Months of unhealthy sleep patterns had worn a groove that was impervious to relaxation meditations, essential oils, herbal teas, and altered eating habits. I was feeling significantly older each day in ways that I could not hide, even with good make-up and a genuine smile. I was certain that the serious snow-globe shaking of total extraction from my “daily grind” by way of a flight nearly half-way across the world to the Land of my People – a land completely familiar and totally foreign at the same time – would be sure to do the trick.
On Wednesday, I was deposited by a truly kind and honest taxi driver at the empty apartment of a dear friend, in the enormous city of Tel Aviv. Initially exhilarated from my first foray for dinner on Wednesday evening, and anticipating days of sight-seeing, I went to sleep with big plans for the next day (Thursday).
I awoke Friday morning so refreshed I was almost able to forgive myself for the “gluttony” of more than 24 hours of deep and restorative sleep. With the help of my dear friend R’ Eva Sax-Bolder, I made it to complete forgiveness before 7 a.m. (her midnight) and spent the next few hours taking care of left over business.
For me, there is nothing more life-giving and uplifting than waking just before sunrise and watching the skies brighten. Thus, it has always puzzled me that I, who SO loves this liminal time of day, wouldn’t be inspired by the sheer pleasure of it to awake daily to it’s glory. Those who don’t live inside me find it even more puzzling and always have such sound and well-intentioned advice for getting up with the dawn. And yet, most days, getting out of bed is the most difficult thing I do and seeing dawn is a rare occurrence.
What I have come to accept (even as I don’t fully understand it) is that some of us are designed to feel heaviness with the same intensity as we feel delight. I am grateful for the lightness of being that I am able to feel with even the smallest of provocation, so I must also embrace that part of me that feels the weight and darkness.
Friday was filled with exercise, exploration, and exhilaration. I walked from the center of Tel Aviv toward Old Yafo/יפו (or Jaffa for the the English speakers). I am so delighted by the names of the streets that I nearly giggle as I walk … from Hess, I am on Yona haNavi (Jonah the Prophet), I take a turn south on HaKovshim explicitly so that I can walk west again but on Ge’ula/גאולה. Ge’ula means redemption in Hebrew and although walking on a street called redemption in the US might not even phase me, the Hebrew word has such potent liturgical, psycho-spiritual energy that I walk differently as I traverse this street to the beach. I don’t notice as I am now on the Promenade all the way to Old Jaffa, but the street delight could have continued ~ Ezra haSofer (the Scribe), Nechemiah, Daniel … the bible is coming to life all around me and we aren’t even at the archeological sites, we’re just talking street names.
To my keen olfactory sense (which, trust me, is not always a blessing) the sea air smells fabulous and I enjoy watching the myriad surfers defying the signage indicating that no one is to be in the water when there is no life guard on duty (there is not a life guard to be seen).
As we descended into Tel Aviv on Tuesday, I drew an angel card to accompany me – Light. No surprise, I thought. Our northern hemisphere is approaching the darkest day and the holiday season of light is nearly upon us with Chanukah and Christmas arriving on the same night this year – December 24th. In addition, bringing light to the darkness is becoming an important theme for so many of us who fear the political darkness that is feeding on fear and anger.
Friday morning’s angel was Freedom which makes sense when you see that this angel is standing naked on the beach in the sunshine. Had I drawn this in Columbus, it would have been all about finding meaning in the word; here, it had clear (naked, one could say) meaning.
Though I had no plan of getting naked, it is warm enough that I quickly begin to remove layers and ended up in only my short-sleeved dress by the time I arrive in Yafo. I pass all kinds of people – tourist and natives – and I am beginning to suspect that people pass one another here on the opposite side than we pass one another in the states when I realize I must quicken my steps to meet my tour.
Sandeman’s is a company that offers free tours in cities around the world and my first experience with this was absolutely outstanding! Our tour guide was knowledgeable and extremely pleasant and, for two hours, showed us all around Old Jaffa with much historical information about the many populations that had occupied this city over the centuries. I was particularly taken with the mythology (biblical, Greek, European, and modern Israeli) woven throughout his sharing the history and archeology of this ancient port city and its buildings, and loved that he showed us “evidence” of the Hellenist tale of the beautiful princess with the over-prideful mother who ended up tied to the rock that now has an Israeli flag rising from it in the harbor. He pulls out a map of the constellations and we all giggle. We chat with one another and enjoy the beautiful day.
