O Jerusalem
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O Jerusalem

10 months in the holy city

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Pausing on the rocks in Eilat, author is top left.

I stare through the window as the taxi tumbles on, swallowing the deserted highways whole, bringing me inches from parting. I stare at the unfolding sky, brighter-than-life stars, not-quite-green trees, whispering to myself, “Remember. Don’t you dare let these images wash away.”

After ten months of study in Israel, I prepare to leave, not knowing when I’ll be back again. As the plane hurtles into the sky, I will these final glimpses of Israel to imprint onto my heart and tide me over until my return to Israel, and ultimately, to Jerusalem.

I set off for Israel in August, accompanied by a year’s supply of toothpaste, American peanut butter, and three-pronged loose-leaf paper. “Are you sure there isn’t anything you can leave behind?” I nodded solemnly at the airport personnel while opening my wallet to pay the three-figure overweight charge. It didn’t help that I would later learn to prefer Israel’s watery-Listerine toothpaste, its oil-topped peanut butter, and the local two-holed paper that actually fit into the binders.

The drive to Jerusalem in a Nesher, an airport taxi-van, wasn’t much smoother, with the driver cursing out my destination the whole ride. I was dropped off on a corner; as the van pulled away, I opened my arms to catch my three suitcases and two carry-ons that came flying out after me.

Sweat dancing down my face, I looked up at a ramshackle building, pink flowers melting into its stone crevices. A stray bike dangled out front, prefacing my destination with the childish innocence I was slowly losing. If this city was to be my home, I would have to make it so. There would be no open arms to catch me if I fell.

Michlalah, the seminary program I was attending for the year, started in mid-September and was soon followed by the High Holidays, a redefining experience as I spent these days of introspection and judgment flitting from one house to the next. All the families were strangers to me, the tunes in synagogue unrecognizable; I was lucky if the meals were edible. And yet, the echoes of the season, heard in the crowded marketplaces and on the suburban streets, infused me with a mysterious excitement.

Jerusalem anticipated the New Year with zealousness, as stores citywide filled with shofars, honey jars, and overripe pomegranates. Weeks later, the sound of men hammering followed me through Jerusalem’s streets as succot cropped up across the city. When classes were over, I would steal away to watch the preparations: children decorating the huts with paper chains, old men purchasing heady neon citrons, and teenage boys lugging lulav branches as long and lanky as the boys themselves.

But the holidays faded away, and the school year, with its responsibilities and opportunities for independence, started in earnest. Having left my mother thousands of miles behind, I was relegated to cooking for myself.  I pushed the inevitable trip off until my hummus and cracker feasts were a dim memory, and soon I found myself on bus 21 again, heading toward the shuk.

Jerusalem’s open-air market in the center of town was a volatile cocktail of gruff grocers, pungent fish and meat shops shouldering mini-bakeries, and young women with babies in slings, their strollers stuffed with produce. Fruits and vegetables in my possession, I continued to the makolet, a mom-and-pop store. 

Back to the bus with 10 bags hanging off of me, I collapsed into the one open seat, only to give it up as an elderly gentleman boarded. The rest of the ride was whittled away playing stationary hide-and-seek with two Israeli kids. I jumped at the chance to practice my Hebrew on them, the usual inhibitions falling away in the presence of the charming little Israelis.

Once more on my campus, I stepped into my apartment, propping the door open with one leg and kicking the groceries in with the second. After stuffing one bag into the fridge and another onto a cabinet, I collapsed on my bed, rubbing the angry stripes that colored my arms, tokens from my shopping trip.  Half an hour later, I was passed out on top of the blanket, the food untouched, and the hunger of the previous hours entirely forgotten. A final thought slipped away as I drifted off: Perhaps I’ll cook tomorrow.

With little warning, 42 hours of classes overtook my week. Lessons started at 8 a.m. and often ended 12 hours later, with intermittent breaks that slowed down the day’s pace. It was a flexible schedule, and I gladly took advantage of being able to manipulate my courses to better suit me in the second semester.

I left my classes feeling the timeliness and modernity of the teachings, and, most prominently, feeling proud to be a Jew, to be the inheritor and guarantor of a tradition so rich and vibrant.

As the year wound on, Tuesdays became a welcome relief after two full days of class, since Israel’s workweek begins on Sunday. Although the day was peppered with a few classes, the bulk of it was dedicated to chesed, acts of kindness.  I chose to volunteer weekly at Sanhedria Children’s Home, an orphanage and rehabilitation center for boys from broken families.

After the winding ride to the historic German Colony, I walked to Katamon, following the path of HaLamed Hey, a street named in memory of the 35 defenders who fell in 1948 while bringing vital supplies to the besieged Etzion bloc. Memorials recognizing the sacrifice Israel demanded dot the country – plaques on buildings, neighborhood parks, roadside monuments. While Yom HaZikaron was specifically dedicated to Israel’s fallen, the daily reminders of the blood-soaked land I tread on were equally poignant.

At the orphanage, I played Taki (Israeli Uno) or kadur-regel (soccer) with a rotating cast of boys. They left when they got bored, their attention spans often too short to finish the game.  They were gentle 6-year-olds, so sweet and wide-eyed I wondered if they really experienced the horrors I was told about; and they were rough preteens, their aggression and bullying evidence of their unhealthy origins.

The boys loved playing with my camera phone, littering my SIM card with pictures of themselves making faces. “Please keep it as your background, as a reminder of me,” one boy asked. Yet he was shocked when I showed him the picture the following Tuesday, still proudly displayed on my phone. He offered a half-smile. “You remembered?”

The walk back was rejuvenating. I strolled down the café-lined Emek Refaim into a gelato shop, choosing two flavors I hadn’t tasted yet. Pina colada and Belgian waffle mixed on my tongue as I rushed onto the 21 bus, just making it to my modern Israel and Zionism course.

 The many months, hundreds of days, evaporated too soon. With less than a week left, I planned a final trip to the Western Wall. I walked slowly down the Jewish Quarter’s alleys, my feet bouncing along the uneven white stone. I was pulled closer and closer; the holiest place on Earth was just steps away, the place from which the Shechina, God’s presence, never departed.

My fingers added shekels to the tinkling cups of the beggar-women, my head shook amen to their oft-repeated blessings, my feet carried me through the crowd, weaving between the praying women, until I stood by the Kotel, one trembling hand on the cool stone, one hand gripping my Psalms. I stuttered as I mouthed King David’s prayers, unsure if I was scared or excited to return to America, to impending adulthood, to decisions that would shape my future.

 Moments passed, and I was pulling away from the Kotel, tearing away from the Old City as night crept behind me. The plane took off, wheels slowly leaving the ground, folding beneath it.

My year in Israel had ended; I was coming home with only one suitcase but a carry-on filled with memories, reflections, realizations. Clouds filled my oval window as the narrow strip of Israel fell away. Shutting my eyes, I whispered a last time in the ancient words of those exiled, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem.”

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