Everyone wore the same clothes that summer, and most of them even looked convincing. The streets were alive with the raucous dance of color and print that broke out with the advent of spring – that tore off rainy-day sweaters and replaced them with a style that was part prairie, part Biblical pantomime, part toy store. Aladdin pants floated like hot-air balloons over heavy bandits’ boots; skirts reclined on top of one another in layer cakes of calico and lace. Tissue-light blouses slipped down the shoulders of the young secular and were hoisted carefully up by the young religious. And kippot bobbed through the sky, Frisbees perched to sail off heads, in a breathtaking array of stripes and tie-dye, of serious black velvet, of dizzy crocheted spirals; and all of them were so wild and transcendent, so stitched up with dreams, that the tourists could not help but wear them too.
“Where did you get that skirt?” asked one tour guide to his charge as they plodded to the Kotel. “Tsfat?’
Overhearing this, Sarah – Sarah who had always been a traveler, Sarah surrounded by the people of the city she had called home for four years, among people who laughed and sweated and flew their proud colors in the breeze – felt herself adrift at sea.
Ages ago, before she lit her first candle on Friday night – back when she carried maps in her backpack, not Tehillim – she had once road-tripped to Venice Beach. As promised, it was a paradise of bodies, without reservation and utterly free, given that luxury by their perfection. Sarah, who was short and solid and wore even her sensible one-piece swimsuit with dread, was embarrassed by the whole spectacle. She was thrust by her plainness into the role of spectator, not participant, and she hated the sidelines.
She sent a message that night, after a few beers: “Tell me I’m beautiful.” She sent it to the acquaintance she had stayed with a few nights before, who had lent her first his couch and then half his bed, who she assumed she would never see again. (Eventually she would, over cold coffee that she drank from a plastic disposable cup, and she smiled at him but they did not touch.)
An hour later, as she meandered along the pier, she received a reply: “Where are you now?”
And another reply: “What does it look like?”
Not like the forested mountains of Colorado, where pine trees careen and slide around the rocky slopes in rolling abundance, where glaciers like the one she had climbed make puncture wounds in the clouds. Not like the homey dusty wildflowers and adobe walls of Santa Fe, whose impossible quaintness becomes all the more striking when you see how alone those little clusters of life are in the fanged New Mexico wilderness. Not like the Saharan hell of Arizona, its empty heat studded with unnatural patches of golf-course green and swimming-pool blue. And certainly not like frightening southeastern California, which is pure nothing – high nothing on the tops of rock shelves, low nothing below them – until you hit an acre of wind turbines, hundreds of thousands of them, their giant white blades chopping through the desert haze like an army in a dream. Not like any of these things that she had sought after and seen.
Venice Beach was the lights and the slow burn of sex and the psychics jangling moonlit beads on the pier. It was human beings taking refuge in petty things, flinching from the majesty that lay before them: a great ocean that would have been blue in the daylight. Now, looking out from the pier, she saw the blackness of the sea in a thousand different shades, each one bleeding into the other. There was the inky banner of the sky, through which a full moon shone as though a hole puncher had stamped it in. There were the clouds that mottled the sky’s darkness, themselves a lighter grey, patches of comfort in the unrelenting black. Palm trees and faraway buildings and even people were spots of darkness, too, carved out barely in the shapes of their silhouettes.
And then, of course, the water itself: at once bottomless and thin as a mirror, at once depthless and monstrously deep. Within its scope you could see pinpricks of light like scattered jewels, sprinkled everywhere so that they dazzled the peering eye; you could see clunky hints of jetsam, and glimpses of silver fish playing in the abyss, and promises of other undiscovered things veiled beneath the water. Sarah suddenly ached to leap in and pull them out.
She wrote all this to the boy, or tried to, forgetting to whom she was writing as she wrote. There on Venice Beach she was so in love – not with anyone, only in love.
There was a pause, and then a last message: “Sarah, you’re very beautiful.”
The next time she saw the sea at night, it was from the uneven streets of Jaffa Port, in the footprint of an old minaret. There were little boys playing tag in the beach-grass crannies around her feet in a language she did not understand, and the sight both warmed and scared her, as it does. And when she smelled the salt curdling the wind, and looked out and watched lighthouses flash in the distance, she searched in her pocket-sized siddur until she found the words to mutter under her breath: “ברוך אתה ה’ אלוקנו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית – Blessed are You, our God, King of the World, Who does the work of Creation” – the stunning universal and then the stunning particular – “שעשה את הים הגדול – Who made the Great Sea.” Once more, overwhelmed with love.
There were those glorious moments after she began her teshuva, and then there were the moments when she felt that she was nothing, nothing at all, like the California desert, only an amalgamation of half-adopted identities and awkward hand gestures and undigested chicken. There were the moments when she sat silently at the Shabbat table and thought, “I have always been someone with something to say, and I have nothing to say to these people.” And that episode on the bustling street, with everyone decked out in summer carnival clothes, was one – everyone belonged to a world, and she was not sure if she was content to belong.
At first, her passion had come all in a heavy burst, a forest fire not long after the night on Venice Beach; she read book after book, and in each letter – in familiar English saying new and sacred things, and in the Hebrew whose maddening curves became all the more precious because they were indecipherable to her – she felt herself being led blind along the trail by some invisible guide, led towards an end that felt more natural to her the closer she stepped towards it.
Pieces began to fall into place, and she found ways to explain them to herself and to those around her without the word “God.” Why do I say a blessing before biting into food? To exercise my sense of gratitude. Why do I cover my upper arms? To avert the male gaze, to avoid the everyday objectification of the sidewalk. Why do I learn Torah? Because the stories are my history, and the truths in them are great and awesome and terrible. Why do I pray? To feel the poetry against my lips.
