I knew my 2017 Israel experience would sharply differ from my 1982 trip when I sat outside a hummus cafe on Tel Aviv’s Levantin Street. Peering in from my table, I saw written on a wall the Hebrew words ve’ahavta l’rocha chamocha, meaning “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As I once read, that phrase from Leviticus is the Hebrew inspiration for “Wallach,” my last name, with the letters vav-lamed-khaf. Knowing my name expresses a core Jewish concept brings faith and ethics alive in a most personal way.
Even better: I knew what the Hebrew phrase meant and I could read the Hebrew. That would not have happened 35 years ago, when I first visited Israel. Back then, anxiety about my Jewish identity and lack of knowledge led me to identify with the “one who did not know to ask” phrase from the Passover seder. I no longer hold to that self-pitying identity, and every day on the 2017 Israel trip showed how I had evolved. What happened in the decades between?
For clues, I consulted a gift my 24-year old self left to my 59-year old self, like a message in a bottle. The bottle was an essay I wrote for the Forward newspaper, still a Yiddish daily at the time, with an English-language section on Friday. With the headline “My First Time—Visit to Israel,” the November 1982 essay detailed my visit with a B’nai B’rith tour. Re-reading the article, I can see my enthusiasms and longings on full display.
In 1982, Israel stood as a contrast to the Diaspora. I had studied Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in New York, with no interest in learning Hebrew. Seeing Hebrew on store signs struck me as exotic and exciting, as was hearing Menachem Begin speaking Hebrew on TV. A Hebron visit, where tour guide Benny told us, “One thousand percent they hate the Jews here,” stirred feelings of embattled solidarity. In Jerusalem, Benny pointed to the Western Wall and asserted, “THIS is our spirituality.” I marveled at the young men singing at the Wall to usher in Shabbat. I wrote, “I had no idea what they were singing.” At the Diaspora Museum, I mused on different paths of Jews like me who lived outside Israel. Arriving home at JFK Airport in New York, I used my rudimentary Yiddish to steer an elderly woman to a connecting flight. I even wrote a note with details on her flight to Seattle that she could show when asking for directions.
By 2017, my experience changed substantially, just as my life had. I had cycled through marriage, fatherhood, divorce and reattachment. I moved from Brooklyn to Connecticut to Westchester County, New York. Israel popped up as a destination when my girlfriend Naomi and I were casting around for ideas to follow our 2015 journey to Prague, Dresden and Berlin (which we dubbed “Birthright Germany,” given our mutual family roots there). Naomi had stayed on a kibbutz as a teen in 1974, so we both had a lot of catching up to do on Israel. We decided to go for two weeks in May, with Rosh Pina sandwiched between stays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In upcoming installments of this series, I’ll relate the changes. One of the biggest was the number of personal connections I enjoyed on the May trip. Back in 1982, I wrote,
Because of the pace of the trip and the newness of the experience, I missed contacts with average Israelis; hence, their inner lives remain mysterious.”
This time around, however, we had constant connections with “average Israelis.” Naomi’s friends Doug and Linda in Rosh Pina made aliyah several years ago, and we had Shabbat dinners there with other Americans who made the move. In Tel Aviv we got together with Naomi’s sabra cousin Dudu, whom she’d last seen in 1974, and his wife. We also had a memorable Jerusalem Day dinner with a friend of mine who made aliyah from Canada, spent several years in the United States and then returned to Israel. With a little effort, Naomi and I could have met up with people every day. The personal touch greatly added to the trip’s meaning.
Besides more social contacts, shifts in my perception and experience fell into several categories. In part 2, I’ll look at my knowledge of Hebrew. That is the key that is unlocking the doors of Judaism.