When I was about bar mitzvah age, a family in my synagogue spent Sukkot in Israel. This was deemed so exotic that on their return, the shul sponsored a Friday evening oneg Shabbat for them to discuss their unusual experience. And in my early married years, I recall my rabbi father-in-law wishing a special mazal tov whenever congregants left for, as he put it, their “very special pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”
How things have changed!
Now it’s not terribly unusual to hop over to Israel to attend a wedding. Friends own apartments, and have children and grandchildren, in Israel, making it their default vacation and yom tov destination. Many of our high school children spend a summer in Israel on travel programs as well as a post-high school gap year(s) in Israel, or serve in the IDF as a chayal boded (lone soldier). Since 1967, Israel, now comfortable rather than exotic, has become a home away from home for many, a country whose people and news are as familiar as our neighbors and the front page of the New York Times.
Indeed, I believe, based on a completely non-scientific and non-halachic analysis, that one of the reasons so many American Modern Orthodox Jews spending a Jewish holiday in Israel observe only one day of yom tov rather than two, as had been the norm, is that they feel a true part of that community. Thus, it’s simply too dissonant to observe yom tov restrictions while their Israeli compatriots are on a chol hamoed tiyul. (Yes, there’s rabbinic and halachic support for this practice as well.)
With this in mind, I join with Pharaoh’s wine steward in saying et chata’ai ani mazkir hayom (Gen. 41:9) — I must make mention of my shortcomings. My generation sadly preceded the high school trip and gap year programs, I have not been among those actively and steadily supporting Israel with their presence and dollars, and my visits as an adult regrettably have been too few and far between.
And so, as I’ve written here previously (“It’s Not an Ugly Word, Ernest,” January 18, 2018), the confluence of my brother-in-law’s recent wedding and my retirement (and the gracious and overly generous hospitality of longtime friends from the Upper West Side and Teaneck — one couple, two locations) gave me and my wife the impetus to spend three wonderful weeks in Israel — my first trip in all too many years.
So allow me, in response to a sweet email from my niece that she “looks forward to see if and how you write about your visit to Israel in your column,” share some impressions and recollections of our trip.
There was, of course, the food. Sadly, we were unable to eat our way through Israel — though we tried our best! But it wasn’t only the many fine restaurants we experienced (personal favorite: Tokopaya in Nes Tziona). It also was the ability to take a break from a day of touring or shopping and grab a burger at the Hadar mall (so-so), a falafel at HaMelech Falafel on King George (was on my not-to-be missed list — and rightfully so), or a brunch at Waffle Bar on Derech Bet Lechem (yum).
In between all this eating, we somehow managed to see some sights; exploring the City of David, the Western Wall Tunnel, and Migdal Dovid; seeing some of the fantastic exhibits at the Israel Museum in Yerushalayim with our cousin and docent par excellence, Debra Applebaum, and enjoying a similar private tour at the new Agam Museum in Rishon Letzion (not because we had proteksia but because we were the only ones there); walking up and down the Yaffo/Ben Yehudah/King George triangle (personal favorite purchase: enough kippot serugot for every occasion); sitting in on a Bible shiur by our dear friend and master teacher, Esther Lapian; and visiting the Bullet Factory and Weitzman House in Rechovot.
But most special and memorable was a three–day trip to the Galil/Golan with Ezra Rosenfeld, a childhood friend (see “Two Roads Diverged,” May 30, 2017) and one of the leading Tanachi guides in the country. In preparing for that trip I had asked Ezra for some “wow” moments, and he delivered, with plenty of use of the three Tanachs he carried in his knapsack. We were wowed by the Kassar El Yehuda Jordan River crossing and the bamot built by Yeravam ben Nevat in Tel Dan; by 1967 battlefields, and, sadly, by Emek HaBacha from the Yom Kippur War and the Sha’ar Avraham Memorial(s); by the Dan stele mentioning Bet David (the original of which we saw in the Israel Museum); and by ancient synagogues galore, the Caeserea complex (where we were locked in — don’t ask), Bet Shearim and the burial location of Rav Yehuda HaNasi, and the Yigal Yadin digs in Hatzor (which Sharon’s father talked his way into in 1955, and the entire family met Yadin). And much more.
But small encounters and vignettes also struck strong chords. Meeting a fellow SWEAT participant on Emek Refa’im on erev Shabbat seemed perfectly normal, but what about bumping into a Teaneck neighbor in a jewelry store who mentioned that she just read my latest Jewish Standard column — while in Jerusalem!
And while it wasn’t too surprising to chance upon a former Teaneck resident at Yeshiva Har Etzion (whose father was my oneg leader when I was growing up in Far Rockaway), what about encountering his wife two days later at a shiva call? Or the group from Memphis we found at the beach in Caeserea and discovered that one of them recently met Ezra at a wedding, and that their rabbi also grew up in our shul in Far Rockaway?
But my favorite was a group of longtime Anglo olim at the Agam Museum. While chatting with one of them, my wife introduced herself using her maiden name. The woman asked, “Penkower? As in Rabbi Penkower?” When my wife answered yes, why do you ask, she replied, “because he married us!” And Sharon then recognized her husband, the once young man from her father’s shul who she knew as Sammy. (He’s Sam now.)
Even leaving Israel was memorable. I recently dropped some pounds in order to fit into my tuxedo at my daughter’s upcoming wedding. At Ben Gurion, the security officer asking us about our luggage also requested that I remove my glasses. As she looked carefully between me and my two-year old passport photo she finally said, “Joseph, you’ve lost a lot of weight.” The cherry on top of a wonderful trip.
And one final story. In early 1968, several friends and I went to the Riverdale Jewish Center to hear Rabbi David Hartman speak about his recent post-June 1967 trip to Israel. When asked about his most spiritual moment, he said it wasn’t going to the Kotel or walking the streets of the Old City. Rather, it was a trip to an extremely left-wing mud-laden kibbutz whose only concrete sidewalk connected two buildings. A kibbutz member explained that the buildings were the children’s house (I said it was very left-wing) and the dining hall, and was put in because there was a teenager who unfortunately was confined to a wheelchair. The sidewalk thus allowed him to wheel himself between these two critical locations without always being dependent on the help of others. That was true spirituality, R. Hartman said. (The congregation did not have the same positive reaction to this story that we YU guys did, to the extent that the shul’s rabbi, R. Yitz Greenberg, had to get up and remind them that while disagreement was acceptable, it had to be expressed with respect.)
And so, while I found walking in the Old City stirring, the moment I found most moving was when our family, gathered for my brother-in-law’s aufruf on Shabbat, began davening mincha. My 22-year old great-nephew, with his bushy peyot and an engaging smile — the winner of a chayil lemofet award given to a recruit who sets an example of an ideal soldier, and who just began a Zahal tank commander course — gently and carefully put down his Uzi near the bima before he began leading the service. It took but a few seconds, but encapsulated so much about modern day Israel that it touched my soul.
I’ll be back, please God, and much sooner than before.