Tuesday (Yom Sh’lishi) in Israel was a wonderful day, with a lot of great time outside. I’ll touch briefly on highlights before moving to a couple of more provocative moments.
This was the day of obligatory Israel trip activities: a visit to Masada, the ancient desert fortress and a Jewish symbol of living free or dying trying, a short hike in Ein Gedi, an oasis and wadi, and a float in the Dead Sea. A great morning despite the 100+℉ heat and the equally-warm salt water.
In the afternoon on the way up to Jerusalem, we stopped to visit a woman, Kasya, who immigrated a number of years ago from Ethiopia. Her story was a powerful one of hardship in her place of birth and struggle to find a better life in the holy land. I don’t recall every detail from our conversation, but a couple of points stuck with me.
After persecution in Ethiopia from the government, she and many others marched on foot, with very little, for one and a half months through to Sudan, where they would eventually find agents from the CIA and Mossad (Israel’s spy organization) ready to fly them out. Over this journey, much like our story of Pesach, they had with them only the foods they could carry. By the time they were in Sudan, they had what little offerings they were given in their camps— Kasya described receiving rotting flour full of maggots, and they had no choice but to eat what they were given for survival. They would sift it six times and hope for the best.
She and her family (seven children, five of whom survived the journey and one who was born here) were blessed to make it to Israel, and things became better very quickly. Granted, there were a number of adjustments and challenges. Language, of course, is always difficult. The Ethiopian Jewish community came from biblical Judaism — they tie themselves to the tribe of Dan, and this means that their traditions differ significantly from the rabbinic Judaism of the rest of world Jewry. Rather than praying in Hebrew, they pray in a language similar to Aramaic. Thus, they didn’t even have Hebrew when they came here. They were first settled in refugee camps, and soon moved to small apartments. Eventually, they made their way to standard Israeli homes. Kasya described receiving a frozen chicken and challah to prep for Shabbat one of her first weeks, and being completely dumb-founded. She’d never encountered either grocery item in Ethiopia! Eventually, she learned, but there are still somethings that will never change for her. The Ethiopian community has different methods for kosher slaughter, and she tells us she went years here without eating meat, until a Jewish leader from her community moved to the area and started slaughtering chickens ‘properly.’ Also, Ethiopians never ate hot food on Shabbat— Halakhicly-observant Jews here often use hot plates to keep meals warm through the day. To Kasya, this was beyond believable, and unacceptable for her family traditions.
Most of her children are now happily married and working, one son as a tour guide. She’s blessed with grandchildren, and her youngest, as it turns out, celebrated his 18th birthday on the day of our visit. Our guide David asked Kasya if Israel was all that she had hoped for; if it was indeed a land of milk and honey. Without hesitation, she answered yes. It’s a place where they, the Ethiopian Jewish community and her family, can be safe from persecution, where there’s enough food and running water, electricity, and community. She couldn’t ask for anything more.
Last night we had dinner with friends of our community, Menachem, Yaffa, and Yael from SY Travel. Incredible dinner with wonderful company, at Tmol Shilshom— one of my favorite dairy restaurants in Jerusalem, tucked away in a back alley close to Zion Square and apparently one of the 10 best breakfast restaurants in the world according to some rating group (I believe it). It was so good to see them. They reinforced the message we’ve been hearing over and over again from Israelis, that they are thrilled that we all decided to come, with not one person from our group canceling their trip. They’ve had only cancellations for the month of August, with no business, and people are only considering coming in October and November. This seems to be the experience of all tourism companies here. How strange it was, earlier, to find the Dead Sea almost completely devoid of bathers during summer vacation. If anyone reading this is contemplating coming to Israel, please do— there’s no need to be afraid. Yes, on occasion, rocket sirens go off and we run to shelters, but otherwise, life goes on as normal. The chances of actually being hurt in an attack are less than the chances of being in a car accident on Rt 27.
This morning, we joined Women of the Wall for Rosh Hodesh services at the Kotel (the Western wall at the Temple Mount). Women of the Wall is a group that has been praying monthly on the women’s side of the Kotel plaza since the 80s, fighting for the right of women to pray communally, to sing, to wear tallitot and t’fillin if they wish, and to read Torah. Some months, there are protests and arrests of women. Today, aside from the group being prevented from reading from a Torah scroll, morning services went with only one obnoxious woman with nothing better to do repeatedly blowing a whistle in the faces of those praying. Mostly a quiet morning of prayer and peaceful protest against the Ultra-Orthodox establishment.
I prayed behind the divider with Charlie and Albert from our community, and a few other men who call themselves Men of Women of the Wall. Apparently they also have a MoWotW breakfast every month after services— a Feminist Brotherhood of sorts. The biggest revelation for me was that being behind that divider felt very much like being behind a mehitza — a divider in synagogues meant to keep women separate from men, often relegating women to a cramped space at the back, where it is difficult to see. Indeed, I had a hard time hearing and seeing what was going on, as so many women do in traditional communities. I’m not sure that this is a deliberate part of WotW’s efforts, but it certainly is effective. Women have every right to pray as men do at our holiest of sites. Hopefully, the Israeli government will one day be convinced enough to act on this.