Monday, April 9, 2018

The Goy On The Bus

Catriella, the PJ Library employee who was in charge of the Author Israel Experience, asked all of us lottery winners participants to write a reflection after the trip. I sent her links to my previous blog posts about Israel, but I didn't consider them my Official Reflection, because, primarily, I hadn't had enough time to reflect. I dropped back into my normal life short of sleep and saturated with new experiences, and there were broken fence boards and a horse missing a shoe and another pretending to limp (he's the drama queen) and laundry and school visits to prepare for and oh yeah a book under deadline.

I've been interested in my friends' reactions both before and after my trip. Mack, who's worked on my farm for the past 20 years, usually gets worried every time I travel abroad. He warns me of terrorists in Scotland, in Austria, in Italy. My trip to Egypt five years ago rendered him nearly speechless, and now, with increasing troubles of his own, I figured he was not going to take the idea of Israel well. I expected a whole lot of you-shouldn't-go-there and mideastern-terrorists from him.

"Miss Kim," he said instead, a few days before I left, "I need you to promise me somethin.' When you get to that Wall, will you say a prayer for me?"

I did. I wrote my prayer out on paper I ripped from my journal, and I took a photo of it, and then took a photo of it stuffed into a crevice in the temple wall. When I got home Mack asked, "Did you remember?" and I showed him the photos.

For me the Wall will ever be first its foundations, as we saw them from the ancient tunnel by which we approached it. It will be sitting in the shade while our guide Jonty explained the architecture, the vanished archway, the rubble and broken pavement left over from the temple's destruction two thousand years ago. It will be watching women pray with their foreheads against the wall and tears streaming down their faces. It will be a small group of friends walking backward away from the wall, slowly, because we wanted to be in solidarity with the women who cried.

Yesterday at Mass word had gotten out about my trip. Several people brought up "The Holy Land," and one person said, "You walked where He walked!" Jesus, sure. Standing at the Temple, or looking out at the Mount of Olives, it's impossible for me not to think of Him. But I was on the trip in search of what it meant to have a Jewish identity, not to explore my own Christianity. I left the Via Dolorosa for another time.

(The bus is trundling down a modern highway, through not-quite-desert, lots of sand and bluffs. Gail, sitting next to me, calls out, "Jonty, what's this on the side of the road?" It's a little domed church, mosque-like but with a cross on top, and a parking lot and a few trees. "Ah," Jonty says. "That's the place where Jesus was baptized." Oh, okay. No big deal.)

I was one of only two non-Jewish writers, and I think--I may be wrong--the only practicing Christian. This came out when we introduced ourselves the first night, Right from that moment my fellow writers were kind to me. They welcomed my questions. They explained traditions. Several times, different people would come up to me and ask how I was doing. Was I learning what I felt I needed to know? How did I feel about whatever activity we'd just done? Was it awkward for me? Was I okay?

The second night we had a drum circle on the beach near the Dead Sea. A man taught us all to play the drums, then led everyone else in singing a few songs. Everyone else because they were Jewish songs, in Hebrew, and I didn't know a single syllable. On the walk back to our rooms people asked, Did I feel out of place? Was it uncomfortable for me?

No, it wasn't. Because of them--because of how they welcomed me. I came to understand how songs were important in Israeli life. I could feel how the kibbutzim used to gather and sing in the evenings. I could feel the traditions--not just religious, but cultural--behind the songs. The other writers' honesty and openness made the whole trip like that for me--easy, eye-opening. I wasn't Jewish, but I belonged.

That is, until Yad Vashem. Only three of us went there, skipping a culinary tour of Jerusalem's enormous marketplace. I love markets, but I thought I needed to see Yad Vashem. Then Stacia decided to go because she thought I shouldn't have to see Yad Vashem alone, and Gail decided it might help her book, too.

I knew it wouldn't be easy. It shouldn't be easy, it ought to be dreadful. But I'd been to the U.S. Holocaust museum, and I'd seen Schindler's List and old newsreels from the liberation of the death camps. I'd seen the awful images before. What I wasn't prepared for was the beginning, the history of Antisemitism and how thoroughly it was entangled in and propagated by the Catholic church. I knew the history--but I'd never seen the vile medieval artwork before.

And then, Poland. My mother's side of the family is all Polish. They came to the United States in the early 1900s, in the wave of Polish immigration fueled by a famine in that country. My Polish side was also my Catholic side, and when I was 11 a Polish cardinal became pope, and I would have said that historically Poland was pretty much always entirely Catholic, and I would have been wrong. Poland had over 3 million Jews before WWII--about 10% of its population. And three million died in the Holocaust. German Jews had much higher rates of survival than Polish Jews. Nearly everywhere else had higher rates of survival than Polish Jews.

So suddenly this felt very personal to me. My people, my heritage, were not the good guys here. It was hard to absorb.

I also learned some very specific information that fixes the plot problem I had on a book I'm working on in my head. I laid it out to Gail and Stacia in the cab ride back to the rest of the book, and to the cabbie, too, who joined in our discussion with gusto. I would end up unable to sleep much of that night, bothered by nightmares, but when we rejoined the rest of our group, outside the marketplace, they surrounded us with tenderness and love. Were we okay? Yad Vashem is so hard. Had we eaten? Were we hungry? Here, have some food. Here, walk with us. We're going to a bakery.

The very next day we would see the Dead Sea Scrolls, up close, not behind glass, and someone would read a line from one of them, and nearly everyone would start to sing.

This is what I learned in Israel: we are all different. We are all the same. And words can last forever.