The simple truth about Israel and the thing you may not know is this: it’s complicated.
It can’t be reduced to a news story on CNN or MSNBC or FOX News or even The Times of Israel. Israel is not a soundbite.
Israel is more than a place on the map in a religious school classroom, or the photos on the calendars that the mortuaries send out before the High Holidays.
Sure, there IS the Israel of abstraction, and it is truly beautiful — the Israel we think about when we pray. The one that the poets write about, and the one we dream about, and the one we hold in the highest regard. The Israel that can do no wrong. The Israel of the sky above.
And yes, there’s ALSO the Israel we argue about with our friends and strangers, maybe with our kids, or maybe with our parents or partners. The Israel that frustrates us sometimes, and worries us often. The Israel capable of breaking our hearts.
But there’s more to us than our policies or our politics or even our psalms. We aren’t just an academic exercise or a political litmus test or words written on an ancient scroll or a direction we face when we pray.
And I want to take you there now, with me, to the Israel I know, where I live and love — what I see, and hear, and taste, and smell, and feel, and maybe you’ll feel it, too.
This is Israel of the earth, of the market, of each color in each thread in the fabrics we wear, and the laundry drying on clotheslines in the noonday sun. We are the bounty of each passing season — mangoes in the summer, pomegranates in the autumn, clementines in the winter, and apricots in the spring and the people who sell them in the open stalls of the shuk. We are the shifts in the shape of the moon. We are the Israel of spices and songs, of cats yowling and babies crying, of ambulances wailing, of doors slamming, and windows opening, and the thrum of our own hopeful, hungry hearts beating like wings in our chests.
Israel of the earth is messy. And that’s what makes it so spectacularly beautiful.
It is the beggar with the tin cup outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem, and the clatter of loose change as people pass. Israel is a plume of smoke rising as the ashes fall from the last cigarette before you quit forever. Israel is the hungry child with her hand outstretched and the one who feeds her, and the way the sunlight cuts through every shadow to illuminate each face.
It’s the woman who owns the plant nursery and gives away free flowers and herbs to people injured in terror attacks.
Israel is the hiss of the tea kettles, the gurgle of the cappuccino makers, and the sound the spoon makes when tapping the rim of your favorite coffee cup hand-painted by Armenian artisans. It’s the conversation between two friends from opposite ends of the political spectrum who never agree on anything — least of all who should be the prime minister — but who served together in the army and love each other like brothers.
Israel of the earth is the moment the sun crests over the horizon — it’s that feeling of waking up, as the city shuffles to life. It is the sound that worn fingers make when they turn the newspaper pages. Israel is the scraping of metal on metal as doors open onto the busy street, and the thwunk of the crates and barrels on the streets as the vendors arrange their tchockes, their books, or their fresh fruits and vegetables: mangoes, pomegranates, clementines, and apricots.
It’s the growl of the the jackhammer breaking ground for a new school in the Negev Desert, the plumber sighing, as he bends down to unclog a drain. It’s the tune he whistles — something his grandmother sang to him in Yiddish when he was a baby, that he remembers even now, half a century later.
Israel of the earth is the life in our streets — it’s the lurch of the buses as they rumble through the city. It’s the grandmother on the bus who sees a random soldier across the aisle and thrusts a Tupperware container of chicken and rice at him and tells him he looks too skinny and he needs to eat. It’s the bus driver singing along to Taylor Swift on the radio, and the yeshiva student trying not to hum along.
It’s the taxi drivers with the best stories and the advice (“Listen to your wife! Whatever she says, just do it, do it quickly, and do it with a smile!”). It’s the barista who is studying art at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and will write your name on the foam, no extra charge, the chef who’s opening his first restaurant featuring a modern Israeli twist on his grandmother’s recipes from Morocco.
Israel of the earth is the alarm clocks going off every morning, and kids grumbling in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, English, and Armenian: “Noooo, I don’t wanna go to school.” It’s their parents answering, “Too bad, it’s time to get up, you just might learn something.” It’s the jangle of metal keys locking doors, and unlatching bicycles, the Greek Orthodox priest and the Catholic priest both trying to out-pray the other in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Waqf officials throwing stale bread for the birds and cats on the Temple Mount, and the rabbi’s wife weeping against the Western Wall for their son to return safe and unharmed from his military service.
It’s the teacher who pays extra attention to the student in the back of the classroom with his head down. The student who says he doesn’t know. The student too overwhelmed to even ask the right question. Israel is her steady voice as she helps guide him through the words jumbled on the page, untangling the sentence until it suddenly makes sense, and he looks at her with a shining eyes and a smile stretched ear to ear. Israel is that a-ha moment when you cut through the clamor and the clatter, and the pieces fall into place.
