Here are thirteen glimpses at Israel, glimmers of what I love about living in the only place I will ever feel truly at home– Israel.
1. As I take my morning walk, I love watching the men rush to shul, their tallis and tefillin held securely under their arm. One morning, I stopped at the corner to let the garbage truck by. That’s when I noticed the driver wearing his tallis and tefillin. It reminded me of the famous story about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. He once saw a baal agala, a wagon driver, changing the wagon’s wheel while davening, and wearing, of course, his tallis and tefillin. “Oh, how beautiful are the Jewish people!” Rabbi Levi Yitzchak he proclaimed. “Even in the midst of their work, their thoughts are with You!”
2. I love walking through the different neighborhoods. They are each so different –a true ethnic experience. The Bucharian neighborhood is just minutes from my apartment. As I cut through Bucharim to visit my daughter in Batei Varsha, I hear the haunting sound of the Bucharian Jews chanting Mincha in unison. Passing the synagogue complex I see elderly women, some with white embroidered pants peeping out from under their voluminous flower-printed dresses, standing outside, waiting for the opportunity to answer “Amen.” Tiny tables, piled with anything from seforim to audio discs to toys to kitchenware, are set up along the side of the street outside the shul, making walking along the narrow, cobblestone street almost impossible.
I continue up the street and rush past the tiny “Aish Tanura” (an Arabic flat bread) bakery, a tiny hole in the wall, just big enough to hold a large, sturdy wooden table and an ancient stone oven. The circular flat breads are baked on the sides of the oven, just as described in the Mishna. The bakery hasn’t changed since I arrived in Jerusalem close to 37 years ago. The smell is tantalizing, and I hasten my step to avoid temptation. But the owner stops me. “Rebbetzin,” he calls out [here in Jerusalem, almost everyone’s a ‘Rebbetzin’] “I have a mitzvah for you. Please take challah for me.” I make a bracha, separate the challah and throw it into the furnace underneath the oven, and yes, I also buy a half-dozen aish tanurs. How could I resist?
I continue up through the Bucharim shuk (marketplace), a miniature of the famous Macheneh Yehuda shuk, boasting anything from exotic spices, to bakery goods, to tablecloths, to fresh meat, to fish, to vegetables, and anything in between. I step into the spice store to buy Chilba seeds for my pungent Yemenite Chilba salad. The heady smell and combination of colors and textures transports me to the Orient. For less than twenty five cents, I have the makings of a phenomenal side dish for Shabbat lunch.
From the Bucharian shuk, I climb the steep mountain of Yoel Street. Within minutes I am plunged from the Orient to a modern-day shtetl. The sidewalks are so narrow that I end up walking in the middle of the street, sidestepping the cars that (chutzpah!) actually try to drive there. Instead of lilting Sefardi chanting, I hear the most beautiful sound of the world – that of men learning Torah — coming from the tall arched windows of the nearby yeshiva. From the next building, I hear small children repeating pesukim of Chumash after their teacher, and then reciting the Yiddish teitch, the Yiddish translation. Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, Oh! How beautiful are your tents, Jacob!
From Yoel Street, I climb the narrow steps leading to the alleyway behind Meah Shearim Street. I navigate my way along the crowded alley until I arrive at my daughter’s house. Her three older children are outside playing jump rope. The minute they see me they stop their game and come running to give me a hug – and that’s the most beautiful thing of all!
3. I feel so privileged to live in this beautiful, holy city. I am writing this on erev Yom Kippur. From outside our living room window I hear someone speaking into a loudspeaker. “Tzedakah, tzedakah tatzil mi’mavet,” he says. “Tzedakah saves from death. Give to the family in need….” I hear apartment doors opening and children rushing down the stairwell, their sweaty hands clutching the money that their parents gave them to deliver to the poor family. What a blessing to be able to give, and to have the opportunity to give brought to my own front yard.
4. I love the people of Israel. Even the simple people, despite lacking the outward trapping of religion, are holy (well, actually, aren’t all Jews holy?). Rosh Hashana afternoon the upstairs neighbor knocked at our door. Dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts and flip flops, he shoved a candle in my hand and said, “Chag Sameyach. Our candle went out. Can we use your fire to light it?”
5. I love how everything in Israel is so – well – just so Jewish. I love walking to shul to hear Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur night. The streets are crowded with hundreds – yes, hundreds! – of men wearing white kittels, women in their Yom Tov best, children, babies, teenagers, rushing to shul. In the short four blocks from our apartment to the shul where our family davens, I passed close to a dozen synagogues, some housed in large, impressive buildings, others housed in apartments or even bomb shelters. Each one unique and different, yet, on the deepest level of all, they are one, united in serving the Holy One.
