Before she died, I’d sit with my mother—from a distance; 614 miles to be exact—in meditation. I never told her about this. I visualized her in bed, family portraits hanging on the wall above her head, an oxygen concentrator’s long tube snaking from the living room into the bedroom, the cannula hooked over her ears, its tips resting at the entrance to her nostrils. From the meditation bench on which I sat, eyes closed, I offered her the Priestly Blessings.
The prayer book’s title, Mishkan T’filah, comes from this verse: “And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). “Mishkan T’filah,” write Rabbis Elyse D. Frishman and Peter S. Knobel, editor and chair of the editorial committee respectively, “is a dwelling place for prayer, one that moves with us wherever we might be physically or spiritually.”
Two weeks after the dramatic July 4, 1976, rescue of hostages—Israeli as well as non-Israeli Jews—from Entebbe International Airport, I learned my first word of modern Hebrew: savlanut. Along with seventy other volunteers, I was in a chapel across from the JFK terminal where our El Al flight would depart for Israel in a few hours. Savlanut, that’s the most important word, said Nurit, the director of Sherut La’am, told us.
I accompany you as you hold onto your walker, taking one difficult step after another, inching your way, labored breath by breath, toward the dining room, a meal you refuse to eat. My life, as it always has been, is elsewhere. So, every day we FaceTime. We don’t have much to say to each other now. But with many words or few, distant or near, we still, as long as you are in this world, know each other’s presence.
This year, I’ll place my hope in books—history, poetry, Torah, and that most challenging book of all, the book of my life. Everything is in it—good and bad. I’ll try to catch myself when I’m tempted to skim, skip, cut words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, pages, entire chapters that challenge and complicate the simple narrative I’d like my days and nights to tell.
By the time I got there, the walls had been down for nearly two millennia. The actual Temple walls. That was the year when, on the Western slopes of Israel’s Hula Valley, in a high school classroom used for Shabbat services, I was first drawn into Jewish prayer. May You rebuild it soon in our days, Jerusalem, the Temple, I prayed.
What do they think of me, the core group of worshippers at Congregation Beth Israel, the independent conservative shul to which I belong, when, once a month, I lead an alternative contemplative Shabbat service in the small chapel while they davven (pray) the traditional service in the main sanctuary? I join them when I finish leading our group in chanting, meditating, and reflection.
I don’t know the desert. I’ve slept in a palm-branch hut, rented for $1 a night from a Bedouin, by the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula when it was under Israeli control. I’ve spent hours in a broken down Jeep waiting for help somewhere in the Sinai. I’ve watched the sunrise from atop Masada in the Judean Desert. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Joshua Tree National Park, where two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, meet.
On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?
Lo yadanu. “We do not know what has happened to him.” Moses, that is. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Gen 32:1).
In my imagination, a vav lives in me. I visualize it, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, along the length of my spine. The other letters of the tetragrammaton, too: yud, the 10th letter, rising like the small flame of an eternal light from the crown of my head; hey, the fifth letter, its roof stretching across my shoulders and its walls protecting each side of my torso, and, following vav, the second hey, its upper line resting on my hips, and its two parallel lines running down the sides of my legs.
When Carol died, I thought it’s not my time. Carol was my shadchanit, Jewish matchmaker. On a Saturday night in July 1989, I went with Carol and Bob, her husband, along with two other new friends, also a husband and wife, to the Beaucatcher Cinema to see “When Harry Met Sally.” I had just moved to Asheville.
My mother is withdrawing from the world. The tires of her car know only short distances now and just a few turns: right on Brick Road, left on 73, left into the supermarket parking lot; right on Brick, cross 73, right into the shopping plaza where she gets her nails done. A few minutes out, a few minutes back.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
You slept with my best friend?, I screamed then threw the phone at my bedroom wall. Mother and father were downstairs. A few days later, when she was out, my girlfriend of nearly three years, I entered her house (I had a key), went into her closet, found the expensive dress I had bought for her at a trendy clothing store on South Street in Philly with my tips, and tore it to pieces.
Once I lived in Jerusalem. Two years in the late 1970s. I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, many times to pray. Face of flesh to face of stone, I felt heart. I felt soul. My heart, my soul, my my: too small, too confined to one human body set apart to characterize what I experienced there in prayer.
I look up from Cherry Hill. Between the rhododendrons and camellias on the steep hill that drops from the road down to my yard, I catch a glimpse of a woman walking by my house. A neighbor? I can’t see clearly enough to know. Is she walking with someone else? I can’t see. Is she wearing earbuds, talking on the phone? I want to know: what sparked her emphatic oh my god?
What am I doing in the Blue Ridge Mountains? What am I doing turning to Jerusalem? What am I doing with all this history, this Jewish history? This poetry, this Jewish poetry? Body, heart, mind, soul: each looking in a different direction for home.
What’s your name, they asked. “Rick.” I had just arrived in Israel. July,1976. One of seventy volunteers from the U.S., I was settling into the Mercaz Klitah, Absorption Center, in Kiryat Shimona. One of Israel’s development towns in the north, situated at the foot of the Naphtali Mountains and close to the border with Lebanon, Kiryat Shimona was then a working class city. What’s your Hebrew name? As far as I knew, I didn’t have a Hebrew name.
We were hungry, so we left home, a place of famine, for a flourishing place to the south. Oh, the cucumbers! The onions! The melons, garlic, and leeks! We were at home there for hundreds of years. Eventually, we were enslaved there. Then we were freed. After 210 years, we wandered home.