Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Shimmer and Awe of Israel

The thing about aliyah is that a lot of people move to Israel and spend the first few weeks or months or even years marveling at the awesomeness that is Israel. For those who show up and move to Tel Aviv or another very "American" city (I describe Tel Aviv as Miami with Hebrew), perhaps the shimmer of awe isn't so bright, but for those who move to Jerusalem or other holy cities or superbly historic locales where tour groups in matching hats tend to outnumber actual citizens, there's a sense of wonder, I think.

Old meets new in Jerusalem with the light rail (the smoothest ride ever) and the historic buildings set up by old-world bajillionaires and formerly occupying governments like the British. You can hop off the rail and shop at GAP, Crocs, and other major brands at the Mamila Mall, whose secret is that when the Temple is rebuilt, the shops will become the locale for purchasing your sacrifices. One day you're buying a shirt bedecked with Swarovski crystals, the next you're picking up a few goats and some fruit for your sin offering!

Going to the shuk aka Machane Yehuda aka the giant outdoor market with tiny alleyways and a bustle of movement and smells of fish and cracked-open pomegranate and spices feels quintessentially Middle Eastern. I'll admit that every time I step into the shuk, there's a feeling of moving out of a space I've known -- the fluorescent lights of a midwestern grocery store to the screams of men behind piles of bananas and avocados and melons trying to lure customers in. At the same time, the shuk is filled with modern amenities like Aroma coffee shop where you can get your fanciest of coffee beverages or Re:Bar the new froyo/smoothie chain with every fruit and vegetable combo tossed with your own shot of wheatgrass if you prefer (not for the gluten-free folks).

The variety of people, too, seem to paint the best picture of old-meets-new, east-meets-west. The men, in particular, seem to offer the stark contrast of ideologies and observances the best, with men in black-and-white seen as the old world, modesty at it's utmost and modern Israelis in blue jeans and button downs or T-shirts of brands that are too expensive in Israel. A mix of Ethiopians and Filipinos (often seen pushing the elderly), speakers of Yiddish and French, Anglos that stick out like a sore thumb most of the time, strollers filled to the brim with children, screaming babies, and old men shuffling about stroking their beards, women moving faster than the speed of light, teenagers at pastry shops wasting the day. I recently saw a Hassidic man on a motorized bicycle, black and white, beard and peyot flying in the wind, hat tightly on his head, speeding up Yafo in between the light rail trains moving in either direction, his bike making the sound of a tired engine. It was a sight to be seen.

I don't know what it is about this place, but the awe I feel for it is not the type of awe that people normally feel when they see something brilliant or unexpected for the first time. It's more muted, more internal, more personal. It's like my neshama has been here the whole time, like my body and eyes and nose and ears are simply catching up. Nothing surprises me -- no scent or site, no inconvenience or frustration. For me, it's all part of a continuous tapestry that I am lucky enough to experience day after day. It's just life, and I'm living it.

In many ways, I think I am like my father, and I think my little brother Joe also takes much of this on in his personality. A sense of calm, of rolling with the punches, of appreciating people and scenery and history. For all of my neurotic moments and tendency toward being a bit hot headed, I've never been the kind of person who feels a sense of perpetual urgency. I can sit at the bank for two hours, and it doesn't bother me. I can sit outside on a park bench and watch the world spin fast around me and be contented with watching the people, the breeze through the trees, the cats swirling around the Jerusalem stone, and I'm content. I can play the part, of course, of the irritable, impatient, rude Israeli passerby. That's what we call survival skills, folks. In New York City, I drove like a NYC cab driver out of necessity.

But I'm simpler than that, despite what most may think. I appreciate silence, I appreciate the slow and patient approach to life. And in that way, I'll never be Israeli. I will speak the language, eat the food, shop in the stores, relish in the smells and sounds, but I'll never lose my patience or internal awe for Eretz Yisrael.

Why? This place is a gift. No matter how many people fight over it, no matter the amount of tension and unrest, this land means so much to so many people crossing the bounds of gender, religion, creed, and color. If there is any place and any time in which I should be thankful above all else for what my life has become, it is now, and it is here.

Contrasts are beautiful, and Israel is and will always be a land of the starkest, most briliant contrasts.