Cat Korren

The Land That Was and Always Will Be

Image courtesy of the author
Image courtesy of the author

My mom has a saying, “you can only be as happy as your least happy child”. I never understood what she meant. But five weeks ago, I began to realize.

To anyone who has had their feet touch the ground of the Holy Land, has closed their eyes in prayer and felt their hearts transcending space and time wandering through the streets where ancient stories reverberate through their souls, has family, friends, or community who has come back from a trip to Israel with the “glow”, it’s an undeniable fact that something supernatural is going on across the 8,500 square miles that make up the Holy Land, the holiest land.

Five years ago, on my first trip to Israel, as my family made our rounds throughout the country on a traditional 10 day American family tour of the Holy Land, we hit all the spots – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Dead Sea. And while the land was beautiful, my skepticism and burning curiosity for answers to life’s big questions – the questions I was dedicating a whole undergraduate degree to answering – is there a god? Which god is real? Where did we come from, and where are we going? – allowed me to interact with Israel not only as a Jewish person, but as a human seeing the entirety of a land whose frequencies permeate the existence of anyone who graces it.

I roamed around with my camera, taking shots of rabbis praying by the Kotel, Arabs meandering through the streets of Yaffo, Catholic nuns making their way through Via de la Rosa, Philipinos at the top of Masada, and was less far less enamored than I had expected to be. Confusion coursed through every cell, and the words of our tour guide echoed in my ear –

“Here’s the thing with Israel. The more time you spend here, the more questions you will have. The more answers you think you have, the more loose ends will arise within your mind. Let it be”.

For the past five weeks, an explosion of voices have erupted of humans who refuse to let it be, including my own. As I interacted with Israel those days, I wondered to myself if I missed something in my education growing up as a Jewish kid in Long Island, the “Israel narrative” wasn’t a part of my household, and arriving there for the first time at 18 years old with a love for learning and distaste for Judaism, I was more or less a clean slate. I had no preconceptions of what my experience would be. I was as excited to visit the Western Wall as I was to visit the Temple Mount, Caesarea, and Bethlehem.

As we made our way through the land, I waited for something to happen. To have that aha moment. To have that spark I had when visiting new countries. But perhaps the pressure to feel something turned off the rest of my regular nervous system, closing me off to the miracle stories I had heard others experience.

And then we arrived at the Golan. The Golan Heights, Israel’s Northern region, is composed of mystical, snow capped mountains, clouds that kiss the peaks of hills, kibbutzim with “hevrei shel ha tzafon” who sport an equally carefree and jungle nature as they do a love for their country and deep appreciate for the land and its gifts. Vehemently secular villages who would give their life to protect the earth beneath their feet, Eretz Israel. We stepped out of our van, and across from me stood “Yaya”, a 40 year old Israeli moshavnik, with his weather worn blue jeans tucked into his blundstone boots, his almost afro style, long, curly, black hair tied behind his head into a braid, gun in his back pocket, and eyes that radiated the purest warmth I had ever encountered in a human being. A kindness I didn’t know existed. Simplicity wrapped in deep complexity, a man who, I would come to learn, knows the true meaning of life by almost losing it, who showed up with his whole heart to present us his country.

We entered the army style Jeep cruiser with a cow husk hanging from the front seat mirror, closed the doors and felt the chill kept outside as the rain pattered down on our windows. We began our adventure, diesel filling my nose and Yaya’s voice vibrating above all the magnificent chaos, telling my mom and her anxiety of being in a bumpy jeep “don’t take any photos! You might set off the land mine!” (of course, this is not true).  We saw the endless vistas of the mystical mountains rising out and around us, somehow within us as well. Passing abandoned military tanks reminiscent of endless battles of the past seventy five years to abandoned fortresses reminiscent of 13th century battles between Jerusalem and Damascus, the land’s turbulent history was evident in every corner.
We arrived at the “abandoned hospital”, a gutted, graffiti-strewn two story building that was used as a spy base during wars with Syria. Covering the walls are messages of love and peace, “make art not war” written in every color as baby flowers burst through the remaining cracks of concrete.

We make our way to the roof, and standing on top, engulfed in the vistas of green and gray, less than 5 minutes by foot from the Israel-Syria border, Yaya points towards the north, towards Syria, and as my gaze shifts northward, I see raindrops pouring down from a sky crying through a storm, and hear, for the first, but not last time in my life, the boom of bombs raining down from Syria’s brutal al-Assad regime on its own people, sounds that rang out the danger that Israel constantly lives beside and amongst. Overwhelmed with shock, the bombings came to an end, and the voices of children echoed to my ears, children stuck inside a tragic reality.

And as I stood on the side of Israel, Yaya’s gaze caught mine, the deep, knowing gaze of Israelis who have seen more than they should and yet find the way to keep an unwavering faith and love of life, and told me to turn around.

