Friday, September 28, 2012

Israel through Secular Eyes

It was a different experience. It really was. As I mentioned in my last post, I visited Israel for the first time in nearly a decade. Last time I was there I was religious (although not as religious as I'd been growing up). This time, I was not.

And the country felt different to me. Sure, things have physically changed in almost ten years. (A train runs down Rechov Yafo! It's crazy! And there's an even more intense mechitzah at the kotel!) But more than that, I wasn't constantly looking for god in every corner and, even more than that, I didn't restrain myself in my experience in accordance with religious dicta the way I had previously.

Okay, here it goes in concrete detail:

1) The Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre -- I went to these places that I'd always believed were forbidden to me. They were beautiful and amazing, of course. (It was particularly strange, however, to just stand on a line and then all of a sudden find myself standing right below the dome, which had almost seemed about as accessible as the moon.) What this meant, however, was that I saw an entirely different angle to Jerusalem -- the Jerusalem of the Christian pilgrim, of the religious Muslim. When I was visiting Israel the other times (or when I was living there in seminary), I certainly knew that these groups held the city  to be holy, too, but it was a different matter to see groups of Muslim men and women sitting with prayer books in circles outside the mosque or monks moving about in dimly lit chambers or hundreds of Christians bowing down in the place they believe Jesus to have been crucified. Really, really interesting.

2) Shabbat with secular Jews -- This was a real experience for me. I was at the Friday night dinner table of a  Yemenite family for whom their Shabbat dinner was clearly an essential part of their week and, also, clearly a completely secular experience. I had a really nice time and it was a good reminder of how secularity and tradition can go hand in hand.

3) Old friends and the Distances We've Travelled from Each Other -- One night, I got together with a few girls with whom I'd gone to seminary. They all stayed in Israel, got married, and had babies (one of them has NINE kids!). It was strange how we'd all started off in the same apartment complex in Jerusalem all those years ago, how we'd cooked, and travelled, and talked through long nights together. And from the same point, we travelled to such opposite extremes. We got together at my friend's place in the very, very religious neighborhood of Beit Shemesh and I tried my best to dress as respectfully as I could, but even as I wore my long skirt and a cardigan over a t-shirt with a modest neckline, I felt my friends' eyes on my open cardigan (the t-shirt, I suppose, was only slightly tighter than what people in that area would wear) and discreetly buttoned up my cardigan as quickly as I could.

4) The foreignness of the familiar - Which is to say the American yeshiva and seminary students first arriving in Jerusalem with those eyes wide, lightly flirting with each other as they set off on the same cycle that so many of my friends have been on already. Which of them will stay in Israel forever? Which will swing into chareidi religion and then swing out of it? Which will have many kids? Which will end up a high-powered business person? Which will go back into the Modern Orthodoxy of their parents? I remember the feeling of being that age -- the confusion I felt at the things I was being taught which both felt true to me and didn't. The feeling that we were so Grown Up and that we were making decisions that would stay with us Forever. I could feel parts of that girl that I was returning as I wound my way between the white stone buildings of that city I used to live in. Oh, the cats! Oh, the chummus! Oh, the palm trees and the falafel and the smell of bakery everywhere I went! And still, at the same time, that girl felt so far away, like something in a very true-to-life dream that was, nonetheless, a figment of my imagination.