6. And Sukkot, oh, how I love Sukkot! I literally bump into a Sukkah wherever I turn. In addition to building them on any available open porch, people construct them on the sidewalks and in the parking lots. Someone actually built their Sukkah in the middle of the neighborhood playground, right next to the swings. I guess that’s one way to take care of unruly children during the meal…
7. I love sitting in my Sukkah on Yom Tov night. From all sides, I hear people reciting Kiddush. Chassidim, yeshivishe, Yemenite, the words are the same, but they each sound so different. That’s the beauty of Am Yisrael – a symphony of differences that, when properly synchronized, create a unique oneness that is our strength.
8. Here in Eretz Yisrael, Chanuka has no competitors. The radio plays the traditional Chanuka melodies, and every house sports at least one menorah in its window. No tinsel, no strings of lights (that’s saved for the Sukkah. And yes, many Israeli use those decorations in their Sukkah, without ever realizing their source!), just simplicity and purity, without any alien influence. One year someone in the neighborhood made a toy sale a few days before Chanuka, and I went to see if I could find some bargains. A group of very orthodox young women were oooing and ahhing over a little train with a bearded man dressed in a red suit and hat sitting on top, singing “We wish you a merry…” No one had any idea that this was definitely NOT a Jewish toy — until I enlightened them!
9. Believe it or not, I love erev Pesach in Eretz Yisrael! Everything sparkles with cleanliness. The bottoms of my shoes become wet from the rivers of “sponja water” spilling out from under the front doors and flowing down the sidewalk, into the gutter. Laundry is hanging everywhere and mattresses are balancing on porch railings. I pass an elderly man scrubbing a step ladder, a teenage girl scouring the front door. Amidst all this commotion, little girls are playing jump rope while keeping half an eye on younger siblings so their mother can ready the house for the holiday. The anticipation is tangible. Everyone’s waiting for something great to happen!
10. I love taking a walk after the Seder. Although it’s two or, perhaps, three o’clock in the morning, the streets are vibrant with life! I hear the last strains of “Chad Gadya” wafting out from an open window. From another window, I hear the sharp scraping sounds of tables being cleared and dishes being washed. A child is playing with some Lego on the porch while singing (not so quietly!) songs from the Seder. He probably fell asleep right Kiddush, and woke up again when everyone started singing “L’shana haba b’Yerushalayim, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
11. Although sitting on crowded buses has never been, and will never be, one of my favorite pastimes, I love how, when someone gets on a crowded bus through the back door, it is common courtesy for the other people on the bus to pass that person’s fare up to the driver, and then return the change. The money passes through perhaps a dozen peoples’ hand, yet no one would consider pocketing it! Could you imagine trying that on a crowded New York subway?
12. I love how everything in this country is so uniquely Jewish. Recently, the air conditioning technician called to explain why he would be late. “I’m stuck in a haknassat Torah (A Torah inauguration),” he began. “I went into a store to buy something to drink, and when I came out, my truck was surrounded. Right now they’re auctioning off the honors, so it looks like I’ll be here for a while.” I knew he was telling the truth; I could hear the strains of canned “haknassat Torah” music over the phone.
13. Waiting in line in the local health clinic, I started speaking to the woman sitting next to me. She told me that this summer she had taken her eleven year old son, Shlomo, “the type who loves rollerblading and lives for his skateboard” to visit relatives in the United States. She made sure to give Shlomo the time of his life – amusement parks, ice skating, boating, you name it, if it was something an eleven year old kid would go for, they did it!
On the plane back to Israel, Shlomo was a bit pensive. “Boy, mom,” he said. “I’m really, really happy that we’re going back to Israel.”
His mother was a bit surprised. “You didn’t like America?” she asked.
“No, no,” he replied. “It’s just that I’m not frightened in Israel, like I was in the United States.”
Now Shlomo’s mother was even more confused. “Frightened?” she asked. “Why were you frightened in America?”
“Because I didn’t feel Hashem with me, constantly, the way I do in Israel,” he replied.
And that story, more than anything else, explains why I love living in Eretz Yisrael. With every step that I take on this holy soil, I am fulfilling a mitzvah. I am privileged to observe Hashem’s holy Torah in the holy land that Hashem bestowed to our nation. May we all be able to keep all of Hashem’s mitzvot in Hashem’s rebuilt Holy Land, speedily, and in our days. Amen.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.