Sunday, September 25, 2011

Am Echad

There's a place and a time that stays constant no matter where a person finds themselves in the world. It doesn't matter what city you're in or what stage of your life, or the clothes you are wearing, the hair trend of the season. And no matter what language swirls around you, the words are the same. That time and place is Shabbat.

Templo Libertad, Buenos Aires, Argentina
When I was in college, I had a chance to go on a service trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina for two-and-a-half weeks. There I was, in a place I'd never been, Spanish words mingling with the sounds of sharp stilettos tapping out their tangos, tired from a day of sightseeing.  I walked past the Templo Libertad in the barrio de Tribunales, with its byzantine motifs and memorial to the 1994 AMIA bombing. It was a history I had only just learned but to one I already felt tightly linked. I was a simple observer of a shared memory of suffering. And then the sun began to set, dripping out its burning orange hues and it was  erev shabbat, uniting us all. Am echad im lev echad.

Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi, Kerala India
Back in high school I found myself on an even more unfamiliar stage, in Kerala, India, staying with a Hindu family, sleeping next to their shrine. We had ridden a painted elephant, been presented with gold-laid oil lamps at the town hall, and our feet had touched the cool, smooth marble of the Taj Mahal a few hours before. I had soaked in the red sunset from the palace reflecting pools and absorbed the warm, harmonic Om of the Baha'i Lotus Temple in New Dehli. I was in another lifetime with sounds, smells, faces so unlike my own and it was the first time that I felt completely and utterly alone, disconnected from everything, the only "other" in a jungle of anonymity. And then, just like that, we stepped into Jew Town, Mattancherry and its synagogue, dating all the way back to 1568. As my fingers rested on the soft red velvet throw that covered the bima, I began to cry. I was home again. Am echad im lev echad.

Tempio Maggiore di Roma, Rome, Italy
Once more, a few years later I found myself in a strange land of "life, love, and wine" during my junior year in college. I was in Rome, Italy for a semester with Temple University to study art and art history. As I roamed through the cobblestone streets and ducked into churches, I was awed and inspired by the explosions of sculptures, frescoes, and paintings galore. Living in a maze of the cross, saints, and angels I again felt like a stranger among the artistically draped shawls and gaping sunglasses of the tall Roman women and the Mohawk-mullets of the Roman men who surrounded me. Again I was the "other" until I stumbled into the Roman Jewish Ghetto in the rione Sant'Angelo. After sampling the specialty of "Carciofi alla giud├Ča" (fried artichokes), I approached the towering Great Synagogue of Rome and walked into a community that dates back to the 2nd century BC. As I slunk through the high iron gate and past the security guards I heard greetings of shabbat shalom from every direction. Am echad im lev echad.

Everywhere I've gone before and since, when Shabbat comes, the time and place stands still and the strange faces become family. I have returned home again and again.


Fast forward to my first Shabbat in Jerusalem. After a long breakfast of our remaining spoils from the shuk I found myself alone, all of my roommates having gone to visit friends and family. After a quiet day of sleeping, cleaning, unpacking and reorganizing, I showered and put on a dress. I brushed on subdued but shiny lavender eyeshadow and sprinkled on some perfume. At 7 in the evening, just as the day was beginning its slow transition into twilight, my friend Naama knocked on my door. I had been planning to go alone when I saw her on gchat and decided to say hello. She immediately offered to spend Friday night with me and to drive with me to Emek Refaim, the German Colony. She had her shiny hair pulled back into a low ponytail, spraying twirls down her back and somehow enlarging her dimples when she smiled. Whenever she laughed it sent a tiny explosion of light radiating every which way. We instantly held each other tight, both delighted and amazed that we had reunited across the ocean. Last year, Naama had arrived in my home turf, Rockland County, NY as a shlichah through Jewish Federation of NY where she was going to do Jewish Israel programming for the local Hebrew Day Schools, JCCs and synagogues. She immediately connected with my family, my father being a Rabbi in the community and my Ima being a sabra herself, and they tried their best to make her feel at home. I had the pleasure of dragging her around New York city, to all my favorite hotspots, most of which included either music or food or flowers.

And now we had switched places. After almost no interaction over the past year we came together again like instant, life-long friends who had in fact only sat with each other two or three times before, sipping tea and picking at pomegranate. In her generous warmth, she wrote herself a list of all different things she wants to bring me from her house that she no longer needs to help me make my room more homey. We danced around the balcony and commented over the pictures I had hung of my family. Her long eyelashes hovered over her kind, brown eyes as we talked intently about everything and anything. We are both elementary school teachers and swapped stories of crazy kids, funny class cheers, curriculum, and discovered that we are almost each others American/Israeli counterparts. After many high fives (and their classic, elementary school teacher variations-- teachers out there, you know what I mean!), we headed out to a community Shabbat dinner, hosted by a local group called "Jerusalem Challenge" at where else, but the local JCC of Jerusalem. I was in a country so different from my own: the streets almost deserted of cars; floods of people walking arm in arm; stores closed since two in the afternoon; palm trees instead of maples and an open-air tent instead of an endless black parking lot. Yet when we walked in, I was home again (Actually eerily similar to home, complete with a warning that it was 'sold out' when it wasn't in order to create hype, a check-in line at the door, people greeting each other loudly in English, and men and women carefully sneaking peeks at one another, albeit clumsily).

