What I Did On My Summer Vacation

By Chana-Esther Dayan

July 28, 2009

Hannah Dayan in Jerusalem
Hannah Dayan in Jerusalem, looking at the Kotel, the Western Wall that is the last remnant of the biblical temple.

When I started to become more Jewishly observant, I thought about traveling to Israel. I just didn’t think it would actually happen. This June, I went to Israel with 89 other women from North America on the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. This was a 10-day Jewish mission to Israel for women under the auspices of Aish HaTorah, an Orthodox Jewish outreach organization. It was kind of like a Birthright trip, but for those of us who are too old to qualify. I found the trip through Lauren Shaps, my teacher at Jewish Education Through Torah.

I have to admit, I wasn’t really sure what my connection to Israel actually should be. I know it’s the Holy Land; it was promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the land the Jews so painfully wandered the desert to reach, the site of so much dispute and war. But what does Israel have to do with me?

Right before I left, I began to panic. Maybe this trip wasn’t for me at all. I even tried to back out. My darling husband pushed and argued with me. He not only said that I should go, but that I really deserved to go. He even told Rebbetzin Shaps, the leader of our travel group, that he was “on it” and would get me on the plane.

I did eventually get on the plane, and I was a basket case. Forget the 12-hour flight and all the things that could go wrong in midair. I was afraid. I was actually afraid of what was waiting for me in Israel. Believe it or not, I was afraid that God would be waiting there, like a parent waiting for his or her teenager who missed curfew, standing at the open door, arms crossed and foot tapping.

I felt I just wasn’t a good enough Jew to go to Israel, at least not yet. I mean, I still don’t have separate dishes for milk and meat. My husband cooks for me on Shabbos. My husband isn’t even Jewish. Did I really merit going to Israel? I didn’t think so. And boy, God would be mad if He bumped into me in the Holy Land.

Yes, I know. I was a tad irrational.

Thankfully, I did merit traveling to Israel.

I stood on Har Ben-Tal in the Golan Heights, and walked through Safed, an ancient city in northern Israel. I paddled the Jordan River. I swam in the Dead Sea and rode a camel. I meditated under the desert sky and climbed Masada. I walked the Old City of Jerusalem. I prayed at the Kotel and toured the tunnels underneath. I shared meals with Israeli soldiers. I toured a moshav and danced in the grass. I prayed at Kever Rachel, the grave of the biblical matriarch Rachel. I found a connection to Israel and to God, though it didn’t happen where I expected.

While on the camel ride, I dreamed of mountain biking the Judean Desert. I wanted my bike to try riding these sandy hills. A little later, I saw a man on his mountain bike. I approached to ask about desert riding, and his first words to me were, “Are you the one that mountain bikes?” He turned out to be the rabbi who was going to teach our group next–Rabbi Yom Tov Glazer. It was the best introduction possible to have Rabbi Glazer show me his bike. I admit I giggled like a schoolgirl to meet a fellow mountain biker in that setting.

Hannah at Masada
Rabbi Ken Spiro blesses Hannah at her Hebrew naming ceremony on the top of Masada.

Later in the evening, Rabbi Glazer led a most wonderful meditation that ended with a giant 90-person group hug. I somehow ended up in the middle. I felt my feet getting pulled from the Earth. I worried a bit about losing my balance and falling over, causing a massive 90-personal pileup. But for a few moments, I let myself be lifted. I trusted. I let go. That was the first time I really “plugged in” to a spiritual experience of Israel.

The second time I felt a strong connection to God was on Masada, when our group conducted a Hebrew name ceremony. As far as I know, my parents never gave me a Hebrew name before the Torah when I was an infant, even though my name comes from Hebrew. I decided that since Hannah is my English name, I would keep the Hebrew name Chana. I don’t have a middle name and I was drawn to the name Esther, but I wasn’t sure about it. A thought kept repeating in my head: Go and find out what “hidden God” is in Hebrew and pick the name associated with those words. I asked Rabbi Ken Spiro, one of our tour guides, and found out that “hidden” translates into Hebrew as “nisater.” So, how would I make a name with that? Rabbi Spiro said, “Oh, Esther.” That felt too funny to be a coincidence–like I was connecting with God’s sense of humor.

At the top of Masada early on June 18, 2009, at the site of the synagogue where Elazar ben Ya’ir and his followers prayed, Rabbi Spiro said the appropriate words and blessings to grant me my Hebrew name: Chana Esther.

I admit, I felt on top of the world. I loved hearing my new Hebrew name. I felt so excited to get to the holy city of Jerusalem and pray at the Kotel. I wanted to feel the holiness that others describe feeling at this sacred place.

When we arrived at the Kotel on Thursday afternoon, I washed my hands to prepare. I watched a few people walking backward facing the wall so as to not turn their backs on it. I walked up to the wall, trying to get up close. I put one hand on the wall and covered my eyes with the other. I could feel the swaying of prayer of the people around me. I could sense that they were “plugged in,” but somehow for me, God still felt “way over there.” I just couldn’t tune into that direct line to God everyone kept talking about.

I could feel that Israel and the Temple Mount are indeed holy places. I just didn’t feel that “special” connection at the Kotel because I wasn’t ready to.

I started to think of the words people use to describe their spiritual connection to Judaism–their Jewish neshamah experiences. They sound so lovely and poetic. I wanted to connect in the same way, with the same words. At first I thought that somehow meant I hadn’t connected at all. I didn’t feel it at the Kotel, so that must mean that I hadn’t done enough to deserve to be connected. I realize now, that simply isn’t true. I did connect, and I am connected to God. What I didn’t feel at the Kotel I felt in the desert, and with that the intense experience of taking my Hebrew name.

Coming back to my home in Canada, it’s tempting to focus on where or why I couldn’t have the spiritual connection I wanted. I know that it’s more important to recognize where I did connect and to work on the mitzvot that will bring me a deeper connection to God. It’s sweet to me that my husband has been so supportive. Since we’ve been back, he has made it possible for us to attend a Shabbat retreat together by freeing up his time from work, and has expressed the desire for my donations to the Jewish outreach group to come from both of us. Most of all, I’ve loved hearing him call me by my Hebrew name.


About Chana-Esther Dayan

Chana-Esther Dayan lives in Ottawa, Canada, with her husband of five years. She is learning to integrate her Jewish faith in her daily living in a mixed marriage. Since there are no real rules, Hannah and her husband are learning as they go.