“My heart is in the east – but I am in the uttermost west,” wrote the great Hebrew poet Yehuda HaLevi, sitting in Golden Age Spain without the distraction of social media.
With his flesh and bones hunched over a table in Toledo or maybe Tudela, HaLevi’s neshama burned for Yerushalayim. Mine does, too, here in the American suburbs nearly 1,000 years later. I dream that dream of dreams – to settle in an apartment with a mirpeset, a plant-filled terrace overlooking the Old City or maybe a more affordable place in southern Israel with a view of the Mediterranean.
I envy HaLevi’s piety and literary prowess, his prolific poetic output, his scholarship. Yet I have the technological edge of a laptop. I tap away at the keyboard, conjuring up an ancient scene of him shaping a lamed with his ink-dipped quill. Still, we share the inevitable disappointment of a divided self, our existence positioned in two places at once.
I watch friends’ aliyah videos with happy tears in my eyes, grateful they are now ba’bayit, wishing my family and I were joining them – our lift packed, our house sold, our L’hitraots rendered to those we love on this side of the ocean. But my fear of missing out has transformed of late into fear plain and simple. You should be there, my heart tells me as if I don’t know. My head nods in agreement.
Let’s face it. Stateside current events – graffiti swastikas, Holocaust denial, neo-Nazi marches, fresh memories of Pittsburgh, and the growing frequency of subtle anti-Semitic digs sprinkled across the terrain of everyday conversation – all point east. We have been wandering Jews in flight from pogroms, persecution, poverty, starvation, uprising, and discrimination for nearly forever, and that’s not even counting the expulsions. Thank G-d, we now have a place to go.
But until we make that leap, we tamp down the volume on the wisdom of history, whose message blares like a shofar we don’t want to hear. And yet, the sound foreshadows the day when we may have no choice but to leave, whether we’re ready or not. Only then will we say to hell with the valid reasons that have kept us planted in our apartments and split-levels in America, the family caregiving obligations and the making of a living, the fear of starting anew somewhere else, a lack of confidence in our Hebrew, our limited savings.
In the meantime, it’s as if we are becoming less familiar here, less recognizable as locals in a land we toil and call our own, no matter how many generations ago or from where our families first settled as immigrants on these shores, searching for a better life. A land to which we pledge allegiance and pay taxes. Di goldene medina, the safest of places where you can make it if only you work hard enough, where you can either wear your tefillin or lose your religion, where you can be equal – almost, because there are still a few clubs that stop Jews at the door.
There’s that old joke about how long it takes a Jew to leave a party. I can’t help wonder if the festivities here are winding down, if we’re too drunk in love with baseball and apple pie to see the writing on the wall. Thank G-d for the security guard at the entrance to our shul and for our civil liberties, our freedoms of speech and religion and democracy for which we recite a prayer of gratitude each Shabbos. This has been a paradise of a diaspora, but our passports and our adoration and loyalty to this place notwithstanding, I read the news and hope beyond hope we are more than guests who have overstayed our welcome.
For now, we continue to linger by the Galus bar, sipping drinks while making witty banter, renovating our homes, and sending our kids off to Jewish day school and summer camp. We might stand up for what we believe in, fighting back where we can, davening for our safety, reciting Tehillim for our peace of mind. Or we might play down the worrying signs, choosing to do nothing about them at all. Either way, those images of Nefesh B’Nefesh flights are a balm, especially the scenes of the new arrivals kissing the tarmac in Tel Aviv. I presume HaLevi did the same to the hot sand beneath his feet when he reached the Holy Land, having torn himself away from his desk and quill, pulling up roots from a position of authority and comfort in Spain in order to settle in that sacred place.
Until the time comes for us to board the plane for our own aliyah, whether on our own terms or someone else’s, I will take a lesson from HaLevi and pen my way through the longing. His striking language reminds me that writing is both a form of prayer and a mode of transportation. It allows me to pour out what’s in my heart as a way to let G-d in, no matter how far away we are from the ruins of His house in Yerushalayim. And it transports me eastward, if for now only in my head, to the center of the Jewish world.
In that well-known Psalm 137, we cry out, If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning. I envision the ink stains on HaLevi’s writing hand, be it left or right, and caress the ambidextrous keyboard beneath mine. While tapping away, I dream of the day when my typing fingertips will be stained with the sun yellow turmeric and fresh za’atar I’ve picked up in the shuk that morning.
I write my note, my plea, my prayer – How will we know when it’s time to go? – and place it in the Kotel of my imagination, feeling my lips chill against the stones. Never taking my eyes off its holiness, I walk back across that swath of sacred Israeli ground to await the answer.