Up the stairs there was a large meeting room furnished with about twenty long tables full of salads, challah rolls, hummus, tchinah, schnitzel, ktzetziyot, chicken, steak, potatoes, mushy peas and carrots, heaping piles of rice, and countless bottles of wine. We sang shir hamaalot, waited for hand washing, said the motzi, and dug in. I met Tova, a Canadian who made aliyah eight years ago and Naama's friends who she knew from the university. Throughout the night many people came up, including this one sandy-blond boy who just wouldn't go away. There were announcements and singing as more and more piles of food appeared. Then the oneg began, complete with sparkly yellow drinks. I turned to inquire about them and made friends with a group of Israelis who were huddling around in a tight group. They had all studied and lived together in Jerusalem, now each of them going their own way. After clarifying that I am not, in fact, 17 or even 20, I ended up in a corner with one them. I learned that Manny is from Chaderah, the only son of two Russian immigrants who came to Israel in the 70's. He had big, happy eyes and a sweet smile. Naama kept running back and forth, commenting on the sheer amount of last names questions she had already received; the Shabbat-in-Jerusalem equivalent of getting a phone number. (Because on Shabbat many people don't write, they instead ask for full names so they can find each other on Facebook later!)  After a while I said good bye to Manny and returned home happy and spent, proud of myself for my almost exclusively-speaking-in-Hebrew night. I was in a completely new city but with the coming of Shabbat, it became one in the same: am echad.

The next day I had another treat when another Israeli who I had only known as an honorary "tour guide" of New York four years back came over for another cup of tea. Similar to Naama, Anat and I had spent a grand total of four days together back when I lived on the east side, but instantly clicked. After graciously presenting me with a box of scrumptious lemon tarts she had made that morning, we caught up, leaning over the cheesy gold tablecloth on my makeshift plastic kitchen table. Anat has long, light brown hair and a happy calm about her. She told me about her studies in computer science and the enormity of work before her. She had recently moved in with a boyfriend of one year, who was studying geography and gave historical jeep tours on the side. We reminisced over her visit to New York and she reminded me again and again that I would now be a part of her circle of friends. After sneaking another melt-in-your-mouth lemony cube, Anat navigated the ten-minute walk to her charming nook of an apartment, pointing out miraculous little treasures along the way: a garden that seemed to tower up and up, an unexpected Buddhist shrine, the sushi place we must go to (soon!), the place with the best coffee in the world, a perfectly old and shabby bookstore. They live in the heart of Rehavia where she made me delicious-tasting cafe afuch (basically a cafe latte, but foamier) to couple with a honey cake she had baked in honor of the coming chagim.  We walked to her adorable balcony, furnished with a woven bright red carpet, a tiny metal table with two chairs, and hanging plants. All around were the sounds of children playing, sun pushing through leaves, and the white of Jerusalem stone. We talked until the sun went down and I found my way back to my new home without getting lost once.

Mamilla Mall
Later on, Manny ended up inviting me out to a beautiful cafe in the middle of the Botanical Garden and later for wine in the shadow of the old city walls. At the garden cafe, we huddled over warm onion soup and swapped childhood stories. Then we headed to the parking lot, where we had to play a "game" of tetris/jenga/packman to get his car out of a blocked-in mess of cars that I can only describe as Israeli. After seesawing back and forth for a good twenty minutes and a good deal of getting out of the car to assess the situation, we drove toward the old city and down into the plush, new parking lot of the Mamilla Hotel. We walked through quiet crowds of mostly Orthodox American transplants, under arcs of light blue lights, looking at the exclusive fancy boutiques that lined the street. Then we made our way up to the rooftop bar to take in the view- my first look at the old city since I arrived.  Shivering a little, I leaned against a white, sleek banister hanging over the Tower of David below, turned to my new friend and smiled.  It had taken a year of planning, jumps through many hoops, applications, essays, interviews and months of waiting. It had taken a leap of faith, cajoling of family members and friends, giving away and packing up parts of the only life I really knew. It had taken history and family, hoping and wondering, and taking many chances...but I'd made it to Jerusalem. As I took in this enormous realization, I felt my heart actually jump in my chest. I threw my head back and laughed loudly. "What is it?" Manny gave me a quizzical look. "I'm really here, aren't I?" I whispered, shaking my head in wonder. He smiled and nodded back, turning his head slightly sideways. "Yes... you really are." I sighed dreamily and stared at King David's tower peaking over those ancient walls, memorizing the bright hum of the lights below,  savoring the cool gentle breeze from the hills, and the fact that I really am here.

View of Tower of David from the Mamilla Hotel

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