You can read it here, at the Forward’s Sisterhood Blog.
I promised myself an embargo on blogging for at least 24 to 48 hours, but seeing as I am presently flying at 35000 feet, i don’t think it applies just yet.
My last moments in Israel consisted of unbelievable restlessness, a marvelously friendly cat, an insane sherut ride through Mea Shearim, free wireless in the airport, running into some familiar folk, and witnessing a goodbye that will stick with me for a very long time. On our way out of Mea Shearim, a man hugged his friend before he got in the car and said, “This is the beginning of going back to America.” I looked at this friend, with his English accented Hebrew and his brand new peyot and thought, in many ways, the re entry is going to be so different from mine, and in others, not at all.
So I’m on this plane and we have 10 hours ahead of us. There are various bad movies to watch, set feeding times, and my giant crossword puzzle book. And I am thinking about my mother.
I flew for the first time when I was 8 years old, on a tiny plane from Pennsylvania, where my aunt and cousins lived, to Massachusetts. It was like being in a room. That’s all. I think I was probably bored, in the manner of children flying alone. My mother was insanely worried, I could tell from her voice and the way she clutched at me when we saw each other in the airport. It’s really funny, how we can learn to be afraid of things by being told, or shown, that we should be afraid of them.
I figured out later all the layers of this fear of flying, the lack of control, all the possibilities of things going wrong. I wouldn’t get on a plane for years. The next time, oddly or appropriately enough, that I flew was to Israel. It really felt like a reclamation of power, to decide that my fear of not seeing the world was greater than my fear of getting on a plane.
With a few exceptions, I have often flown with large groups of people of who I am in charge-basically, a bad situation in which to lose your shit. These are large well traveled folks. They have many passport stamps and have been to almost every states. They do not freak out on planes. They might even love flying. They’ve been doing it since they were kids.
Therein lies the issue-if I had had the sort of upbringing where flying was a regular part of life, I might not be so inclined to panic, knock myself out with various prescription medications, and obsess over the reasoning behind the turning on of the “fasten seat belt sign.”
This too is a class issue, like my newly found love of the air conditioner. People who fly can afford to fly, or are at least savvy enough to know where to look for cheap flights. I traveled when I was younger, but it was very different. It was the travel of a single woman and her daughter-modest, provoking and ultimately, responsible for lighting a fire.
The lovely folks at El Al are serving sandwiches, and I love me some sandwich. Blogging to resume in 24 to 48 hours.
There’s a scene in the movie “The Darjeeling Limited” where Peter, Jack and Francis are sitting in the back of a bus that’s traveling through rural India, and they’re approached by a local man who asks them, “What are you doing in this place?”
I have a weird amount of time left in this country, and so I’m obviously using it to further the existential crisis I’ve been having throughout my stay. The voice in my head sounds a lot like that man in the movie, except there are italics: what are you doing in this place? And what will you do when you are gone?
I was talking to Z recently, and he said, “It’s weird to think about it all going on without you.” People moving around, just living, but me no longer in the middle of it. When I’m back in the States, everything will be totally different, the way I’ll talk about this place, what I’ll think when I read the paper. Maybe that’s why people don’t leave- if you stay, you get to keep things.
Tonight I’ll be waiting on the curb for my sherut to the airport, and the feeling will be like swimming in water when you know the bottom is very far away. In the meantime, I’m eating my last basket of donut peaches from the shuk and making queer little bargains—Israel, if you promise to stay here, I promise I’ll be back.
Just now, I was wandering down Jaffa Road and became completely transfixed by some scarves. (It’s happened before.) This particular scarf store had a wealth of hair covering options for observant married Jewish ladies, among them the hat, the snood, and the headband.
I’ve always been fascinated by the hair covering concept, mainly the part about whether you choose to cover, how much, with what and why. In Israel, it is a whole other animal. Here, you can be a married woman with uncovered hair, in pants with completely covered hair, in a tank top with semi covered hair, or swathed within an inch of your life in a long skirt, long sleeves, and a covered wig.
I’ve left the house with my hair covered twice since I’ve been here-once because my hair was dirty and I had yet again traded showering for sleep, and another time because I have a lot of hair and it seemed like too much to deal with. In both instances, I felt strange, in disguise as a married woman. At the risk of beating a dead, dead horse, I don’t aspire to be anyone’s wife, and I don’t want to be seen as such.
If you are a married Jewish woman, and you cover your hair, it’s a signal to certain Jews-a potentially problematic one given the misogynistic motivations of the laws of hair covering, but a signal nevertheless, of belonging. The same is true with skirts, which was the main impetus for my Pants Embargo of 2003-2005. I wanted to be identifiable, similar to the way a Jewish man is identifiable as religious by wearing a yarmulke. The thing is, skirts and hair covering are about men asserting control over women’s bodies, in a way that wearing a yarmulke is about a demonstration of piety.
It’s tricky to represent myself authentically, especially when my relationship Judaism as a religious practice is so radically different from what it once was. Ultimately, it’s rather lonely, since I’m not willing to forgo the Jewish or the feminist parts of myself, and every day, I worry that my political values are outrunning my ability to be observant in any kind of traditional way. I maintain, though, that it should be tricky, even if that also means it’s terrifying.
Oh, and I bought a scarf. I have no idea how to tie it.