There, in stark opposition to the crying skies over Syria, the southern skies of Israel cracked open, the clouds dissipating and the sun peeking from behind, the rays reaching down behind Mount Avital and Bental, and, right below, a double sided rainbow reached above the mountains, painting the sky in color, replacing the fading raindrops, replacing it with the sun’s illuminating light. And I breathed, for in that moment, for the first time, but not the last, I felt transcendent. I felt what I call “hashem”, what others call “allah”, “christ consciousness”, whatever it may be. I felt the mystery of the universe, in all its beauty rising through the dust, engulfing my entire body, mind and soul. And I gazed at Yaya not realizing tears had formed in my eyes, and he looked at me, stating, “every time you get out of the jeep, the rain stops. It’s like someone wanted you to be here.”

It was at this moment that I first felt infinite love. Yaya, and the experience he gave my family and I, inadvertently changed the course of my life. Because from that moment forward, I would forever remember the feeling I felt on top of that abandoned building. The feeling of god looking down and taking me outside of my body, giving me the ability to look inwards, as if I was looking at myself as a spectator. The complete knowing, a glimpse of the truth that we are all tiny parts of a much larger whole. That through complete solitude, one can achieve complete togetherness. My breaths were shallow as we drove back down, and I understood the whispers of generations who gave their lives time and time again for thousands of years before me to protect this land, to call it theirs. There is a word in Hebrew – עוצמה – which translates directly to “power”, but means something far bigger. Otzmah is power, passion, love, wholeness, chills, fascination, a complete sense of awe.

That’s it. Awe:  “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

Call it what you may – Canaan, Judea, Palestine, Eretz Israel, the Holy Land – words cannot even come close to describing this corner of the world. As I write these words with hands of longing, I recall that sense of wonder. That sense of reverence, of deep respect, of deep care and love. I remember what I felt before all of this story was watered down to the bare-boned, black and white skeleton of an oversimplified conflict that has existed far beyond 1948, since the beginning of time itself. I mourn the danger of my generation – of allowing our thoughts to be sculpted and molded not by experience itself, but by second, third, fourth hand accounts of people who have never, ever felt even the slightest sense of this transcendent connection. I mourn the loss of curiosity, the vulnerability of generations after me who accept the first thing that is told to them, who allow their freedom to be stifled by the opinions of others.

But while I mourn, I close my eyes and breathe, reconnecting to that feeling on top of the abandoned building, gazing out at the sun’s rays, calling back the ability of my naive body to hold many truths, and the cleanliness of my mind’s blank slate to tune in to the feeling behind it all, of pure awe for the fact simple fact – “here’s the thing with Israel. The more time you spend here, the more questions you will have. The more answers you think you have, the more loose ends will arise within your mind. Let it be”.

Perhaps it is not exactly let it be. Passivity is the greatest danger of them all, and as Ellie Wiesel writes in his book The Perils of Indifference:

“the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, its indifference.”

When I stood on that roof, I knew that I had been there before. That what I was seeing, the reason I wasn’t having the same sensations I had felt at other magnificent landscapes in the seas of Italy, the mountains of France, or the jungles of Costa Rica was because I wasn’t just observing, I was remembering.

Everything without was within, everything above was below. As the Magen David (Jewish Star) shows us, north south east west, all points come together at the center. And as you wander through the Holy Land, the tangibility of that center becomes real. Perhaps because it is true that there Abraham spoke to God, or there that Muhammed rose up on his white horse, or there that Jesus was born. Perhaps it is the existence of these stories that proves the omnipresence of a God.

But I’ll tell you the truth of it all. The davka. The true aha moment.

Call it what you may – underneath the inquiries of all religions lies the deepest truth. As Above, So Below. As Within, So Without. Israel is a vessel. A vehicle, much like Ezhekel’s wheel.

And within this vessel, gazing at the rainbow above the mountain as the storm abates before you, the truth breaks free. Complete oneness lives within. The meeting point for the six points of the star lies within our hearts. In our shared recognition that this world was created imperfect in order for us to perfect it. Incomplete so we can complete it.

As I conclude this story, my feet land back on the ground in New York City, calling my wandering heart and nostalgic mind back to my body, to this physical reality. Reminiscing upon the beauty of those first moments in the nature of Israel, of my connection with the land as a meeting point for the spiritual and physical worlds.

I see Israel and all her pain, and feel a sense of motherly responsibility. To protect her. To love her unconditionally. To guide her, critique her, and inspire her to become the best version of herself she can be. To stand beside her, seeing her for who she is, rather than for the fantasy I wish her to be.

For in this complete acceptance, this complete seeing of the complexities of her mystical being, the complete appreciation for the rainbow reality rather than the shahor v levan (black and white), perhaps we can step out of our subjective realities and see her in her totality. Her wonder. Her ethereal, esoteric nature. Her wholeness. My mom has a saying, “you can only be as happy as your least happy child”. I never understood what she meant. But as my heart aches for the healing of Eretz Israel and the people within it, I think I finally do.

About the Author
Cat Korren is a writer, researcher and explorer born and raised in New York but based in Israel for the past five years. Having spent three semesters of her Bachelor's degree at New York University's Tel Aviv campus, she engaged deeply with the history, archaeology and theology of the Holy Land. An avid world traveler, Cat's deep curiosity for culture, language and community have provided her with first hand experiences which give her unique lens as a Jewish, American-Israeli woman moving through of the world.
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