All true, and all half-truths; all answers elaborate and incomplete, that danced around the enormity of the passions that gripped and twisted her and made her laugh and cry and drove her forward. She knew with Whom she was in love, and she was only just learning to say His name.
And Sarah found herself in a story. She, who fancied herself an arguer, loved Yaakov because he wrestled with God; she, who fancied herself an adventurer, loved Yaakov because he wandered and ran away and wandered more until his wanderings, almost despite his own efforts, built for him a land of destiny and promise.
In the end, driven once again onwards by an engine that she could not explain, she filled her backpack one more time with everything she could carry and went to Israel.
She stayed. And she learned there how to roll Hebrew around her mouth as though she had always spoken it – for indeed she had always spoken it, it had curled dormant in the drops of her blood and the crannies of an old memory inherited but never released into the open. And she let her hair grow long and its ends golden and sun-brittle, and she pierced her nose, and wept openly at the sight of broken pottery from destroyed fortresses and synagogues and homes that could have been her own, and once she stood so still in the middle of the desert that an ibex ran a hands-breadth before her without noticing her presence. And she prayed from the depths of her gut, in language that became as soft and known as a baby’s blanket, but language that walloped her with the force of its glory. And she learned how to sing wordless songs that swept a tablefull of people into shared enchantment, and songs with words that transformed everyday life into a fairytale of Sabbath queens and holy lovers – words that everyone knew and carried with them like the hair on the backs of their hands. She learned how to stay in one place, how to join her own new tendrils to the great taproot of her people.
She learned, learned, learned, until her brain was crowded with figures as noisy as family who jostled for attention: Rav Hiyya writing a Sefer Torah on the skins of deer he caught himself; David dancing naked in a fit of sacred passion, and Michal looking down from her barren tower in shame; Jonah running from the voice of God, and again and again losing the race. And she taught herself to pour tea through a second glass and put her shoe on the right foot first, and ask questions that lent an earthy whimsy to every act. How often do we wash our hands, and in what order do we wash them? What if we wash a dairy pot with a meat sponge in cold water? Can you build a kosher sukkah on the back of a large dog, a camel, an elephant? Much of it she forgot – the mind an imperfect tool, a gap-toothed sieve for sifting challah flour – but much of it she remembered.
She was high on it all, higher than Pike’s Peak, higher than on any of the pot she had smoked in rooms that afterwards shifted their dimensions and made her feel sick. She was discovering vistas that she had never seen through the window of a Greyhound bus. She felt pure, driven by a mission, above all part of a chronicle that had meaning to it – she started, as easily as a sigh, to say the word God, and when she did it was as though layers of veiling had been stripped off her tongue.
Then it was gone. The longer she stayed in one place, the faster she watched herself turn grey and stagnant. The tides of passion muted themselves into dull murmurs, and to combat the fading-away she prayed with more fervor, learned harder, climbed trees and went through the motions of holy excitement. This is my Jonah moment, she reasoned, this is my soul on the run, and I will work myself bone-tired to drag it back.
But every day she was dragging it all up a steeper cliff, and every day she found herself a little more exhausted, a little readier to burrow into herself and shut the world away and waste her times on things flimsy and unholy. She watched fewer sunsets and a lot of TV. She no longer traveled.
Throughout it all, she waited for the tears to come, but they did not come, not even when she screwed up her face in a mimicry of crying did they come.
She stood that day – in the middle of her fourth summer in Jerusalem – on the side of the light rail track, swaddled in her own multilayered skirt, earrings rocking back and forth, and heard some fearless young girl say “Venice Beach.” The syllables themselves echoed with the hollow ring of the irrevocable.
And she heard the voices all around her, saw the crowds clustering and dispersing, gathering and spreading, as though tapping their fingers and whispering between themselves while they waited for the sea to part. Here I am, they’re moving and I’m standing still. I was once someone who billowed, she thought, wandering across the world, unstoppable, seeing all of its wonders – my God, how could I have wasted a life like this one?
Silent, numb, she began to listen to the words that hovered in the air. “I loved him,” said someone in Hebrew in the distance, “but all he did was cook and cry.” “I don’t like heavy shoes in the summer, they just weigh your feet down,” in English this time. And another Hebrew: “I’ve already had too much to drink tonight” – and a woman singing under her breath in a Russian that, spotted with flecks of Israeli Hebrew, sounded like the quiet echo of Yiddish.
The Jerusalem stone always looked like gold, like tarnished gold bearing the scars of its years. Every day there was a new synagogue, a sign and a blessing painted on some storefront, and around the many places, many stairs men gathered and spoke raggedly to one another. Rock-doves and pigeons cooed at each other, cawed at one another, flew from rooftop to rooftop. And on the faces of all the passersby there was a kind of perfect insanity, a graceful elevation that persists beyond time, that must have splayed across David’s face as he danced naked before God. The entire world was here, and more than the world.
Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of Hosts, who fills the whole earth with His splendor. Holy, holy, holy, thought Sarah, and raised without thinking onto the tips of her toes, reaching towards the clouds that nestled into their infinite tzitzit-colored sky. Coursing through her skin she felt the old familiar crackle of love.
She opened her phone up and – a reflex that hadn’t touched her since so many years ago in Venice Beach – typed out a message. “Tell me I’m beautiful.”
Halfway through a second message describing what she saw around her, the golden-blue sky and the light-rail tracks and her extended family clamoring in their carnival clothes, a smile cracked unbidden across her face. She deleted the message, shut off the phone, and began the walk home.