I delayed visiting the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem until the last day of my journey. What used to be a much-anticipated moment now seemed an obligatory stop during our trip. Why the ambivalence? The exclamation point of past Israel trips had yielded to question marks.
In Torah this week, a visitor from Moab is awe-struck by the encampment of the Israelites. The foreign prophet, Bilaam, remarked, Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, “how good are your dwellings Israel!” No question mark, his observation was all about praise.
Rather, than offering admiration upon entering Israel, I had questions. My bond with Israel had been tested by corrupt politics, ultra-orthodox condescension and expanding settlements. As we got into our cab, I noticed the bumper sticker asking: איך הנהיגה שלי – How’s my driving? The bumper sticker was on most every truck, bus and cab. The slogan is part of a campaign to reduce road fatalities. Yet, to me it seemed as if all Israel was asking a much larger question.
Israelis don’t have a reputation for inviting questions. Israelis are a people of opinions and exclamation points. We are the start-up nation! The borders are too porous! Religious fanatics are destroying democracy! Jews must make aliyah!
I was focused on my questions. How can it be that Israel’s leadership is craven and corrupt? How can the divides between Haredi (ultra-orthodox) and Hiloni (secular) be bridged? How can there be peace and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians? How can I sustain my deep love for Israel when plagued by these questions?
I feel as if I am a passenger on the Zion ride. Israel is my crazy cab driver: driving aggressively and defending each bit of space when navigating traffic. While squawking at other drivers he is on the phone making family dinner plans. I have entrusted this driver to get us to our destination. I applaud the deft ways he speeds past other cars even as they curse him. As a Zionist I engage the driver even when I don’t like his driving. And after a short while, I alight the cab.
Within days and a few cab rides later, my questions straighten into exclamation points! How beautiful are the white buildings draped in sun and seared limestone! How amazing are the lush vineyards in the dry Jerusalem hills! How packed are the study halls at universities and yeshivas! How lovely is the Israeli designed jewelry in the shops! How good-looking is the Ethiopian born soldier positioned at the intersection!
I feel genuine here. I am proud to walk on the street with my head covered. I need no reminder to bless my bread in the restaurant. I play street sign Jeopardy as I try to recall each hero for whom streets are named. Israel eases my Jewish soul back into its frame.
On our last afternoon, I visited the wall. I touched the smooth stones. A surge of energy seemed to lift me from my stance. I prayed for health, protection, guidance and peace. My questions had become prayers.
Jerusalem, I won’t forget you as a source of joy and inspiration. I won’t forget you even with my discomfort in your entanglements and estrangements. If I forget you, I would never know which way to pray.
How is your driving, O Israel? Uneven until now so I’m praying for a smoother ride.
Evan J. Krame