Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Circle Closes

Is life a line or a circle? It’s a good question, but also a misleading one because, by framing the concept in mathematical terms, it makes it sound like the answer must be one or the other, a line or a circle. But the reality—not in the world of geometric grids, perhaps, but in life as we actually live it—is that life is a line and a circle, both a journey forward and a journey back around, both a trip into the future and an endless journey back into the past.

The circle part is the easier one to notice. In 1966, when I was a bar-mitzvah boy and my parents, acting entirely uncharacteristically, sent me off to Israel on the Jewish Agency program then called the Bar-Mitzvah Pilgrimage, we were lodged at a youth village near Givat Ada (now part of Binyamina) called Alonei Yitzchak. From there we made different trips to various parts of Israel, staying overnight in some places and returning back to the village when the destination was close enough not to require an overnight stay. I remember those tiyyulim to varying degrees, but the one that has stayed with me the most clearly over all these many years—now more than forty-five of them—is our trip to Jerusalem.

It was 1966. Israel was all of eighteen years old. The Six Day War, in the course of which Jerusalem would be reunited, was still a year in the future and the city was still divided in two by barbed wire fences and military checkpoints. The Mandelbaum Gate, located at the end of Shmuel Ha-Navi Street, was still very much in place and I recall the experience of being brought close up to it so we could peer through the barriers at the walls of the Old City being guarded in the distance by Jordanian soldiers. And that, other than when we were brought up to the roof of some tall, bullet-scarred building on what is now called Kikar Tzahal to peer through coin-operated telescopes at whatever we could see of the Old City from that lofty vantage point, was all we were to know of Old Jerusalem. Perhaps I was too young to feel disappointed, but New Jerusalem was more than exciting enough for me. I remember it all remarkably clearly, especially the nighttime scene in Kikar Tziyon and along Ben Yehudah Street. Yad Vashem, now a state-of-the-art museum, was still more like a series of ramshackle galleries housed in several one-story buildings in those days, but it had a profound effect on me nevertheless. The now-mostly-forgotten memorial to President Kennedy, called Yad Kennedy, was brand new in 1966 and that too had a real effect on me as well. (In retrospect, it seems odd to equate the two. But at the time, lacking perhaps the perspective of a life-long student of the Shoah, I remember being struck by the two as symbolizing, each in its own way, the horror of senseless violence.) But what struck me the most was the New City itself.

This was, of course, the Old Israel. Public telephones, when they worked at all, worked with tokens you had to buy in newspaper kiosks or at the post office and which you somehow never had quite enough of. International phone calls—the kind you made to your parents when you were lonely or needed more money—could only be made at special international telephone centers located mostly in the central post offices of most big cities. Not all public toilets featured actual toilet bowls. (Perhaps the less said in this specific regard the better.) Israel, even at eighteen, was brand new, the overwhelming majority if its citizenry either immigrants from elsewhere or the children of such immigrants. The Shoah, of course, even not within the walls of Yad Vashem, was the unseen backdrop against which current events still unfolded. (That is still true, I think, to a certain extent. But not in the same way it was in the 1960s, when the world was filled with survivors still in their thirties and forties, and child survivors who had come to British Palestine even before independence were still on active duty as soldiers of the IDF or studying in university.)

And into the middle of all that somehow parachuted myself, the young me whose parents were still dithering about whether to permit him—me—to take the F-train into the city on my own. It was, to say the very least, an experience that changed my life. Or, to speak less charitably, that would have changed my life if I had already had enough of one for it to be changed. But the bottom line was that my visit to Israel, and particularly my visit to Jerusalem, set the course for my life that I feel myself still following. It’s been a long time. And it’s been a long journey. Mostly, it’s been a line. But it’s also been a kind of a circle.

