their new agricultural project in the Negev Desert. It’s called Argan HaNegev. I am excited to see the baby trees, which will eventually, God-willing, produce argan nuts for oil for cosmetics and food.
I have not been to Israel since the mid-1990s, and I don’t know what to expect. I am different, and the country will be different, too. My first trip to Israel, in some sense, started the process that led to my becoming a Jew. I knew we would be visiting my husband’s son and his family (he lived in Tzfat then with his first wife and four children). They are Modern Orthodox. I wanted to know more about Judaism before I was immersed in the culture, so I did a lot of reading. As I read, I remember thinking, “You know, this sounds like the path for me – if only it weren’t for this God business!” (As I explained to my b’nai mitzvah class the other day, when I was their age I thought the idea of God was a load of hooey – although since I had been a very small child, I had been strongly drawn to religion, ritual, and spirituality.) After that first trip, I continued to look for books on Judaism, taking whatever came my way, whatever was in the library or at the used bookstores. It was a somewhat random way to learn about Jewish faith and culture and history, but not without benefits. I had no preconceived ideas, and therefore was as willing to read a book by an Orthodox rabbi as by a radical leftie. Blu Greenberg’s books on Orthodox Jewish feminism (On Women and Judaism: A View from Tradition) and also on keeping a traditional Jewish home (How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household) were as meaningful to me as Rabbi Michael Lerner’s book on Jewish Renewal (Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation). I struggled through works of deep intellectual theology, laughed at books of Jewish humor, and wept through books on the Holocaust.
We went to Israel a second time (the fifth grandchild had been born then, who is now 17), and walked through the Old City of Jerusalem. By then my husband’s son and his family had accepted me as someone who honored their practices, and they were glad to share them with me, but I was still struggling a bit. What about God? And what about my feminism? I didn’t see myself shaving my head and wearing a sheitel, or wig, as many orthodox women do. I could not believe in a God who arranged my days for me. It took more years of study, conversation, and reflection, as well as my powerful experience of chanting the Kol Nidre, to help resolve questions enough so that I felt I must convert. A book called Finding God by rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme, was very helpful in sorting out my understanding of God. (I’m looking forward to talking more the the b’nai mitzvah students about ways we can understand God that are not quite so black and white as they tend to look to a 12-year-old.)
How will it feel to step off the plane in Tel Aviv? The first time, I was thinking of my great-grandfather, a Unitarian professor of religion and scholar of Semitic languages who lived in Jerusalem for a year and did archeological research in “the Holy Land.” And I was most of all thinking of my great -grandmother, who is buried somewhere in Israel (she fell off a horse while there with my great -grandfather.) What will I think this time?