Walking down the sloping walkway towards passport control in Ben Gurion airport, I didn’t expect the existential questions of fate and identity to be laid bare. I had stood on that line for those entering without an Israel passport numerous times, catching up on mundane emails that I may have missed during the flight into Tel Aviv. Mindlessly marking time until I was processed, I was daydreaming about that café hafuch (cappuccino) that waited for me on the other side of the administrative necessity of the border control booth. The line moved quickly, as I stood with mostly Americans, British, and Spanish, who landed along with me from Malaga, Spain in the heat wave enveloping Tel Aviv.
Pushing my American passport through the narrow booth window, I waited for the tiny blue and white paper card that would grant me access through the next bureaucratic checkpoint to my luggage. In a Kafkaesque moment, the passport control agent began to question me in Hebrew: Where is your boarding pass? One quick response in Hebrew and the jig was up. I had no idea where the tiny Sandor airline piece of paper was, and explained that I didn’t think I needed it anymore. Clearly, I knew Hebrew. The agent, in rapid-fire sequence: Where were you born? Your mother’s maiden name? Your grandfather’s name? I spoke quickly, trying to smile and use some charm to hasten this uncomfortable moment. I fessed up: Yes, my mother is Israeli; my grandfather David Hess was one of the founders of Kiryat Shmuel; and, yes, my uncle was Rabbi Israel Hess, who was a dynamic rabbinic figure. The pause and the click-click of the agent entering the names in the computer, undoubtedly linked to a government database. He nodded, looked up. Eyes directly at me through the glass he asked: With your illustrious family history, why aren’t you living here?
The rawness of the direct question. The emotions caught in my throat overpowered the usual rationalizing narrative. Instead of the “it’s complicated” trope followed by a laundry list of realities, I said in a meek voice: Soon. Soon I will.
This moment was unexpected and pierced my soul, coming on the heels of a week in Spain where the incredible cultural, religious, and intellectual flowering of the 10th and 11th centuries ended in gruesome murder, expulsion, and an effective destruction of Jewish identity. To better appreciate the richness of the Jewish community of Spain during the “Golden Age,” and particularly of Córdoba and Seville, my pre-trip to-do list included learning more about the life of the seminal leader, philosopher, and scholar, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (known as Maimonides). While, ultimately, I managed to delve into a mere sliver of his vast writings expounding on rabbinic law, I began to gain a peek into his philosophy on fate and destiny.
While Maimonides is a paradigm of how to lead a Jewish community during adversity, Rabbi Isadore Twersky encapsulated the high personal cost of being a leader and explained that while “he combined an arduous professional routine [as a physician to the Sultan in Cairo and the nobles] with unabated scholarship…Maimonides’ life was a mosaic of anxiety, tribulation, and, at best, incredibly strenuous work and intellectual exertion.” Maimonides was forced to leave Cordoba and Spain and continued to learn and write commentaries on Jewish law during his tumultuous sea voyage to Palestine, and ultimately Cairo. His circumstances did not preclude him from making scholarship a priority. Balancing a life of leadership, scholarship, and medicine, his contributions to our Jewish heritage, interpretations of Jewish law and teachings on how to show up in this world reverberate throughout the generations to this day.
Reflecting on Maimonides, and throughout a Southern Spain nearly devoid of Jewish culture, I grappled with the question: How do we respond to fate? What is predetermined? Do we create our own meaningful life or do we rely on the cards that we’re dealt? I thought more about the role of fate during a Mah Jong game one Shabbat afternoon. Mah Jong holds many life lessons. While each player receives a certain set of tiles, the crux of the strategic thinking in the game is largely based on assessing realistic options at the outset. Organizing the tiles into groups, quickly analyzing potential options to create groupings of tiles that might result in a winning hand — depending on what tiles are traded and available from the general pot throughout the game. Sorta like life. We receive certain innate gifts, from fate or G-d, depending on one’s world view. How we develop those gifts, hone our abilities, what we choose to focus on in our lives is largely in our own hands.
The truth is, my mother is no longer Israeli, as she gave up her citizenship during the 1970s. Yet to me, she always will be the former IDF lieutenant; her soul is Israeli. She is a fish in water in Israel, and one of her many gifts to me is to love Israel. It is because of her that I feel at home there. My mother is constitutionally incapable of going through an El Al security check without speaking Hebrew. And I wonder: if the passport control agent can see into my soul so clearly, maybe I can too?