On the first post in this string of stories along my Israeli derekh, I laid out an initial rationale for the three-month visit to Israel. Now, as I write in my basement office at home in Olympia, having returned about a week ago, let’s revisit those expectations and see how they match up with my experiences.
A “Clean Break” from a Work-Centered Life
What I Wanted: First of all, I want a clean break from my work-centered life. Many folks who retire from full-time professional work, find an emptiness that needs filling. Find a need to redefine self, now that a large part of their identity is stripped from them. Without a major and consuming break from past habits, I might find the road to the next stage of my life more subject to inertia than positive choices.
What I Got: For many years, my professional work consumed almost all my creative and intellectual energies. Add in the very real sacrifices of multiple moves, geographic separations from and long drives to wife Jean, and intense seven-day work week requirements, and you have a guy who made choices (or the world forced certain choices) that resulted in a distinct imbalance between work life and non-work life. The reality was that for the most part, I actually thrived in that world. It filled me with meaning and consequential decisions and a frequent and vigorous sense of delight.
How could I leave that world and still fill my yearning for continuing intellectual stimulation as well as an ongoing sense of purpose?
With that question in mind, I filled – over-filled – my time in Israel with commitments. Not only did I enroll in language school (ulpan) for 3 hours per day, 4 days a week, but I also committed 10 – 20 hours per week of intellectually challenging volunteer work, and also sought connections with relatives and friends that took me away from “home” in Jerusalem for about 2/3rds of my weekends. I also wanted to feel like a normal Jerusalemite, so I joined a choir which met weekly, and joined a table tennis club, which also met weekly. In my effort to make a clean break from “work”, and in my fear of lacking “purpose,” I clearly took on more than I was capable of executing with high quality.
In the ulpan, I was the oldest student (by more than ten years) and found that toward the end, I just wasn’t able to keep up with the rest of class. I still enjoyed my time with my fellow students, was able to make progress every day I was there, and did form a much stronger base for learning if I wish to seriously pursue Hebrew in the future. But I am not sure my aged brain can take it on with the capabilities it exhibited 19 years earlier as I took on Spanish immersion.
In my volunteer efforts, I was not able to finish my commitments on time. I did deliver two worthwhile presentations, gained insights into the professional planning environment in Israel/Palestine, and most wonderfully, am set for continued research and writing over the coming months that will both complete my volunteer commitments and provide opportunities to explore ongoing stimulating activities. Maybe even compensated work that I would both enjoy and be very different from the professional work I did prior to retirement.
In the words of my clean break goal above, I feel like I have before me many “positive choices.”
Exploring my Jewish Self
What I Wanted: Secondly, I want to explore my Jewish self…. I want to connect with my relatives, some of whom are quite elderly, while I still can… And I want to explore Jewish practice and culture.
What I Got: Toward the end of the trip, I became aware of a set of relatives I didn’t know I had. Some I was able to briefly meet. Others, I couldn’t find time to connect with. But all through the stay in Israel, I prioritized meeting with cousins and friends and families of friends. And everywhere, with every person I reached out to, I f0und people who were warm and welcoming. Without exception.
Some of these folks, I was able to spend a fair amount of time with. Cousin Danny Brahms and his partner Shirley in particular deserve my heart-felt thanks for their hospitality and care. Cousins Hemy and Anat were extraordinarily generous with their time and talent (the food was unbelievable!). They were genuine in their hospitality, and intelligent and engaging conversationalists – add in brilliant and socially skilled children and sweet and intelligent grandchildren – and you understand why I left Israel feeling that I left not just relatives but people who would be my close friends if only we lived in the same continent.
Some of my relatives are secular Israelis. Others make religious practice central to their lives. I asked all of them about their connection to Jewish ritual practice and saw that each person had found a solid home in Israel whether they lived fully secular lives, fully observant Haredi-ritualized lives or something in between.
Beyond the homes of relatives and friends, I also attended various places of worship. From the musical-oriented kabbalat shabbat at the Reform shul Kol Haneshama, to an Orthodox shul where men and women pray separately. I walked the streets of Mea Shearim, and prayed at the Western Wall. Even in exploring many Christian sites I had never seen (Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, to Nazareth’s Basilica of the Annunciation, to the Church of the Loaves and Fishes along the shores of the Sea of Galilee) I was exploring my Jewish self and my reaction to those sites.
And while my Hebrew skills are not now as strong as I hoped they would be, I certainly can read and write with greater speed and accuracy (understanding is a different story). So as I continue to explore my Jewish self, I have a better grounding now to do so.
Three days ago, I went to Costco to get some groceries and asked a staff person where they keep the falafel mixes. He didn’t know what falafel is. Nor did another staff person I asked.
As I walked today from my house on the West Side to downtown Olympia, I passed about thirty homeless folks in tents residing for the time-being under the 4th Avenue Bridge. I never once saw a homeless person sleeping in a tent or on the street in Israel the last three months.
When I returned from Israel, many people asked me if Iwas ok there or if I was frightened by the bombs that were dropping everywhere. I tell them I was not, although apparently 4 Israelis and 25 Gazan’s were killed the last weekend I was there, before a ceasefire was arranged just in time for Ramadan. I explained that for the most part, the dangers for Israeli Jews are in those portions nearest Gaza. For Gazans, and for Arabs in the West Bank to a lessor extent, the hazards are far higher. But even with all that intensity, the day-to-day life for most Jewish Israelis now feels safer than the average American. Women of every age walk the streets of Jerusalem at any time of the day or night.
Wherever I went, people asked me in Israel if I were going to make aliyah – if I expected to immigrate. I told them all the answer was no. It was not my intention. But I also told them that I loved being in Israel and that I will miss Israel very much when I go back to America.
And so here I am, back home. Feeling very much an American. Very much part of the American Jewish diaspora. And feeling exactly as I told all my Israeli relatives, friends and acquaintances I expected to feel. That is that I loved being in Israel, miss it very much, and hope I can find a way to come back again and again.