During our recent trip to Israel, we visited Caesarea, a modern city built amid the ruins of an ancient town from Roman times. We strolled on the beach by the aqueduct that once ran for miles from Mount Carmel, admired the ancient bird mosaics, and marveled at the amphitheater.
We watched a movie about the history of Caesarea, with its many layers of civilization. It was destroyed by earthquakes and wars, only to come back again and again. After we saw the movie, my son remarked that the Crusader period usually seems like a short and unimportant part of the land's history, and yet it lasted two centuries, almost as long as the United States.
Being in Israel gives me a deep sense of history. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, I don't just feel connected to our Jewish history; I feel accountable to that history, much as walking near Independence Hall and the historic district of Philadelphia makes me feel responsible toward American history and the sacrifices made to establish and defend our democracy. While Caesarea reminded me of our human transience, Jerusalem represents our human endurance, putting me in touch with generations past and generations to come. I feel that my words today are part of a conversation that began four millennia ago and is recorded in the Bible, the Talmud, the musings of philosophers and the poetry of pioneers.
Archaeological sites pop up everywhere; I even saw one in a traffic circle in my husband's hometown of Ashdod. When we lived in Israel, a mosiac from an ancient synagogue was discovered outside our apartment and became an instant tourist attraction. And once I recall being in Jerusalem and looking at an excavation cut into the stone that showed the strata of centuries below our feet. Shortly thereafter, I was praying at the Western Wall when a book of the Psalms next to me blew open in the wind to reveal the words of Psalm 90:4, "For in your sight a thousand years are like yesterday that has passed, like a watch in the night."
I lived in Israel from 1978-82 and two of our kids were born there. Since then I've been back half a dozen times. But due to my husband's stroke several years ago, we haven't attempted a trip back since 2009. So it was very exciting to be able to visit for two weeks there this December and spend time with old friends, and Avraham's large family there (he's one of 11 siblings; 9 of whom live in Israel). We were accompanied by two of our grown kids; our eldest daughter came for one week, and our son for two. (In fact, I credit our son for arranging the trip.)
Being away for nearly a decade from a place you have lived makes you see it again with new eyes. In this and upcoming posts, I hope to share a few moments that stood out for me.
One moment was on our first Shabbat. There's nothing like Shabbat in Israel: it IS the day of rest or recreation for just about everyone. Many people now have Friday off, so the Israeli weekend is Thursday evening through Saturday night. The stores are busy with people shopping for Shabbat. Delicious scents of cooking pervade the neighborhood. Stores close by mid-afternoon on Friday and there is a palpable sense of Shabbat on the way, whether you live in a "religious" (Orthodox) neighborhood or not.
On Shabbat afternoon we had lunch at one of Avraham's brother's homes. Israel is a small country, so it's delightfully common for grown kids and grandkids to come home for Shabbat. (In fact, Israelis are fabulously social and gregarious in general, so much so that I wonder how introverts manage). In the gentle December sun, we were seated out in the garden with flowers blooming and palm trees shading overhead. The food was delicious, the conversation flowed, and the atmosphere was pleasantly Mediterranean. I felt a real sense of Shabbat Shalom, Sabbath peace.
Then the conversation turned to one of Avraham's niece's sons, who at just 16-1/2 is about to take his first round of tests before mandatory military service. His mother confided that she is really worried. For her and her sisters, going in the army (they lived on a kibbutz) was kind of fun, she said. But for the men she knows, it's too often been a source of trauma. Her coworkers, her own husband, and her father (as he later told me) have seen and experienced things during military service that left them with PTSD or experiences too painful to discuss. She hopes that won't happen to her two sons, but she's afraid that it will. She thinks it might be good if her son gets an office job in the military, but knows that he will probably aspire to be in a combat unit because of the prestige it holds among his peers.
I felt for our niece, raising her sons to be sensitive and caring, and then, at the age that we send our kids to college, sending them to the military (2 years, 8 months for men and 2 years, 3 months for women). In the USA, military service is voluntary, but in Israel it's required (although not fulfilled by all, including most of the ultra-Orthodox, which is a sore point). Her father and husband both served in combat units, and maybe her sons will, too. They are part of a decades long conflict with no end in sight.
This wasn't the moment to analyze the politics of the conflict; it was a moment of recognition. A recognition that this is all part of the Israeli reality: a beautiful and dynamic country, sunshine and Shabbat, family and friends, and yet along with it the constant underlying reality of national conflict and military service for one's children. When we work for or pray for peace upon Israel, it shouldn't just be an abstraction, but a real and urgent yearning for Shalom.
Former PCS Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan shares her thoughts (and some original photos) and invites your comments.