Sunday, November 10, 2013

Israel Diary 2: Home Alone

I am happy to say I feel very much at home when I am in Eretz Yisrael. I feel safe and connected, and I never thought it would make a difference if I went there on my own or with company, but this past winter, as I mentioned last week, I went there by myself and I had a very unexpected experience – I felt lonely. I don’t think it was primarily for lack of my husband’s company on a purely simplistic, “social” level – I am independent to a fault, and have always had a great need for alone time. I am usually able to entertain myself very well, and often relish my privacy.

However, to begin with, I was staying in a neighborhood that was new to me, Giv’at Hav’radim, also known as Rassco – which actually stands for something as unglamorous as “Rural and Suburban Settlement Company” – west of Katamon, because kind relatives had made available their gorgeous apartment free of charge. It was a far cry from where we usually stay, in a small rental efficiency in Zichron Moshe, a stone’s throw from Kikar Shabbat.

In Zichron Moshe you are surrounded by pious, frum, Jews all day long, whether you like it or not. But I like – you don’t feel lonely when Hashem’s ambassadors are running about all over the place. They are also noisy, so you feel irritated – but not lonely. In Rassco, frum Jews are very few and extremely far between. In fact, I saw none. (The Jews I did see must, sadly, not have been aware that they were supposed to be Hashem’s ambassadors.) Only walking east towards Katamon, as I did on my second Shabbos, did they become visible. Also, it was very quiet in the apartment, with only sounds of distant cars, but none of human voices. Almost eerie.

It also has to be said that when it comes to securing invitations for Shabbos meals and the like, my husband is second to none, and very useful to take along on any kind of outlandish venture. He has no social barriers whatsoever. He can go up to a complete stranger and say “When are we coming to you for a se’udah?” No kidding – I have seen it with my own eyes. People are usually too stunned to refuse. Then again, many actually enjoy it; my husband is very good company and can make anyone feel at ease right away. Even farfrumte women will sit and talk to him as if he were their cousin. It is a particular gift, an extraordinary measure of chen, the blessing of finding favor in the eyes of others, that the Creator has given him. I myself am not like that. I have barriers. Very barriers.

For the first Shabbos, I went to stay with my darling friend and her husband in Efrata, but as my second Shabbos in Yerushalayim approached I was actually stuck, being that several promising leads had fizzled into nothingness. The day meal was taken care of, but I was facing the possibility of a Friday night se’udah all alone, and it got to the point that I was toying with the idea of booking myself for a meal for a fortune at the relatively nearby Prima Kings Hotel, just to be surrounded by human faces. In Zichron Moshe I might have been able to make Shabbos on my own and be okay, but in Rassco I would have felt utterly desolate and desperate. Finally, my husband (boruch Hashem for Skype!) was the one who came to the rescue and set it up – from home – by making a few well-placed phone calls and arranging a pleasant evening with a wonderful family in Katamon.

But there was also another kind of loneliness, one that is harder to pinpoint, and which is actually the topic of this post. I made a very interesting discovery – one which is a bit complicated to break down into logical thinking or meaningful words. I am not even sure how I came to this surprising conclusion (unless it came to me through the influence of having sat in the Rebbe’s seat!), because there is still a little part of me that is vaguely suspicious of this kind of thinking. All the same, here it is: Being in the Holy Land without my holy husband felt – less holy.

Dare I actually proclaim that there might be a dimension of kedusha, of holiness, and connection to the Divine, that is brought into the world exclusively through the male – just as there is another one, given birth to, and nurtured, by the female? I am confused, and I am unsure of how it is actually working, but something tells me that it is so. (And if you are going to tell me that: duh! – this is what the Rabbis have been saying all along, I would retort that certain things are not true and "real” to you, unless you are able to experience them on an internal, emotional level.)

Rebbetzin Tzippora Heller, in her book “The Balancing Act” writes obscure things about “men bringing down Torah and women building with it”, and honestly, I don’t have a clue what she is talking about, and I wish she would explain herself, but I had a bit of an inkling, over there in Rassco. Obviously, I went to the Kosel, the Western Wall, and of course I went to visit my very holy Rebbetzin in Meah Shearim, and I went to pray at the graves of tzaddikim, and to a women’s Torah lecture, and I had two beautiful Shabbosim with frum families – and yet, there was a dimension that was missing from this experience.

On a pedestrian, logistical level, a man’s constant concern about davening and z’manim (the daily prayer services at the proper appointed times) is a perpetual reminder of our connection to Heaven, but it goes deeper than that and it is more subtle than that. Perhaps it is the fact that two – connected – minds are involved with avodas Hashem, Divine service, instead of only one? 

Could it be that men, because they are so different from normal people (women), transmit their spiritual experience to us in a way that adds something novel to ours? They burst in through the door and carry on with this mishna, and that shita; and guess what the gabbai said?; and it is quite remarkable how people don’t enunciate their brochos properly and am I really supposed to answer Amen to that garbled nonsense?; and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch has a real bomb on this week’s parsha! And we say “that's lovely, darling – here are your eggs”, but all the same we are affected – in a good way. A holy way, I think, because it adds a dimension that we women are not usually directly involved with.

But maybe it is even more subtle than that? When Hashem is beaming His Presence into our material universe, could it be that the female and male “receptors” are quite simply so different that we will absorb different aspects of the Shechina, in radically different ways? That our very fundamental concepts of Heaven might be light years apart? If the male conquers and the female nurtures, it stands to reason that we should perceive the spiritual world in different terms. And considering that we women and men were created to complement and complete each other, we each need the other’s vision. Without this other vision there was something missing from my life – and I felt lonely.

I once had a female coworker of an older generation who told me about a woman of her acquaintance who prayed “just like a man” three times a day. “She never got married” my coworker explained, “so she doesn’t have a husband to pray for her – she has to do it herself.” Strictly speaking, this may have been a little bit of a misconception on my coworker’s part regarding the role of prayer in a woman’s life, but the concept appealed to me, and has lingered in my mind these fifteen years. The husband prays for – and on behalf of – his wife, and she – well, she does all the other thousand-and-one things for him, and they both benefit.

Perhaps it was as simple as that – on this trip I didn’t have my man there to pray for me; I was home alone.

Shalom Uv'racha!

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