In February, my family and I traveled to Israel. For me, it had been almost 17 years since I had been there, for my first year of rabbinical school – too long. For my oldest, it had been 17 days. When she and I first went in 2000-2001, she was 7 and I was the adult who figured out how to navigate everyday life in Jerusalem. This time, the roles were reversed, and it was I who had to work hard to keep up as she helped lead us around these cities where she has traveled – and lived – more times than I can remember.
When traveling to a place as symbolically and spiritually significant to Jews, I find I can’t look at the experience through a “normal” lens. I’m not sure exactly what “normal” means, but nevertheless, time in Israel is never a “pareve” experience. I measure it against an impossible yardstick of democracy and religious meaning. Intellectually, I understand that it’s also just a place – a place where people live and work, litter, bump into each other, and get accustomed to. But for me, it is always a “PLACE,” unlike anywhere else in the world.
I was surprised at the places that had been as familiar as my childhood haunts, that I could no longer locate or remember. I was also surprised at how easy it was to navigate the Old City despite the memories that had become dim. I found it more urban in many ways, as I compared the amount of construction and development against my memories of years before. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t be anything but a tourist this time around. My haggling, Hebrew, and mannerisms couldn’t pass as a local, even in the most familiar of spots.
In the end, all I could really know for sure was that I’m a Jew, and part of me will always consider Israel – Jerusalem in particular – a home, a history, and a chapter of my life. I look forward to the next time I venture into the shared history of Eretz Israel. I wonder who I will find myself to be then, in this ancient, yet ever-new, land.
Rabbi Debra Stahlberg Dressler