Among the storied buildings we pass in Yafo are a brothel that now is one of the priciest locations at which to host a wedding reception, an Armenian monastery made of a type of sandstone found only in Israel and California, and the storied St. Peter’s Church, a Franciscan church built during the Ottoman empire over the remains of a church built during the Crusades. We are told that the alter faces west and this is related to Peter’s famous dream of the vessel containing non-kosher animals that he, as a Jew, would not have eaten, but in which he was told, “What God has cleansed, you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). Peter interpreted this divine vision as permission to forgo Jewish law and preach Christianity to Jews as well as pagans. After this event, we are told, Christianity evolved from a small sect to the world religion it is today. I will let my Christian clergy friends tell me how close I have gotten to correctly telling the story, but we also walked by the home of Simon the Tanner, where Peter is said to have stayed when he had this vision.
Near the end of our tour, our guide tells us he has something special to show us as if everywhere we looked was somehow ordinary. We walk back to a location in between the narrow streets of the old city and the enormous luxury condominium construction project to find this artistic homage to the end of the Jaffa orange orchards. The tree and it’s fruit are suspended above the ground in a giant stone piece resembling an avocado pit. It very effectively depicts how the trees were severed from the earth. You can still get a Jaffa orange, our guide tells us, but it will have been grown in Spain.
I am in this ancient land, so old it vibrates with layers and layers of stories about life and determination, and yet some, like this one about how we “pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” are stories we have not yet learned from no matter how often we hear them.
Before beginning my walk back to Tel Aviv, I stop into a Yemenite Museum – a small museum which is more of the backstory to the workshop and gallery of artist Ben Zion David. I walked through the doorway from the street and that olfactory sense brought me much joy. My first conversation was with a young man who poured me a cup of Yemenite coffee (infused with a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger – think chai coffee). We spoke about learning a new language and the frustration that he insisted I must release. You must embrace imperfection, he said, with a knowing that seemed far beyond his years. He shared that he was an actor in his native Bulgaria and coming to Israel, he realized his most precious skill ~ communication ~ was going to be tested. (Note to self ~ this is the same thing that Joanie mentions in a subsequent conversation about losing the thing you are really good at ~ making conversation. This is very disorienting and painful to a conversationalist like me I am realizing quickly.)
“Embrace imperfection,” he encourages me before turning me over to a video about the history of Yemenite Jews and their migration to Israel both before and after Israel became a state. The film also shares the history of the family of Ben Zion David, this electrical engineer turned artist, who could not resist the calling to his family’s lineage as filigree artists and his jewelry and sacred objects are glorious. (A familiar story to this lawyer who couldn’t resist the calling to serve as a Judaic ritual artist.)
I go into the gallery and spend an incredible hour or so with a woman named Dina who quickly becomes one of my Women of Valor. We talk about many things and she shares with me the extraordinary pastries that keep arriving from the incredibly talented pastry artist around the corner, apparently preparing for a large party and sharing the overflow. There is a very festive pre-Shabbat feeling buzzing around as people come in and out – shoppers and friends. Even though it is my first real day of exploring and I am well aware of my weakness for jewelry and delightful people, and the significant limit of my bank account, I know that I must take one of the rimonim with me. Rimonim (pomegranates) are VERY special in Judaism … the numerous sweet seeds symbolic of the study of Torah. The artist has exquisite rimonim for placing on Torah handles and other gorgeous judaica, ladden with rimonim, but even the smallest are beyond my purse. The necklaces, however … I find a silver one with a small red stone which is almost right, but not quite. Dina finds another one with only silver, but that one, too, isn’t mine. Then, she pulls out one with my birthstone – a tiny round opal with luminous blue hues, and it is settled! Dina didn’t know this is my birthstone, but she, like me, “believes in these things.” She invites me for a Yemini feast on Shabbat afternoon with her whole family, but I don’t have a car and the buses don’t run on Shabbat and we agree to stay in touch. I hope we do …
My return to Tel Aviv feels like a much longer walk than the walk down to Yafo. My feet are tired and I am hungry. I hoof it up to the Shuk HaCarmel, arriving just in time to take advantage of the fresh vegetables (one has NEVER tasted cucumber until one tastes an Israeli cucumber I discovered today, wishing I had purchased many more!) and dried fruit and nuts as the stalls begin to close for Shabbat. I stop at a stall to buy felafel in pita, with tasty humus, tihini, Israeli salad (cucumber, onion and tomato), and delicious pickled veg and cabbage. The atmosphere is festive and one of the men in the stall begins offering everyone a little paper cup of Finlandia vodka. The warmth in my throat and cheeks feels good. We are heading into my first Shabbat in Israel and I am filled with the light and freedom of the day.
I buy a few groceries and Chanukah candles on my way back to the apartment. When I arrive, I cannot find my friend’s Shabbes candles or candlesticks (I considered bringing my own candlesticks and Chanukiah to Israel but that seemed so silly at the time). So I improvise with the Chanukah candles, blessing the Sabbath light, the fruit of the vine, and the sanctity of the day and my freedom to observe it.