When we visited Jerusalem, we stayed at Kiryat Moriah. Now Kiryat Moriah is a huge, modern Jewish Agency campus that hosts all kinds of tour groups, seminars, Birthright groups, and missions from abroad. But then, back in 1966, it was something more akin to a slightly dilapidated youth village set down between the southern suburb of Talpiyot and the apple orchards of Ramat Rachel, one of Israel’s oldest kibbutzim. It was also on the border, situated (if I remember correctly) adjacent to the strip of No Man’s Land that separated Israel from Jordan and far more similar in its feel to Alonei Yitzchak, “our” youth village, than to the college campus it resembles today. And it was there that we stayed, feeling brave for being so close to the Jordanian patrols we were assured were passing by menacingly on their side of the line as we slept peacefully on ours. It’s strange—I have only the haziest recollections of all sorts of things that came afterwards in my life, but that experience of visiting divided Jerusalem as a bar-mitzvah boy remains with me as a kind of watershed event that divided and still divides the part of my life that came before it from the part that followed.

Nothing stays the same. Within a year, Jerusalem was united, its earlier iteration as a divided city merely a recollection shared by those of us who were present actually to experience it. And, soon enough, I myself moved into the next part of adolescence, the part that involves some awkward combination of physical, mental, emotional, hormonal, and (slightly) spiritual growth, the part that relegated my own earlier iterations to the realms of pleasant and unpleasant memory. Kiryat Moriah too changed, as noted above, but only cosmetically: physically it remained where it always had been: on Ha-Askan Street in the part of Jerusalem now called Arnona. And it was right there, on the street facing the main gate into Kiryat Moriah, that Joan and I just spent the first three weeks of our summer vacation time trying to make our priorly unfurnished apartment into a living space that could accommodate people actually living there.

It all worked out beautifully. The place is lovely. The light, airy, sunny space we recalled from when we first saw the place was just as recalled. We found, even, a tenant—actually two tenants, young men pursuing degrees in Jewish education at the Pardes Institute—who will stay in the place until we can return next summer. Everything we needed, we somehow were able to find in some combination of the furniture stores on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, the lighting fixture shops in Talpiyot, the shuk in Jaffa, and, of course, the giant, magnificently air-conditioned IKEA in Rishon Letziyyon. And so the circle closed: in the some parallel universe, the thirteen-year-old me is still lying in bed at night somewhere in Kiryat Moriah wondering if there really are Jordanian soldiers just a few hundred yards away, but in this one, in the iteration of the multiverse that seems to us all to constitute unchallengeable reality, the considerably-older-me just spent three weeks sleeping right across the street, worried not about Jordanian soldiers but about the VISA bill that, just as surely as dawn the night, will inevitably follow our return from Zion.

Other circles also closed. We had lunch last Shabbat with the woman who, twenty-eight years ago, was our Lamaze teacher when Joan was pregnant with Max, our oldest child. We had a lovely visit with cousins of Joan’s whom we hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. I went to the Kotel, closed to Jewish visitors from Israel in 1966 but which I visited for the first time in 1974 when I was a counselor on a summer teen tour to Israel run by the then-robustly-functioning American Zionist Youth Federation, and had a fleeting vision of myself in that place in that summer between college and JTS trying, mostly (I fear) unsuccessfully, to explain to my young charges why the place mattered, why it was so meaningful for us to be able to visit the Wall not under the begrudging aegis of the Jordanian government or the United Nations, but under the watchful protection of a mighty Jewish army protecting the citizens of an independent Israel and their guests from harm.

All in all, we had a fabulous three weeks. In many ways, and excluding the year we spent in Israel when Max was born, it was the most meaningful, most satisfying visit to Israel we’ve ever had. There are so many more stories I want to tell, so much more I want to share with you all about our experiences. But for the moment I’ll have to content myself with what I’ve written above, with the bare outline of what it meant for us to take a few baby steps forward towards being part of Israel not just emotionally but physically and financially in a way we have dreamt about forever, but only now have found the wherewithal—and the nerve—actually to undertake.

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