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Two Weeks of Study In Israel

07/22/2011 12:00:26 PM

Jul22

Rabbi George Gittleman

It’s been almost three weeks since Laura and I returned from our trip to Israel and many folks in the congregation have asked me when I was going to write about the trip. I am not sure why, but this trip/experience has been particularly hard for me to “blog” about. Below you will find my best attempt at a partial expression of my most recent Israel experience.

We arrived late Thursday afternoon and went from Ben Gurion Airport to a roof top apartment a block from the beach, in the center of Tel Aviv. I found the place online – Trip Advisor – and had a number of interesting e-mail conversations with the owner of the building; a Brooklyn-born woman who grew up in Israel, had spent many years in Paris, and was now back in Tel Aviv. We spent our first Shabbat there recovering from jet lag and walking the streets and beaches of this “first modern Hebrew city”, as Tel Aviv is sometimes called. It’s amazing to realize that 100 years ago there was nothing but sand where now stands a city of almost 500,000 people that is comparable to places like Barcelona or San Francisco in culture and commerce. Another name for Tel Aviv is “The City That Never Sleeps”, since, unlike Jerusalem, where much of the city shuts down over Shabbat, Tel Aviv’s beaches, parks, bars, cafés, restaurants, shopping, and cosmopolitan lifestyle runs 24/7.

Our short visit to Tel Aviv left us wanting to come back for more but as Shabbat came to a close we checked out of our little apartment, picked up our rental car and drove to Jerusalem. More people have died on Israel’s roads than in all its wars and driving can be pretty scary. As Amir, our good friend and host while we were in Jerusalem, said, “the rule of the road here is to fill any space.” If you are used to driving in Manhattan or Boston, I suspect you would feel more at home but coming from Santa Rosa, Laura and I felt like we were risking our lives every time we got behind the wheel.

Jerusalem is only a 30-minute drive from Tel Aviv and we made it without any problems—until just before sunset when we arrived on the edge of an Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. As Shabbat wasn’t yet technically over, we were suddenly accosted by a group of mostly young men screaming, “Shabbas! Shabbas!” I pulled over and as the group passed by our car, one of the hecklers actually hit the roof of our car. Welcome to Jerusalem!, we thought to ourselves, a city whose tensions are as readily apparent as its spiritual depth and beauty.

The main goal of our trip was to improve our Modern Hebrew language skills so, while in Jerusalem, Laura and I went to an amazing Ulpan (Hebrew language intensive) called Ulpan Or. Ulpan Or has created its own method to teach Hebrew focused mainly on one-on-one tutoring. We spent each morning with our personal tutors and every afternoon we went on a tour to some place in the city to take our Hebrew from the classroom to the real world. Almost all the teachers were youngish (25-30) women, many from Traditional/Orthodox families. My main teacher was Hanna, a mother of 3, Modern Orthodox whose secular husband is a career soldier in the IDF. Hanna and I spent a lot of time talking “religion” and learning about each other’s lives—all in Hebrew. Hanna defines patience! I might be able to order food or find a bathroom in Hebrew but having complex conversations is a real challenge. Getting to know Hanna and the other instructors at Ulpan Or was as worthy an experience as any Laura and I had while in Jerusalem. My Hebrew is still not where I would like it to be, but I am so grateful to Ulpan Or for the help and the experience, which I hope will not be my last.

Our friend Amir lives in Har Gilo, a bedroom community—or, depending on your perspective, a settlement—about 15 minutes from the city center. Class began at 8:15 am, so every morning we would rise with the sun, more or less, throw on our clothes and drive to the German Colony in Jerusalem where Ulpan Or has its office. That means we had to pass through a security checkpoint at least twice every day, coming and going from Har Gilo. At first, the checkpoint made us nervous, but in two weeks of passing back and forth to Har Gilo, we never had a problem nor did we see anyone else – Israeli or Palestinian, bothered in a significant way.

We met Amir on our last congregational trip – he was our guide – and have been in close touch ever since. Amir radiates a love for Israel. A tour guide for over 30 years, he has an exceptional knowledge of almost every aspect of Israeli society. He is also a bible scholar, with an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew University – a very prestigious degree. In truth, Amir has become more like an older brother than an Israeli acquaintance. He and his family—his wife, Hannah, and three grown sons, Oded, Ehud and Gilad—could not have been more welcoming to us. Nevertheless, we spent a lot of time arguing about all things Jewish, especially religion and state in Israel, and the nature of Jewish identity.

I have always been challenged by the notion of a Jewish national identity and, up until I met Amir, I believed and argued that there was no such a thing; Israel was a state where six million Jews lived but it was not a “Jewish State” because, among other things, a truly “Jewish state” would be run by “Jewish law” and it would more consistently reflect “Jewish values”— neither of which seem to prevail in contemporary Israel. I took a pretty radical position, originally articulated by the well- known Israeli scientist and philosopher, Yeshiahu Leibowotz (may his memory be for a blessing), with whom I met and studied in 1991 at The Shalom Hartman Institute. While I am not comfortable with all the implications of a Jewish national identity – the blending of religion and state is especially troubling to me—I now recognize, thanks to Amir, the reality and importance of such an identity in Israel today. To be clear, a Jewish national identity doesn’t preclude a connection to religious or cultural Judaism; it is a matter of focus. For National Jews the existence of the State of Israel is their primary touch point for what it means to be a Jew today.

These topics, among many others, fueled long, often heated discussions with Amir. We were all out of the house during the day, but in the evening we would meet for a meal – Amir is quite the cook – and occasionally tempers would flare. But that intensity is one of the beauties of Israeli society—more of a virtue than something to be avoided.

Besides Amir and his family, Laura and I have a number of dear friends in Israel as well as a cousin of mine who moved from Omaha, Nebraska, to Israel to serve in the Army and is now about to enter Tel Aviv University. The beauty of our connection there is that, even when years have passed since our last visit, when we get together it as if we were never gone. That may be the thing I love the most about my time in Israel: there is very little tolerance for small talk; almost every conversation is significant and meaningful. After all, with so many challenges to grapple with—and Israeli’s grapple with plenty every day—who has time to waste on superficialities?

Thu, July 9 2020 17 Tammuz 5780