In an outburst of whim, I emailed B, who’s here in her first year of rabbinical school, and asked her to teach me how to wrap tefillin. Apparently, these are the sorts of impulses that overtake me here. Tefillin are small, black, squarish leather boxes that have Torah verses inside them. Observant Jews (read: men) wear them during weekday morning prayers.
I went through a phase where I was really intense about wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), but then I stopped. I’ve gone through a lot of prayer related phases, including the one I’m in now, which involves a lot of snark and skepticism and no actual prayer.
The process of wrapping tefillin is detailed and can be confusing, but B is an excellent teacher, and I was and continue to be moved by her conviction. The act of physically attaching Torah to my body felt very powerful. I might even do it again.
I took a reasonably sized walk just now from the center of town back to Katamon, a walk I remember being a lot longer and sweatier when I took it a few years ago. The sidewalks are slippery here, you have to be careful where you put your feet if you’re wearing sandals, which I always am. I’ve fallen down more than once in the past.
Some combination of lots of writing to do, exhaustion, and salad dressing on my keyboard has made this an overwhelming day, with more than a tint of sadness. In addition to my earlier and still present fear that I am never getting back again, I’m now also worried that the fact that I was here won’t even hit me until I’m home, or even worse, in Ben Gurion waiting for my flight. There’s nothing to be done about it, actually, except to try and be as present as possible for the next two days. It’s like trying not to think about elephants.
Another truth that I’ve been reticent to admit: sometimes there are just no words. I can’t make people who don’t understand what it means to be here suddenly get it. I can’t explain what Israel means, as much as I want to and physically need to, as much as as a writer, I think it’s a cop out to say I can’t describe something. It’s exhausting to talk about being here, especially to those with no reference point, for whom Israel is place that simply equals danger, blood and hatred. The responsibility, real or imagined, feels very great.
My new post on Jewschool is about American Jewish entitlement and Israel. You can read it here.
Soundtrack of late: clark gable, the postal service; clementine, the decemberists; heaven release us, voices on the verge; words cannot describe, mirah; step outside, the finches; the rowing song, patty griffin
I’m writing at T’mol Shilshom today, the cafe in Jerusalem where Nathan Englander wrote his short story “In This Way We Are Wise.” Yehuda Amichai wrote here also, there’s actually a chair in the corner called the Amichai chair. Plus, their salads are out of hand delicious. Needless to say, I love this place.
I went to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Thursday, to have a little adventure of the totally different kind. I have in the past had a weird relationship with Tel Aviv, based mainly on the fact that it is relentlessly, monstrously humid, and also, not Jerusalem. I think I’m over it, though.
It doesn’t stop being remarkable to me where my feet can take me, or the bus, for that matter, even if, especially if, it’s the wrong bus. This mobility I would not give up for anything, regardless of how exhausted, uncomfortable and frustrated I am at the end of the day.
I spent a very long time at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which is outstanding. I firmly believe that art museums can fix everything. We need art. It keeps us from going crazy. What makes Tel Aviv so different, in my limited scope, is that it’s so many things living beside one another-progressive politics, religious folks, secular folks, artists, madness. There’s nothing spiritual that I sense in Tel Aviv, which makes it like a breath of fresh (polluted?) air to me.
On Shabbat, back in Jerusalem, I went to find some secular Israelis. I actually did an online search for “cafes open on Shabbat,” and found one in the neighborhood. Cafe Smadar and I have made friends before, because it’s such a great space-movie theatre/coffeehouse with a tree in the middle of the room. It was so nice to be around people who were just having a normal day, seemingly confident in their non Shabbat keeping (assuming that everyone there was Jewish, which is really unlikely). I’m sorry, actually, that I didn’t investigate the possibility sooner. It would have changed a lot.
I’ve been listening to a story by Dan Kennedy, of Moth podcast fame, called “And How Does That Make You Feel?” I won’t ruin it for you, because it is a must hear, but suffice it to say, it is rife with the good advice. Most appropriate for me right now is, “always move forward, always choose action.”
Blogging has been difficult lately, because I’m either exhausted or overwhelmed or both. There’s no such thing as a normal day here, it seems. I’m flustered or I’m angry or I’m desperate with love, but never is it linear. Someone asked me recently if I’m enjoying being on vacation, and I thought, I’m not on vacation. Vacation is sitting on the couch in New York watching TV, or being in Amherst with J and his cat. Israel is work, the kind where I wake up every morning thinking, I can’t believe I’m still here. It is as mixed an emotion as it sounds.There are moments when I never want to leave, that I can’t imagine not spending every day here, attempting to figure out, to quote E, “what the f is going on.”
This isn’t my home, unless, of course, home is where everything is messed up, but ultimately, yours. (Okay, in that sense, it is home.) So often here, I’ve been bewildered by how much it seems like no one is like me, but how much I want to be part of this place in spite of that.
On Tisha B’av, I sat on the Tayelet and thought about mourning. I thought about how my fear of never being able to come back here is omnipresent, how it becomes even more real if I decide not to work for the Jewish community in the future. I thought about being afraid to really feel both kinds of not returning-what they will mean, and what they have meant already.
Some Yehuda Amichai : (from his collection “Songs of Zion the Beautiful”)
“Jerusalem, a place everyone remembers / they have forgotten something but they do not remember what they have forgotten. / And in order to remember I / wear on my face my father’s face. / This is my city where the vessels of my dreams / are filled like oxygen tanks for deep-sea divers. / The holiness there / sometimes turns into love.”