I first visited Israel as a boy on a six-week Jewish youth group tour. Now--twice as old--I find myself back in Jerusalem with my bride. We travel in search of a new place to live, letting our marriage solidify on the road. After four months in Africa, we come to Israel to rest and to see if it could be home.
When I proposed to my wife, the fact that her religious identity could be most accurately defined as “scientist” did not cause me any consternation. My family, overflowing with Reform rabbis, also accepted her without hesitation. My fiancée agreed to a Jewish wedding. She agreed to consider raising Jewish children. She did not rule out conversion.
We arrive in Israel dizzy with visions of Africa, but the hospitality of friends makes us feel at peace. Comfort in Jerusalem, however, remains elusive. The palpable aura of ancient mystical power I felt as a boy seems overwhelmed by other stresses: those of travel, of marriage, and of religious inquiry.
Heading towards the Western Wall of the old temple, I recognize the black clad ultra-Orthodox Hassids, the well-armed Israeli soldiers, and the eager American pilgrims. To my wife, however, they appear new and strange and this makes them new and strange to me. At the Wall we approach on separate men's and women's sides as dictated by the rabbis. It is one of the rare times in half a year that we part company. Here stands the Jewish people's holiest site and I cannot share it with my bride. Alone, I press in between the Hassids to scrutinize the time-worn blocks of white Jerusalem sandstone. I touch the notes stuffed into the cracks and wonder who hears the prayers written upon them. Searching within, I find my own prayers. I recite the Sh'ma, the most central Jewish utterance, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” To me, this has always meant, “Pay attention! Unity is the key.” But standing at the Wall I do not feel one with the world. Do the Hassids and I belong together? What about the Bar Mitzvah groups throwing celebratory candy? Why can I not stand here with my wife?
When we reunite I see skepticism on my wife's face. “Why,” she asks, “do these men dress all in black?” “And who,” she inquires, “thinks it's a good idea to throw candy here?” She has read that men are forbidden from hearing women sing and nudges me, “How do you feel about that?”
To be honest, the Hassids and the Jews here on pilgrimage make me feel like a foreigner. While they fit at the Wall like yuppies at a martini bar, I don't know how I got past the bouncer. I have been too far away for too long and do not recognize myself in this crowd.
That evening we help our hosts prepare dinner and I watch my wife collide for the first time with a kosher kitchen. “So, we can drink a glass of milk before we eat a slab of beef, but if we eat the beef first we have to wait three hours for the milk?” Her eyebrows scrunch up. I hear the question she does not ask. “And this brings us closer to God?” I can only shrug helplessly. To me, eating free range chicken seems closer to the intent of the Torah than keeping a kosher kitchen.
We visit other friends in Tel Aviv and are surprised to feel more comfortable. There, we relate to the average person on the street. They are not wearing head scarves; they are wearing sun dresses. My wife and I talk. Could we live here? If it weren't for the politics, the never-ending squabble over property, perhaps. My wife and I disagree on how to define God, but we agree that God is found everywhere. In Jerusalem, it seems, many have forgotten this.
Today, when I inquire how she feels about Israel, she steams. She has learned that only Orthodox rabbis are licensed to perform marriages here. Anyone who wants a different type of wedding must leave the county--and many do just that. “What about our secular friends?” she demands. “What about those who object to the marginalization of women by the Orthodox community? Do they have to travel to Cyprus?” “What,” I imagine her asking, “about me?”
I have no answers again, but at least we have found a space to address some important questions. By visiting Israel and witnessing so many ways to be Jewish we begin to decipher what is important to us. We are fortunate that our lists match. Whatever its name may be, our religion must entail a love for each other, respect for those around us, optimistic generosity, and a constructive sense of home.
I recall returning to my parents' house after college and feeling oddly foreign in familiar surroundings. Visiting Jerusalem with my wife, I feel the same. Israel once was a home to me. Although it is not one now, perhaps someday it will be home again.