Erica Schultz Yakovetz
www.erica-schultz.com | erica.yakovetz.com
graphic design |
Sun and Stone and Sky
days in the Land of Israel. My first time there, at age 32. A group
trip, organized – principally by me – for the young
adults of my Cambridge, Massachusetts, synagogue.
people kept asking me "How was it?", and I would not know
what kind of answer they expected me to give. "Great," I
said. "Amazing. Mind-blowing." Responses too general to
have meaning, but the experience was impossible to encapsulate in any
way that would make sense.
are a few of the things it caused me to ponder in my heart: The
purpose of life. The purpose of Jewish life. My purpose
in life, Jewish or otherwise. How "Am Yisroel", the nation
of Israel, is a different proposition from simply "the Jewish
community". Mythology: standing in a place where the very bones
of the earth below your feet are text and history. Art. Prayer.
sun and stone and sky. Conservation: living with less of everything,
wasting less of everything, making more of what is there.
Environment: wholeness, rawness, everything sun-bleached, less
processed and more real; life on what is still a frontier in a real
physical sense. Ruth amid the alien corn. Health, or the purpose of a
human body: what it means to hike up mountains every day on a steady
diet of fruit and vegetables, drenched in sun like a sabra,
and fall into bed every night gorgeously exhausted instead of merely
Sabbath: six days of work, one day of rest, each making the other
possible. Politics. Sociology. Destruction. Creation.
At the Tel Aviv airport, having cleared the baggage claim and security
and emerged into the lobby, a few of us stepped outside to finally
make the traditional blessing on seeing the land of Israel. It was
three in the morning. We walked out onto the pavement until we could
see the sky and smell the spice on the air. I found a strip of bushes
planted in front of the taxiway, pressed my fingers into the dusty
soil around them, and said the Shehecheyanu.
We were there.
the bus to Jerusalem, the others slept, but I could not, watching the
highway roll by with weirdly familiar names on it. There was a pang
in my heart that I could not place. Not joy to be here, not
excitement, not even fear, only an unnerving strangeness. What was I
– who had converted to Judaism almost ten years earlier –
doing here? Where was the tribal blood in my veins that had called me
this far? Was I going to turn out to be a foreigner after all?
we reached the Jerusalem city limits, and I saw a large road sign
angled toward us, set into the hillside: BRUCHIM HA-BA'IM. Welcome:
Blessed are those who come.
I turned to watch the sign recede, and at its back, forming a right
angle, I saw the parting blessing: TZEITCHEM L'SHALOM. Farewell:
May your going-out be toward peace.
These are formulaic phrases in Hebrew, but they resonate down the
millennia; they are the blessings one offers to the angels said to
accompany every Jew home from synagogue on Shabbat.
I could not have imagined a place where the very language of public
life was so permeated with the Jewishness that I knew, built on its
archetypes and ringing with its images. And this was when the tears
came welling up from my heart. Strange as it might be, I was also
going to be at home here.
was more, much more, later, but the rest of it is commentary.
What struck me most, coming and going, was how much time it turned out I
had already spent in this place – in the text,
where my head is so much of the time. Reading from the Torah every
week, we visit with its characters like living relatives, flawed but
treasured. The land is a character, too, in the text, and I had
walked around it with them in my head, and now here I was in the
physical place: mythical no longer, but made of dust and stone and
water and fruit. It was as if you could get on a plane and fly to
Rivendell. This is the very tree, that the spring. Much the
same sense of mythology come to life had drawn me out of the Midwest
to Boston fifteen years earlier: Lexington, Concord, Walden, Salem,
Gloucester, Cape Cod, the stuff of literature transubstantiated into
everyday life. In Israel it is Jerusalem, Capernaum, Galilee, Gilead;
the Mount of Olives, Mount Tabor, Mount Meron, Mount Zion itself. If
anything ever proves to break the spell of Boston on me, it will have
been this: walking among mysteries even older and more ineffable,
given an earthly habitation and a name.
our second day, a few hours before we would leave Jerusalem for
Tzfat, we toured the Kotel tunnels, near what is left of the Western
Wall of the Temple Mount. And I knelt within a hundred yards of the
Holy of Holies, the peak of Mount Moriah, the true heart of
Jerusalem. I tucked notes into the wall with prayers of supplication,
one for a friend and one for myself. But when I pressed my cheek and
hand and forehead to the wall there, I could not hold any prayer in
my heart, just the blazing awareness of history and Presence. This
was the spot, and awe my only prayer.
It was not until the last day, back in Jerusalem a few hours before our
return flight, that our group prayed outside at the Western Wall
itself. The sun was down. I approached empty-handed, waiting to see
what would arise in my heart; then I went back to the communal
bookcase (there are bookcases blithely set up outdoors all over
Israel, at least in the summer, displaying such perfect trust in the
dry weather that I was amazed) for a prayerbook, because of course
the ancient words were going to be the right ones. I came close to
the wall and quietly read off the Evening Service, immediately behind
the row of women whose hands and cheeks were pressed to the cool
stone. Just as I finished the Shemoneh Esreh,
a space opened up in front of me, and I moved in to touch the wall
and close my eyes and proceed by heart with the very prayer that
seemed most fitting: Aleinu.
It speaks of the kingship of God, signaling its origins in the Rosh
Hashanah liturgy, but became so popular that it was incorporated into
the regular daily prayer services:
And we bend the knees and bow and give thanks
Before the King, the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.
had come all the way across the world to be in His presence, and I
was there to acknowledge Him. It did not matter whether the Presence
dwelt physically in that place any longer; the consciousness of it,
flowing through me, was enough.
When I finished that prayer, it was past time to return to the bus, but my
service was done.