We have arrived… again. In the words of the rabbi of my youth, Stanley M. Davids, we have made aliyat hanefesh, a spiritual ascent to Israel, our holy land. Our group of 24 includes wife Michelle November, our Cantor Doug Cotler and his wife Gail Pettler, our Melitz Tour Guide Alexandra Benjamin, and 19 other adults.
This is my eighth trip to Israel since birth. A pause to recollect:
1. A family trip connected to my sister Lori becoming a Bat Mitzvah
2. The NFTY Leadership Machon Year in Israel, between high school and college, living at Kiryat Moriah in Jerusalem
3. Rabbinical Studies Year in Israel study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, living off Rechov HaPalmach, near the President’s house
4. A post-ordination trip, with Michelle and our then 9 month old daughter, to see travel and visit family and friends
5. The Rabbinical CCAR convention in Jerusalem, a mini-trip I shared with my father-in-law Murray. Fun, energizing, but shortened by the death of our beloved grandmother Ruby Gilner.
6. Or Ami’s first official Mission to Israel, a two person trek with congregant Mark Wolfson. Two men, showing up in the Holy Land during the Intifada, proof for a frightened American Jewish community that it was safe to travel to Israel. It was my wife’s 40th birthday present to me.
7. Or Ami’s first Family Trip to Israel, rescheduled from the summer of Lebanon 2 War to December 2006. In addition to introducing my children to Israel for what I hope will be the first of their many visits, we led a delegation of 40 people total. A wonderful multigenerational experience.
8. Now this trip: Or Ami’s first Adult’s only trip, 23 Or Ami members, our guide Alexandra and our driver Avi.
The flight was easier than expected. Linda Fingleson had arranged for purchase some really wonderful pillows which provided a “bed to lay upon” in our seats. Michelle and I somehow were blessed with an empty seat between us, which alleviated the “shoehorned-in” feeling that accompanies most flying these days. EL AL (thankfully) has streaming video and music at each seat, so I fell asleep watching Catwoman, and then hours later, ate breakfast to Catwoman. Never saw the ending – not that the movie was really worth watching – but it helped pass the time.
Tips for Making It through the Flight
Lower your expectations so they can only be exceeded
Walk around a lot. (Although everyone has a story about the Chassidim who gather at the back of the plane to daven morning services, there were so many Or Ami travelers hanging out back there that I half expected Cantor Cotler to pull out his guitar and begin playing “Listen” and “Shema”.)
Have activities to keep you busy. For me, doing Sudoku and other logic puzzles sufficed.
Although I miss my kids so much, traveling without children makes it a lot easier. (Still, I cannot wait for the next trip to Israel in summer of 2009, a multigenerational one.)
Opening Ceremonies at the Tel Aviv Beach
Michelle and I have an affinity for the beach. Let us take a long walk on the beach, or enjoy a meal overlooking the ocean or a harbor, and we are in heaven. Similarly Or Ami observes Tashlich at the Beach at Malibu’s Paradise Cove every Rosh Hashana afternoon. Hundreds come by to cast their sins into the ocean, asking the Holy One to allow our sins to be cast away as easily as this bread floats off.
Fitting then that our Israel trip officially began on the beaches of the Mediterranean. Standing in a circle, we began our opening ceremony as Andy Krasnoff, Larry Ellis, Patti Jo Wolfson, Alan Kaye and Susan Gould read words from the Ancient Greeks, Napolean, Theodore Herzl and significant others who like us entered the Holy Land through the Port of Jaffa. Their words helped us locate ourselves in time and space, joining the ever-arriving boatloads and planeloads of people who on a mission to touch holy ground.
The sun glowed orange and gold as it set over the Mediterranean. Shabbat was upon us. We began Kabbalat Shabbat, a service to welcome the Sabbath bride. Cantor Cotler pulled out his new Voyage-aire Guitar, an amazing full-size guitar which literally folds in half, allowing its owner to store the guitar and backpack in the overhead compartment of an airplane. [A gift of my Camp Newman buddy (and Gail Pettler’s cousin) Rabbi Rick Winer, this Voyage-aire Guitar is an ingenious piece of engineering to behold.] Snuggling close in a circle, we sang ancient Shabbat prayers to contemporary Or Ami tunes while standing on the beach in Tel Aviv. Remarked Or Ami past president Alice Goldsobel, “This is what I waited for, to sing Listen and Shema while standing in Israel.”
Through our prayers, we turned northward, imagining ourselves the ancient Kabbalists, who dressed in white to climb the hills outside Tzefat 100 miles north in order to greet the Shabbat bride. We turned inward as, arm and arm, we sang Sh’ma, sensing here that we truly were part of Adonai Echad, God’s oneness. Then we turned our hearts eastward still (kee-vayn et leebo, turn your heart toward Jerusalem, teaches the texts) as we chanted the Amida.
For me, the most poignant moment was the recitation of Daniel Siegel’s poem, Hebrew:
I’ll tell you how much I love Hebrew:
Read me anything Genesis,
or an ad in an Israeli paper, and watch my face.
I will make halfsounds
and my smile will be so enormously sweet
you would think some angels were singing Psalms
or God alone was reciting to me.
I am crazy for her Holiness
and each restaurant’s menu in Yerushalayim or Bialik poem
gives me peace no Dante or Milton or Goethe could give.
I have heard Iliads of poetry, Omar Khayyam in Farsi,
and Virgil sung as if the poet himself were coaching the reader.
And they move me but
not like the train schedule from Haifa to Tel Aviv
or a choppy unsyntaxed note from a student
who got half the grammar I taught him all wrong
but remembered to write with Alefs and Zayins and Shins.
That’s the way I am.
I’d rather hear the weather report on Kol Yisrael
than all the rhythms and music of Shakespeare.
For some, this poem captures the significance of a language, once dead, that lives anew. For me, it reveals the inner workings of my heart. That even the mundane in Israel – the Hebrew speaking bank tellers and multilingual police, the street signs and bus stop signs, the fresh bread and falafel stands, the trees ablowing in the wind – each has a claim to my heart and soul. As part of my sabbatical studies, I have engaged a Hebrew tutor. Meeting every few days at a Conejo Valley coffee shop, we shall speak Hebrew for an hour or so, strengthening my vocabulary, exercising my grammar, deepening my collection to the Alefs, Bets and Shins that make up mundane life in a transcendent land.
The night went on. I should tell you about the elegant Shabbat dinner we enjoyed in a private room at the hotel. About Cantor Cotler’s impromptu Israel quiz that forced us to venture back to our Religious School learning to answer questions about Israel’s past and present. About the wonderful getting to know you conversations I heard shared around the table. About my teaching the group to sing Brich Rachamana, a Talmudic after-meal blessing recited when one is unable to chant the complete Birkat HaMazon (although we laughed that as long as this rabbi leads singing every so often, the Cantor’s job is secure, Michelle assured me that my singing was pleasant). About walking around the hotel for hours holding the hand of my beloved Michelle, as we fought against the pull of exhaustion to try to force our bodies onto Israel time. (Since I began writing this at 5:15 am Israel time, you can surmise that we were only partially successful).
The sky over the Mediterranean is still dark; the thunder and lightning have ceased (for now). I’m exhausted. I’m hungry. But I’m in Israel. As my internal iPod plays Rick Recht’s “My Heart is in the East”, I smile. Because my body is here too! Shabbat Shalom.