To Jerusalem and Back
by Rabbi Danielle Upbin
I was eight years old when I fell in love with Israel. I know it had to do with those school posters with the varied landscapes, smiling Israelis with peculiar hats, The Land of Milk and Honey… and Jaffa oranges. In Bible class, I announced that one day, I would travel to Israel to see the pillar of salt that was “Lot’s wife”. The Israelis in my class gave me a funny look.
I had to wait a bit, but my first trip to Israel was the happy summer of ninth grade. After months of begging, my parents sent me on a six-week teen tour focused on the “Kibbutz experience”. I was excited for all of it. Disappointed as I was that “Lot’s wife” would not be a stop on the tour… or any tour for that matter.
The bigger eye opener, however, was my first job on Kibbutz: cleaning pots of PORK from dinner the night before. Really. Who knew that Shomer Ha’tzair (“The Young Guards”), the founders of that Kibbutz, were not even remotely observant Jews? That didn’t come up in my Orthodox Jewish day school education. I had a lot to learn (especially about cleaning pots – a job I wasn’t asked to do again). Other than “Kitchen Duty”, Kibbutz life was amazing. The people were kind and strong. Every experience was new. I welcomed waking at dawn to plant seeds in the fields, working in factories that produced dog food and pharmaceuticals (not the same building). I felt like I was in an “I Love Lucy” episode! And have you ever eaten pomegranates fresh off the tree? Oh Yeah. Eventually, I even got used to the stench of fertilizer.
That experience was so formative that I enthusiastically returned to Israel the next summer on a teen leadership seminar.
Throughout my teenage years, I had a huge crush on Israel. An Israeli flag prominently hung on my bedroom wall. I couldn’t wait to live there one day. I had it all figured out: I would join the Israeli army, rise to the ranks of a Mosad agent, and simultaneously serve in the performance corp (Le’hakat Tze’va’i). In this grand plan, I would go on to study international politics, become a diplomat and live in Herzaliya Pituach (a wealthy neighborhood outside of Tel Aviv). Yup.
After high school, I settled in Israel for a “gap year”, fully expecting to stick with the plan. But as they say, “man plans and God laughs” – or however you say that in Hebrew. For one thing, every Israeli I met, men and women, immediately discouraged me from joining the army (which pretty much gutted the rest of my diplomatic career…). Derailed as I was, I was still hopeful that the year ahead would yield incredible experiences and memories for a lifetime.
Where did I begin? I enrolled in an Israeli trade school for arts and technology. It didn’t seem to bother anyone that I couldn’t even draw a stick figure. While the Judaic classes were wonderful, I cried through every art period – except photography. So, with a new mission, camera in hand, I set out to capture the nooks and crannies of archeology, glistening olive trees and wizened faces in the shuk.
In turn, the city of Jerusalem captured my heart. It was amazing to experience antiquity and novelty through the same lens. My travels took me to flourishing neighborhoods and some scary places along the way. I met tons of young people from all over the world, all of them, like me, gushing with ideology. All of them Ohavei Tzi-yon – Lovers of Zion.
I really did love life in Jerusalem – traversing Ben Yehudah street and the Old City. Preparing for Shabbat was unique for sure – like no other place in the world. I spent hours roaming in Mahaneh Yehudah, or sitting in cafes. I was humbled by the interplay of antiquity and modernity.
But at the same time, Jerusalem had a certain quality that was hard to bear. As peaceful as some neighborhoods could be, there was a constant undercurrent: a rising din, a disharmony of religious life and culture clash, history being brought to bear on the present, political fury, debate at high decibels, right vs. left and everything in between.
As much as I loved the idea of Jerusalem, actually living there gave me a headache.
So, one Friday morning, on a whim, a friend convinced me to hop on a bus to the northern city of Safed. We didn’t have a plan, just an idea. On the bus, I sat with an unexpected angel, disguised as a friend from long ago, who told me to move there, that I would love it. She said living in Safed would fulfill dreams I didn’t even know I had. A mystical city with powerful blue doors, wadis to hike, holy cemeteries of saints. She was “living the life” in a habitable cave writing children’s books.
I told her about my conflict with Jerusalem, and she explained what was going on. She said, “In mystical thought, the four Holy Cities correspond to the four elements: Jerusalem is “fire” – originally from the ancient Temple, but now from the “high energy” that runs through its inhabitants. Safed, on the other hand, is associated with “air”, because of the elevation (a city literally set in the clouds) and spiritual eccentricities of its past and present. Hebron then, is likened to “earth”, the holy site of a prominent biblical burial plot. Tiberius is obviously the element of “water”, built up along Lake Kinneret.”
It struck me that I was literally traveling from fire to air. I took a deep breath (maybe I should have waited until I got off the bus…) and immediately felt relieved.
I took my angel’s advice and after that weekend away, I returned to “the fire”, packed up my stuff and kissed the art school good bye. I decided not to live in a cave, and instead enjoyed many months in a beautiful seminary for women. Everything about Safed was magnificent – the mystics, artists, hikes, landscape, and especially the estimated “one-thousand-year-old” trees in front of my building.
Eventually, I was called back home. Not Jerusalem home, but all the way back home to New York City. The spiritual eccentricity had gotten the best of me and my parents through it would be “better” for me to re-integrate to American college life. Far from my original plan anyway, I obliged. Safed was a blast, but I had served my time there. I would never forget the feeling of making my home in the sky.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, would never leave my heart. I have been back there many times since. Her winding streets are a testament to my own personal narrative: the constant hills, stray cats, scrumptious pastries, the stillness of the Sabbath coming. No wonder Jerusalem is the subject of so many love letters. I often wonder what the rest of my life would have looked like had I gotten used to the “heat”, had I not heeded to the voices that told me to change my course. Mostly, though, when I think of Jerusalem, I think of her future, wishing her calm and security. I dream of her name’s sake – Jerusalem – Iru Salem – “The City of Peace”.
May 24th (28 Iyyar) commemorates the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, “Yom Yerushalayim”, the victory of the Six Day War in 1967. It is understood by many that this victory was nothing short of a miracle. Nevertheless, the “City of Peace”, in many ways is still in pieces. She continues to pay the price of war, as religious and political discord tear at her seams.
In the spirit of reconciliation, I invite us to pray, with deep and humbling intent, for the Peace of Jerusalem, today and every day. In the 14th prayer of the daily Amidah, we recite:
Have mercy, Lord and return to Jerusalem, Your city. May Your Presence dwell there as You have promised. Build it now, in our days and for all time. Reestablish there the majesty of David, Your servant. Praise are You, God, who builds Jerusalem.
וְלִירוּשָׁלַיִם עִירְךָ בְּרַחֲמִים תָּשׁוּב. וְתִשְׁכּן בְּתוכָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ. וּבְנֵה אותָהּ בְּקָרוב בְּיָמֵינוּ בִּנְיַן עולָם. וְכִסֵּא דָוִד מְהֵרָה לְתוכָהּ תָּכִין
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, בּונֵה יְרוּשָׁלָיִם
I pray that Jerusalem will soon be built up with stones of joy instead of tears.
I pray that God’s sheltering Presence will return to her, as promised,
bringing tranquility and wholeness (shalem) to a city still divided.
May Redemption come in the form of harmony and understanding among her inhabitants.
And may the “Fire” of Jerusalem, burn again, with love – not strife – for all humanity.
Bimhera b’yameinu – Speedily in our Days.