I arrived in Israel Thursday afternoon — I think it was Thursday, hard to tell with a ten hour difference — and almost immediately took a walk along the Tel Aviv beach to clear my brain.
It didn’t. But Sheryl, Madeleine, and I pushed on, anxious to acclimate ourselves to Israeli time. It was their fist trips to Israel and my first since 1993. I had spent most of the fifteen hour flight from L.A. reading Paul Johnson’s A History of the Jews, a fantastic book I had promised myself for years, and had images of Jeremiah and the other prophets swimming in my head. Jetlagged, I was already a prime prospect for the Jerusalem Syndrome, that peculiar problem that develops when people visit the Holy Land and start to over-identify. This seems to happen especially to agnostic types like me. If I start to sound or act messianic, just laugh or put me away.
Fortunately, we were met soon by Barry Rubin and his family who walked with us south down the boardwalk to Jaffa, passing along the way the ancient/modern Etzel Museum to the Stern Gang who fought for Israeli independence over a half a century ago, on our way to dinner at Dr. Shakshuka — a (what else?) shakshuka joint in an Ottoman courtyard.
As we walked, I queried Barry about something I had always meant to ask him, why he had made aliyah — “ascended” and moved to Israel — decades ago. I will leave it to Barry to explain his reasons, which were naturally interesting. I was really asking the question about me. Like many American Jews, I have always had a “counter life,” as Phillip Roth called it in his novel of the same name, an imaginary Israeli version of me.
I had thought about moving here in the eighties, though I doubt very seriously. I had almost no Hebrew, for one thing (have even less now), but that was the least of it. I assumed I could learn. But I am American to the core. I believe more than ever in American exceptionalism, how necessary it is for the world. Still, I am confused. Am I here or am I there?
Up at 4 a.m. and jogging along the boardwalk this morning, I still wonder — am I in the 51st state, as some refer to Israel? It feels a little like Miami, a little like L.A., but something different and Middle Eastern too. You feel the proximity of larger forces you don’t feel at home — history and the instant possibility of something apocalyptic. Although this is supposedly a new country, everything seems much older. A sense of Mediterranean decay is everywhere, despite constant modernization.
Yet the television in my hotel room plays CNN and Fox, just like home. The New York Times is at my door (published in conjunction with the equally liberal Isreali newspaper Haaretz — they are almost identical twins).
At one of those (justifiably) legendary Israeli breakfasts, I open up the Haaretz part of the paper and notice an astonishing article on the front page — Israeli scientists develop bionic eye for those born blind.
The blind can see? In the Holy Land? Watch out for the Jerusalem Syndrome, Simon, I remind myself as my eyes tear with admiration for the people who are doing this magnificent thing and wonder what those repellent academics who seek to boycott Israel could possibly thinking (other than the most reprehensible racist thoughts). But the world is backwards everywhere, isn’t it?
More to come. (No, I am not John the Baptist, or Ezekiel, he says, as they take him away. I’m Hosea!)
(Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.)
UPDATE: For those who took offense at my calling Israel the 51st state, I apologize, although of course I was being ironical. My style. Perhaps as penance – although it was long planned – my first Friday morning visit was to the Palmach Museum, an unforgettable and highly emotional interactive museum about the Palmach, the tiny underground Jewish striking force that first fought the Nazis and shortly thereafter Arab armies from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and, to a lesser exert, Libya and Iraq in the struggle for ISraeli independence. It’s an extremely moving presentation I would recommend to anyone to begin a trip to Israel. Warning: grown men cry. If you love human freedom, bring a handkerchief.