I’m on the Boston-Tel Aviv El Al flight, 35,000 feet up in the air – somewhere over the Atlantic – lost in the dreamy notes of Miles Davis when I realize that my life will change again in a matter of hours.
Some people find meaning on the ski slopes; others recharge in the Caribbean. I go to Israel to reconnect with my soul, and during my walks through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I am able to focus on the present. It would be more convenient perhaps, if I could reach the same state of mind in Massachusetts. But there are subtle conclusions I reach in Israel that cannot be found elsewhere.
And so, I sojourn to the Holy Land for perspective. Getting there is the easiest part. I go because Logan Airport is 12 miles from my house and, these days, an El Al jet is waiting to take me nonstop to Tel Aviv. I go because I am lucky enough to live during a time when a Jewish country exists. I go to marvel at this vibrant, 70-year-old democracy. Most of my ancestors, who toiled in the ghettos and lost villages of Europe for 2,000 years, probably would have given all of their material wealth to spend just a few seconds in Jerusalem. And, so, I also go for my relatives.
* * *
Around 9 p.m. on a Sunday night in January, I hop into a cab and head over to the Yellow Submarine club in Talpiot in Jerusalem. The blocks are a congested farrago of car repair shops, light manufacturing and droopy apartments. A steady rain is falling – and will fall all week – and as I step into the street, the Jerusalem wind guides me into the club.
A minute later I sit in a small, modern theater that has the feel of a well designed black box in Boston. There’s a small stage, a lighting grid and large speakers hang from the ceiling. I am here to listen to my friend Steve Levine’s bluegrass group. About 50 American-Israelis – nearly all modern Orthodox – have gathered, and the vibe is similar to an intimate Jerry Garcia show. Steve, who grew up in Springfield and occasionally visits his brother and sister-in-law, Joel and Ellen in Swampscott – made aliyah about 10 years ago with his family.
His band – composed of modern Orthodox American-born Jews – sounds good to enough to play with Garcia. There’s Levine on the piano, Tom Schiffour, the original drummer of The Shadows of Knight (who scored a top-10 hit with “Gloria” in the 1960s), a bass player from LA, and a cellist and mandolin player whose smoky voice reminds me of Norah Jones. True to form, their set prompts a couple of dozen to their feet, where they close their eyes. Some dance, some spin, some just groove in place as the band plays “I Know You Rider” and “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad.”
In between songs, I chat with a newly discovered Boston contingent. There’s Dov, who went to Maimonides and works as a builder in Efrat. And there’s Kalman, who grew up in Malden and has lived in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City for decades. He wants to know if the Chelsea Hebrew school still exists.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“You’ll have to stop by the Old City some time,” he says. I nod, and he slips into the darkness.
* * *
It’s Thursday, and I still haven’t left Jerusalem. Forget that it’s been raining almost every day and it feels a lot like Boston. Each step brings a new story, or a new beginning.
I meet with old friends Ronni and Assaf for lunch. Usually we head over to Ta’ami or Pinati for hummus, but this time I decide to propose a new place, Deutch, in Mea She’arim.
My friends aren’t too enthusiastic and explain that they never go to Mea She’arim, the city’s center of ultra-Orthodoxy and a neighborhood that does not believe in the existence of Israel. My friends have plenty of reasons not to go. They do not feel accepted by the residents there, and also do not believe – outside of praying – that they make much of a contribution to Israeli society.
Still, they humor me, and soon we are sitting at a table in a tiny storefront where a kind-faced, red-headed man in a kippah serves up warm plates of kugel, cholent and schnitzel. A yeshiva-crowd guy in his thirties plops himself down and starts talking nonstop. The repast will be the best meal of the week. Each plate comes to about $10 and we also pay for the yeshiva guy’s food.
Outside, we stand at the entrance to a neighborhood that warns people not to wear immodest clothes.
“My father grew up the next door over,” Ronni tells me, as we prepare to leave.
* * *
Shabbat has arrived and the rain and clouds have lifted. I saunter down Hillel Street and hear my footsteps in the suddenly-silent neighborhood. Soon, I take a left turn through the Mamilla Mall, a pedestrian walkway that brings me to the Jaffa Gate in a few minutes.
“Bagela, bagela,” says an Arab man hawking the old-school, Jerusalem version of a bagel. But it looks more like a pretzel and tastes nothing like a bagel. I’m surrounded by Chinese and African tourists but break free and stride through the Jewish Quarter. Soon I’m at the Kotel, my hands resting on the massive cool stones, my forehead pressed into a crevice.
My conversation with God is spontaneous and I am far from articulate. I do all the talking and I’m not sure if I’m getting any answers. Still, that doesn’t stop me from asking for more time on this planet.
I leave my hopes and secrets at the Kotel and head back through the Jewish Quarter. I’m in no hurry: it’s Shabbat and I have several hours before I need to go to the airport. I walk left and pass through a narrow walkway and come to a small courtyard where a modest memorial sits to honor dozens of Jews who were killed and then temporarily interred during the 1948 War of Independence.
A few steps away I find myself in the middle of a large courtyard that sits to the east of the Kotel. A handful of toddlers are singing in Hebrew, their parents nowhere to be found.
Their voices are delicate, and the melody follows as I move to another courtyard. At this point, I remember to feel the ground as I take step after step. I’m walking on stones but it doesn’t feel too hard or soft. It’s Jerusalem stone.
Steven Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Journal. Email him at rosenberg@