Several months ago, Chaim and I signed up to take an online course in Psalms, sponsored by our local Jewish Federation of the Berkshires through an organization called Project Zug. Though we asked to be paired together as study partners, we were told that we were each to be matched with someone from the Afula/Gilboa area in Israel, that this was part of a relationship-building venture, which includes art projects and other cultural exchanges, to strengthen ties between Israelis and American Jews.
I received contact information for Keren, my chevruta (study partner), and my first online course material shortly before I left for Israel, but I did nothing about it. Then lessons 2 and 3 arrived, and I still did nothing. Chaim had already studied with his chevruta (a local, and not someone in Israel, as it turns out) and was impressed by the materials, being taught by Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar. But having already fallen behind, I wondered how I could — and even why I would — spend my time in Israel with this project. Besides, my chevruta seemed no more interested than I was, since I hadn’t heard from her.
But then while I was in week 1 of my Israel trip, Keren emailed me, apologizing for not contacting me sooner, explaining that she had just published a book and things were quite crazy. When could we speak? Well, I’m in Israel on a tour, I replied. I won’t be available until I get to Haifa and my husband and I settle into our apartment there.
And so it was that Keren and I spent an hour and a half on the phone last week studying Psalm 19 and getting to know one another. We had a lot in common, and after I got off the phone with her, I was inspired to write a story-poem and a prayer dedicated to her and our study together. When I sent them to her, she was so moved, she insisted that we meet, saying that she had written a story that had begun the same way as mine! It was bashert (destined) that we had been paired.
Today was the day. She met us at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek (halfway between Haifa and her home in Afula) where I had spent five months in 1981 (spring semester of my junior year of college), splitting my day between learning Hebrew in the Ulpan program and working on the kibbutz. I was very excited to return to this place that was so formative to my understanding of my Jewish identity and my relationship to Israel. I was particularly anxious to see the view of the Jezreel Valley that had occupied my dreams, been the source of such joy during my forest runs on the kibbutz, and spoiled me so that I actually never ran again.
And Keren would be joining us for this reunion!
It wasn’t clear we would have a view of the valley from the cemetery, and we weren’t sure where the trail I used to run even was, though I remembered it went past the cemetery. Then Keren showed me that we did have a view, and I cried with joy, nostalgia, pain, overwhelm! We found a bench, and I read Keren and Chaim the poem I’ve been working on for the past couple of weeks (below). I started it at the Kinneret Cemetery with my rabbis’ tour; we had been asked to write a poem inspired by the poet Rachel’s poem about Mount Nevo, while sitting by her grave.
From the kibbutz, we travelled to Keren’s home in Afula for a lovely lunch, where we met two of her three sons (aged 7 and 11; the oldest is 15 but wasn’t home) and saw her artwork (both paintings and sculpture), some of her mother’s sculpture, and received an inscribed copy of her hot-off-the-presses book, part memoir/part fiction about her brother’s death by a Hezbollah sharpshooter during a military exercise thirteen years ago and her healing.
I am so blessed to have this new friend in my life! Part of the Psalms project will include making art together. We don’t yet know how this will play out, but are thrilled to be on the journey together.
My Israeli Brigadoon
@ by Pamela Wax, February 2018
In former days, bayamim ha-heim,
I would run through the forest past the kibbutz cemetery,
then further up
until a summit and a view
grabbed my eyes and yanked my heart
It was not yet my Mount Nevo,
a placeholder for unrequited dreams of the past.
Rather it was a screen upon which I watched
my future dreams unfold before me
in the Jezreel Valley
where I would take my place as an olah,
connected to the land,
to belong to something larger than myself.
But if what goes up must come down,
that idealistic aliyah to the summit
culminated in a descent.
It was not inevitable
but a choice made of fear
to run from that high place
to make a life
in relative safety
and unconventional convention
Yes, I belong at times
to something larger than myself.
But, if you ask, I will tell you:
I never again laced up my sneakers and ran anywhere.
Even when I lived half a block from a California beach
or Manhattan’s Central Park
amongst the rolling hills of the Berkshires
or near the park in the Bronx
where cross-country runners from Africa come to train,
I would not join them.
I was caught ever after in the thicket of Mount Nevo,
for a place I had been
and a dream yet to be.
* Mount Nevo was where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land but told that he himself could not enter there.