It’s that moment when the person who cut you off in line at Aroma pays for your coffee when you’re five shekels short, or the overtired nurse who stays late to make sure you get a doctor’s appointment because she can hear the fear in your voice. It’s the bus driver who makes a quick detour to buy fresh strawberries to give to his passengers before Shabbat. It’s a conversation on the train between two strangers — a man covered in tattoos and a man wearing a kippah — about whether God exists.
Israel of the earth is innovation — it’s the punk kid who barely finished high school but gets his act together to form a startup that works to end world hunger because he remembers what it was like to grow up poor without enough to eat. It’s the single mother working two jobs and studying to be a pharmacist, but who still makes it home before bedtime to read to her kids and tuck them in. It’s the artist in Jaffa who finds old pieces of junk — scrap metal, bicycle chains, broken watches, rusty bottle caps, and softened shards of sea glass washed up on the shore — and takes these old, broken and discarded things and uses them to make something magnificent. It’s the group of teenagers who spend their weekends at the beach picking up cigarette butts, empty bottles, and old Styrofoam containers, who protest against global warming, who implement recycling programs at their schools because they care about tikkun olam –– repairing the world.
Israel of the earth is a leap of faith.
Israel of the earth is the protectors and the survivors — the border police on their patrols through the streets, standing guard at the intersections, the sound of their boots scuffing the stones, the static from their radios, the shriek of an ambulance, followed by another and another, after a terror attack. It is the first responders, the people on the street running toward a terror attack instead of away from it because their first instinct is to help and heal and save lives… even when it sometimes means putting their own lives at risk. It’s the wail of the family left behind, the choice they make to keep on living despite the anguish, despite the overwhelming loss.
It’s the Holocaust survivors who saw their families murdered, who somehow made it out of Hitler’s maw alive, and came to Israel and met and fell in love, and had children and grandchildren — a strong and thriving answer to the worst horrors imaginable, and a promise to the world: Never Again.
Israel of the earth is the healers — the doctors who use their vacation time to fly to provide disaster relief around the world in far flung places. They are the first ones in and the last ones out. They’re the ones who bring Syrians across the border to treat their wounds in Israeli hospitals, or volunteer in Palestinian villages because despite the tensions between our communities, at the end of the day, we are all human and vulnerable and capable of both terrible suffering and spectacular empathy.
It is the healthcare workers who showed up every day during those terrifying first weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic — the Arabs and the Jews who were united by a common enemy, and worked tirelessly together. Israel of the earth is the people who will nearly come to blows over politics, but will stand united by the tens of thousands on their balconies and porches and applaud our healthcare workers for their bravery.
Israel of the earth embraces life — it is a joyful celebration by the Western Wall when, with tambourines and timbrels, family and friends accompany the bar mitzvah boy. It is the sound of breaking glass at a wedding, and a jubilant “MAZAL TOV” shouted in hundreds of voices! It is a woman’s hand trembling when she holds a pregnancy test, and the sparkle in her eyes when she discovers she is carrying new life, and recites the Shehechiyanu: “Thank you Hashem for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us to this moment in time.”
Israel of the earth is possibility — it is a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim who walk into a café — and no, it isn’t the beginning of a joke. It’s the beginning of a conversation about God and faith and the future between our communities. It is the families who go to the Pride Parade in Jerusalem to celebrate love and diversity, the people who volunteer with Holocaust survivors who live alone, the ones who plant olive trees, and drive for hours in the middle of a frigid winter to bring hot tureens of soup and hot chocolate to the soldiers defending our home. It is the protestors, too, who envision a more just and equal shared society for all who share the land, and are willing to work for it.
Israel of the earth is the beating of doves’ wings when they take flight way, way up into the sky.
It is that moment when life transcends the ordinary because the people who are part of this place are nothing less than extraordinary.
And sometimes, Israel of the earth is frustrating. It’s loud and chaotic. It struggles. It’s constantly on the defensive — after all, the Israel of the earth has never known a day of peace since we came into being. But just as the biblical Jacob wrestled with God to become Israel, so, we too wrestle in Israel with our own identity. After all, we are still a very, very young country, while always rooted in history and ancient dreams.
And above all, the Israel of the earth is a glorious work in progress — and all these things about it are true, made more beautiful still by the people in it who are helping shape it. And all who visit get to be part of that — not just experiencing the Israel of the earth — but sharing it, and creating it too.
So come visit us. Come see it. Have tea with us — or a coffee — and sit for a while with your eyes and ears and hearts wide open.
Shalom Alechem. Salaam Aleikum. Peace be upon you. And welcome, to you, and you, and you.