(Part 1 of this series can be found here.)
In 1982, I struggled with how I defined myself as a Jew. Was I cultural (Woody Allen movies, bagels, Sunday New York Times, seders with girlfriends’ families on Long Island, high holiday services wherever I found them) or something more? I knew so little I couldn’t imagine a path or end point, if one even existed. I looked at my life in the Diaspora and took heart from external connections to spirituality, as in the Western Wall that I first saw on a 1982 trip to Israel.
I felt frustrated by what I called “display case Judaism.” I attended high holiday services annually and seders. Shabbat services were less frequent due to chagrin over my lack of knowledge. The sporadic nature left me unconnected, like I was looking at a display of religious antiquities but not touching them or bringing them into my life. They sat there, inert in the display case, on the other side of the emotional glass. Having grown up a Southern Baptist, where emotional peaks and valleys are part of the religious landscape, I felt remote from Judaism.
On the 1982 trip, my limited knowledge formed a barrier between me and the Jewish expression swirling around me, as I wrote in a November 1982 essay in the Forward newspaper. Arriving at the Kotel on Erev Shabbat, I saw
a phalanx of young men, clad in white shirts, coming to welcome the Sabbath. While I did not have the foggiest idea of the meaning of their song, its emotion was evident. The solidarity and presence of the group deeply moved me.
I took heart from external connections to spirituality, as in the Western Wall and the fiery sense of defiance in Hebron. Israel gave me some substance, memorable but fleeting in the scheme of Jewish awareness. Looking back, my responses suggested a spark of neshama, or a Jewish soul, lay within me and had begun its long and meandering gestation.
Come 2017, I reached Israel with far more familiarity with the liturgy, giving me way more than a foggy idea of prayers.
Over the decades I evolved. Through Torah study and a relentless attendance at Shabbat and other services—a spiritual version of working out at the gym—Jewish practice sank into me. Judaism is not just my culture or a secular expression; it’s a faith, a way of connecting to God, the global Jewish community and the transcendent power of taking part in a continuing historical process. The part of the Passover seder that says all Jews are present at the Exodus always electrifies me with the thought that I was there, I am there. I’ve become a Jewish world traveler. Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Ashkenaz, Sephardic—I’m open to all of them. I look for the commonalities, not the differences, in both the content and emotional expression.
The Hebrew study and greater ease with ritual turbocharged my Israel experience. In Rosh Pina, I went with our host, Doug, to Shabbat morning services at the Eli Cohen Synagogue with its soaring wooden ceiling and ethereal singing. I had some trouble following the pronunciation of the prayers, but Doug kept me on track in the prayer book. I didn’t feel lost or ill at ease. I was a fellow Jew dropping by, not a stranger in a strange land.
The prayers and actions around me weren’t mysteries, but rather familiar statements that I had heard thousands of times, and I could claim them as part of my own spiritual composition. Moments like this signaled to me I had broken through the glass of display-case Judaism to integrate belief and practice into my life.
In sports terms, I had stopped being a fan and had become a player.
On the streets of Jerusalem, images that I wouldn’t have noticed or understood in 1982 snapped into focus. The sh’ma declaration of faith blazed out on the back of a bus, other bus ads called for Shabbat observance. Posters with the penetrating image of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—combining kindness, firmness and ahavas Yisroel (love of a fellow Jew)—looked down from walls. Given that I now attend a Chabad shul, these posters did jump out at me.
The same feeling of connection to ruach (spirit) surged at Masada and at David’s Tomb in the Old City. Both moments came during group tours — informative and involving, but still tours. At Masada, my group threaded through clusters of young Birthright Israel visitors. Our smaller group finally arrived at the synagogue section and passed into a small, cool room.
To my surprise, we stood peering through a clear partition at a sofer, or scribe, diligently writing a Torah scroll. I could have never imagined this encounter with the scribe Shimshon Israeli. With a small fan keeping him cool, Israeli calmly went about his business, no doubt used to the constant audience. Looking up for the tools of his writing trade, Israeli asked about couples on the trip. Naomi and I were one of them, and he offered to write a memento of the visit on the back of a business card.
“How long have you been married?” he asked. We paused a beat, since we’re not married.
“Nine years,” Naomi offered.
“And your Hebrew names?”
“Naomi and Ze’ev,” we replied.
With a flourish he wrote our Hebrew names on the card with his quill pen, around a heart with a “9” inside it.
The encounter charmed me. I’ve never seen a sofer at work. Naomi carefully let the writing dry and then stored the card in her purse. It now has pride of place in our home, on the refrigerator, where we can always see it held between two magnets also from Israel.
On our last day in Jerusalem, we finally took a four-hour long Holy City tour we had expected to take on our first day. However, the arrival of President Trump for his state visit scrambled our schedule, so the first tour became the last. As at Masada, the tour was informative and thorough, as we worked through the throngs in the four quarters. The combination of President Trump’s visit, Jerusalem Day events and the start of Ramadan lent an edge to the day.
Then we reached the entrance to David’s Tomb in the Diaspora Yeshiva. Men and women went into separate sections. I grabbed a black kippah and entered, not knowing what I’d find. As at Masada, I walked straight into Judaism in action, as men davened at the site as tourists flowed in and out. An energetic rabbi quizzed newcomers in a range of languages to make a connection. He asked my Hebrew name — I was Ze’ev, again — and handed me a card with the seven Noahide laws and prayers in English.
“Can you give me one in Hebrew? I can read it,” I said.
Well, the rabbi, probably a Breslover, lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree; my modest Hebrew abilities must have set me apart from the typical visitor. He offered me a Chasidic dance, right there in David’s Tomb. In 1982 I would have shrunk from the strangeness of this intimate contact. In 2017, however, I instantly seized the day, my version of “if not now, when?” and we joined in a bouncing whirl around the floor. I’d always enjoyed the kabbalat Shabbat dance circle at Beit Chaverim Synagogue, so I jumped, literally, at this offer. Then he asked for me to put on tefillin; I hesitated for a minute, concerned about rejoining my tour group, but I thought, “I’m all in for this,” so I wrapped myself up and said the prayers. The moment ended on a high note. The rabbi moved on to connect with the newest visitors — “You speak English? French? Russian? Yiddish? Spanish?” — and I left to join my group. I slipped a donation in the tzedakah box on my way out.
The moment at David’s Tomb, the sofer at Masada and the Eli Cohen Synagogue all captured something profound about this trip and how far I had traveled. What had unsettled me in the past, these opportunities to embrace the Jewish tradition, now felt natural to my faith and identity. I glimpsed the meaning Psalms 23, “I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” I knew what I wanted to do, and I accepted the dance in the tomb of King David.
Later that afternoon, as we returned to the hostel walking along the light rail route, Jerusalem’s Erev Shabbat calming began. Traffic lessened, stores closed, fewer people were on the streets. The slowing rhythm paralleled our experience in Rosh Pina, as Doug and Linda prepared for Shabbat and the arrival of friends for dinner. The togetherness and open-ended conversation was striking; we just don’t experience that at home. We stepped out of the often-empty digitized churning of weekly life to experience all aspect of Shabbat, I liked that and the next morning, when Doug and I ambled over to the Eli Cohen Synagogue, I liked that, too.