Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Common Roots

We arrived in Tel Aviv last night. This is my second trip to Israel, my husband's first. A few years ago I took my late mother, then 86 and losing memory. It was a trip of maneuvering wheelchairs and holding her hand tightly lest she fall, a trip built around her life-long desire to visit Israel. This trip is built around my desire for an arts focused exploration. We are traveling with the Jewish Artists' Lab, a group I've been a part of for several years. My husband, who is not Jewish, decided to join us. I've pulled him into many trips to my ancestral towns so he's gotten a dose of heritage travel, but I suspect there may be elements that are new to him on this one, foreign. There are elements that are foreign to me as well. I wear the hat of a secular Jew.

There are different kinds of hats on our flight. A young lanky man, in a black suit, tzitzis fringes hanging down, searches the overhead bins for a place for his luggage. In his hand, a hard shell case, like that for a guitar, this one in the form of the wide-brimmed hat of the Hassidic Jew.

He has the window seat, my husband the middle and me the aisle. I had anticipated swapping seats with my husband, but reassessed that idea when I took note of our seat mate. There have been stories of religious Jews seeking seat exchanges when placed next to a woman. They will not take the hand of a woman upon introduction. This is foreign to me as well.

At 1am people begin to wake up from their cramped attempt at sleep . Some form a line for the sticky floored lavatories. Others reach for their prayer shawls and stake out a corner by the lavatories for morning prayers. In the back I notice a man framed by both the blue of Delta's curtain and his prayer shawl with its blue stripes, forming one continuous line. He davens, gently rocking forward, prayer book in hand. The morning light falls behind him, drawing my eye in the darkened quiet of the plane.

Our seat mate exits for morning prayers, wrapping himself in his prayer shawl. I think of my father's cousin, a survivor of Auschwitz, telling us of my great-grandfather. "A religious guy" he had said in his thick Polish accent. "This kind of religious?" I wonder. That was a world far from the Americanized secular Jew.

A few rows up on my right a bewigged woman sits next to her bearded husband. She holds a small prayer book in her hand, a ribbon dangling from it. Her husband wears a velvet yarmulke. A small movie screen is set in the back of her seat, a story unfolding for the gentleman who sits behind in a different world than hers. On my last trip I saw more young women, modestly dressed with many children in tow. They wear a wig when married, married to someone like our young seat mate.I am fascinated by this world so different than mine, yet related to a common root if I were to trace back in time.

We arrive and fondly greet our fellow travelers as we gather our group and our luggage. We then peel off to get our SIM card for our phone. After a long wait, a man edges in front, a newcomer. "We were here first" I assert, sharp elbows defining my space. My Israeli edge, not too unlike the armor I don in New York. An assertiveness that I think of as necessary in both places. Another culture than that which surrounds me in Minnesota, one buried in my genes as well perhaps. It is not a culture of passivity.

When we arrive at the hotel I am pleased to see my friend Fran who came a few days ago. We had traveled to the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania together some years back, studying Yiddish and traveling to my ancestral town in Belarus. We shared long hours of Yiddish homework over our kitchen table in the former small ghetto of Vilnius. We had originally met doing genealogy research in Utah and became good friends over shared lunch breaks from long hours of research. Lots of sharing of food and study. Fran is traveling with us to Haifa and Paris after this trip.
We move in an altered state after 17 hours of travel with only snatches of sleep. A brief dinner and then a night-time graffiti tour. I recall a visit to the lab by Adam Heffez on Israeli graffiti and the political expression often embedded within it. Our guide points out some of the messages, but my sleep deprived eyes and lack of Hebrew fluency focus on the visual elements. Here are a few of the images that I found interesting. And thus ends our first very long day in Israel.

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