Israel: Both Realities

I don’t recall being a morning person when I was in college back in the early ‘60’s. If there was an exam or a paper due, I could “pull an all-nighter” with the best of them.

Things changed radically sometime on one of my early trips to Israel. I’ve been back more than 50 times, ever since my rabbi brought me in 1959 when I was 14 and the country was 11. I discovered dawn in Jerusalem. In late June the first light could be seen around 4:00 a.m., and I was hooked. I began walking by 4:45 for two hours…anywhere. Most of the time I had no route planned. I just opened the door and headed in which ever direction my feet (the Almighty?) took me.

I still do it on many mornings, and always on Shabbat. Groups of tourists, or a friend or two would go with me, with a guarantee that they would be back in plenty of time to get to whichever synagogue caught their fancy. They could pray with the Turks in Yemin Moshe, the choir at the Great Synagogue, or the nearest place in the neighborhood. And I always take with me “Rehovot Yerushalayim”, that marvelous paperback that explains the origin of all the street names.

Call me a romantic. Since I am a poet, that’s a compliment. And that’s the point. This is not to say that I am not glued to the radio every time the news comes on if I am visiting friends or in transit in a taxi. Of course I am. I listen to the news, watch the news, read the news in the Hebrew papers. But that is never enough. Side by side with the terror, hatred, international condemnation for whatever Israel does, I have to keep the magic, holiness, the miraculous, and the lyricism of The Land and The People in my mind, heart, and soul…always.

Sometime in the mid 1980’s I wrote:

I think
(now that I look back)
I’d rather drive a taxi
in Jerusalem
Than be the King
of all of South Dakota…

Am I naïve, oblivious to the real lives of The People? Not so. One day, while I was having a leisurely cup of coffee one day on Ben Yehuda Street, I wrote:

The downtown triangle of streets is seething with Jews –
Loud chattering geniuses, drivers, merchants, and kids,
Pharmacists from Germany, scholars,
Kibbutzniks on a spree, saints,
Men shaking in yarmulkas over a Coke,
The round and the blind, the muscle-bulging
Of our people, foaming beggars,
And open-shirted name-brand macho Sabra men.

I see them, hear them, listen to them, talk to them and argue with them, buy my newspapers from them. They are in my consciousness morning, noon, and night, a few even as dawn breaks and I am out and about on my morning stroll.

But there is still more to the human side of Israel. For more than 30 years I have sought out Israel’s Tzaddikim, The Good People. These are the individuals, young, old, men, women, and children, religious, so-so, and secular — you name it — who are doing The Good Things for others.

I call these individuals “Mitzvah heroes”, and they are easy to find because they are everywhere. On the surface, some of them even appear to be “drivers, merchants, and kids…and open-shirted name-brand macho Sabra men.” These are the ones who spend their days recycling good food from hotels and wedding halls to feed hungry people. They send packages of “goodies” to thousands of soldiers. They provide refuge for victims of domestic violence, extend loans with zero interest for people living on the economic edge. There are Giants of Tikkun Olam who provide opportunities for individuals with every conceivable kind of disability, give massages to survivors of terror attacks, mend the hearts and minds of those who falter and lose their way.

All of them who care with vigor and human and Jewish creativity that is at once awe-inspiring and eminently accessible. I am “hooked”.

They are the visionaries who remind us that there is a Heavenly Jerusalem, as well as the Jerusalem of schwarma stands, shoe stores, and garages. Their vision of The Good Life for everyone extends far beyond the borders of Yerushalayim. Just read the last 26 chapters of Isaiah. It’s the same “unrealistic” vision of the Biblical prophets from centuries ago.

Unrealistic? Spend time with the Mitzvah heroes and it may seem like fantasy.

Am I living in a disconnect with reality? To the contrary, the reality of Israel as I see it is reality and fantasy, vision, and prophecy inextricably mixed together.

Am I living with my head in the clouds?

For sure. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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