Tuesday, December 26, 2006

First Night - Jerusalem, Friday December 15

Over the next weeks I will recount my experiences in Israel from December 15-25. While in Israel, I kept a detailed outline of the trip and took some of the 15,000+ photos that Israel Experts Bus 2 (Double-one) took to document our amazing 10 day adventure.

This first entry was written on the actual first day of my arrival in Eretz Yisrael.


Christmas has been left behind in the states.

My first night in Israel is also Shabbat, and the first night of Chanukah. It's almost too much to combine with the jet lag and the fact that I haven't eaten since...was that breakfast? It was a little bagel and cream cheese and really strong coffee that I'm sure I'll have to get used to over the next 10 days even though it makes my stomach hurt. Or maybe that's the hunger.

Before we eat, however, it's the first night of Chanukah, it's Shabbat, and I'm in Israel. On Shabbat in Israel, many orthodox Jews check into hotels like this one in Jerusalem so that they don't have to sit in the dark all day at home. In their hotel rooms, lights are on timers and turn off automatically, and the elevator stops at every floor so they don't have to push any buttons.

This Shabbat, there are 80 American Jews checking in and sharing the day of rest with them. And the elevator is small, and it stops at every floor. Chanukah and Shabbat and food will have to wait patiently as the elevator brings 3 people at a time to the second floor, third floor, fourth floor, fifth floor, you get the idea...

Finally, it's time to light the menorah and have Kabbalat Shabbat. Part of me feels like I could be anywhere. I'm in a lounge in a basement of a hotel with mostly Americans. Nothing about this says "Jerusalem." But then I look up at the exit sign in Hebrew on the door, and I look behind at our Israeli medic with the automatic rifle slung casually over his shoulder and I know this is not America.

And then I hear "we're not sure what direction we're facing." At home, we're taught to face Jerusalem when we pray and we face east. But now I'm in Jerusalem, so where are we facing? Apparently, we face the old temple, so depending on where you are you might face east, west, northeast, south southwest, whatever it takes.

The service ended and it was finally time for dinner. Not a traditional Israeli Shabbat dinner, I don't think. The orthodox staying with us seem to have the monopoly on the traditional. Everything is well arranged for them and their huge, huge families for a restful Shabbat.

And as it turns out, our Shabbat is pleasant and restful too. Aside from finding myself awake at 5 am, I slept well and late - up for breakfast at 9:30. Breakfast was followed by our first exploration of Jerusalem outside the hotel. We take a short walk to the Knesset and a nearby park. Now I feel like I'm in Israel for sure. Not a cloud in the sky, sun reflecting off Jerusalem stone buildings. We sit in a circle and talk about what Israel means to us and our Jewish identity.

For me, Israel seems to be the missing piece of my Jewish identity. I live a Jewish American life, fairly observant and very connected to my Jewish community at home, just as I was at Syracuse. But when people talk about Israel and supporting Israel, I have little to say, and I don't feel a connection. Now, sitting in this park, I'm eager to explore the missing piece. And I am amazed at how comfortable I feel here, even on the first day.

A day confined to a hotel is not my idea of a raging, whirlwind 10 day tour of Israel, and the trip is definitely off to a slow start. But it is Shabbat, and on Shabbat, Israel is at rest. So we wait until Havdallah. The Havdallah ceremony separates the Sabbath from the rest of the week, and with it separates the life I vacate for 10 days in America from the 10 days I will experience in Israel.

I'm starting to sound like Annie. Who, by the way, I will be meeting for dinner in an hour, finally able to connect after a long Sabbath Day.

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