My first (and only, so far) trip to Israel was when I was 21, somewhere in the early 90s. At the time I was terrifically busy maintaining a state of self-loathing and fear of my future, and I was depressed and unimpressed by the Holy Land’s hubbub and history.
I had come with a volunteer group that placed college students on Army bases to perform menial tasks in exchange for a plane ticket. I thought wearing the IDF uniform and combat boots made me look tough, but since we weren’t issued guns, I smoked a lot of shitty TIME cigarettes to keep up the image. My first “tour” was near Chaifa and I enjoyed the company of the other fun-loving Americans, mostly East Coasters, in my group. But when I transferred after three weeks to another base in the hotter, drier Negev with a bunch of nasty, catty girls who wore lipstick to KP duty, I dropped out.
After tooling around on dusty buses for a few days, I found myself one evening in a Tel Aviv youth hostel, feeling sorry for myself. Bono was on MTV – the video was “One,” and he was sitting in a dark bar that looked a lot like the bar I was parked in. There was a Heineken next to him on the table, the same beer I was drinking. Keeping with my belief that the world revolved around me, it seemed that he speaking directly to me – Rock Star in Television As Angel In Burning Bush. Is it getting better, or do you feel the same? he asked me.
Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head
HELL no, I’m not playin’ Jesus, but damn straight I got a lot of lepers in my head, I thought. It began to dawn on me that I might find redemption in here in the land of my ancestors, that being Jewish might lead me towards something, that I might not be wandering around my life all alone.
As if on cue, the owner of the hostel, a swarthy sabra with lovely eyes, brought me another Heineken, on the house. “Don’t look so sad! You’re alive, aren’t you?”
That night I ended up in bed with the owner of the hostel. When I expressed shock that he tossed the dirty condom out the window, he shrugged. “That’s Israel.”
Redemption would have to wait.
I spent two more months in Israel, mostly in Jerusalem where some dear cousins put me up in exchange for watching their 8-month old daughter (that baby is now getting ready to into the IDF!) I didn’t want to join the other Americans at Hebrew University – they seemed too earnest and too religious, and I felt dirty and unworthy. Mostly I just pushed the baby carriage up and down the uneven streets, read and exchanged piles of paperback novels (I discovered both Amoz Oz and Salman Rushdie during this time), watched my ass get huge on kibbutz milk chocolate, and waited to go home.
One evening I walked to the top of some stairs and discovered a vista that literally took my breath from my body: The entire Old City was laid out before me, the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, the rooftops and hidden alleyways and layers of history, all bathed in a peach-colored sunset, twinkling. I was tempted into my usual despair that I was not really part of such beauty, that I would never be a good enough Jew, that I wouldn’t feel at home here even I stayed forever. After all, I had only learned ten words of Hebrew in three months, attended synagogue a handful of times (in spite of living with a cantor) and wasn’t sure I believed in a God that never seemed to show up when I really needed help.
But then a little thought popped up in my head, banishing the lepers to the shadows: I am a part of it. Then a couple of others that caused my heart to unclench and tears to flow: I am good enough. I am loved. These were new thoughts, not heard before in the negative cacophony of my mind. I listened to them again, watching the orange light fade to pink and finally, dark blue. I hadn’t looked at a Torah since my bat mitzvah, but I felt comforted and only a little bit crazy that I had just heard a few choice words from God. While walking back in the twilight I understood that real love is unconditional, and even if I couldn’t give it to myself, it was there, just like it was for the patriarchs and matriarchs, for the brave people who fought for and sowed this land, for my Israeli cousins, for the Jews scattered like dandelion spores all across the world. No matter what.
That was 15 years ago, and I’d love to tell you I had made aliyah, or have at least returned to Israel. But life has lead me other places: finally out of college, to the redwoods, under the chuppah, to the Deep South. I’m only just a good-enough Jew, lighting candles (most) Fridays, teaching Sunday School, observing the Top Ten Mitzvot but leaving most of the other 603 to the more learned and less lazy. But I hold fast to the belief that God loves us deeply, even if we behave badly, even if we fall into the depths of depravity – and our experience of that unconditional adoration is best felt when we reflect it back out to the people around us.
There is a State called Israel turning 60 – !hallelujah! – A powerful, vibrant, complicated place for the Jews of the world to come and be free. There is also a state of mind I call Israel, a place accessible without a plane ticket or even a sefer, where we are free from our own petty evils and feel at One with our Creator – no matter what.