A Woman’s Cry and a Prayer from a Face

There is tension in this land, an undercurrent that I can feel in my daily walks around the city. In a place dominated by the most focused on conflict in the world, so many things in our regular lives go under the radar, only to be noticed by the occasional flare up or word that rings too harsh. All of my friends and family ask about the conflict with the Palestinians, whether I am scared of Hezbollah, what I think about Trump’s embassy move, or what I think about Bibi. Nobody on the outside sees the problems we try to ignore, the unglamorous sides of living in the holiest place in the world.

This blog is not about bashing Israel. I love this country. I gave up an amazing community, closeness to my family, the best friends a man could ask for, a steady income, and the support network I built for years; and I gave all of that up just to have hope in this place. People warned me that this was a hard land, and that it spits out people. They told me that you cannot live on idealism alone, that you had to harden yourself for everything this country would throw at you; but I can’t live like that. This blog will be my attempt to document and process what I see and feel around me, living as an oleh chadash, a new immigrant, and share with you both the beautiful and the horrible sides of living in my new home.

I was at Merkazit Hamifratz the other day, the main bus/train hub that connects Haifa with the Krayot, the suburban cities further to the north. I live in the Krayot, and stopping at this bus stop is part of my everyday commute. As usual, there was the afternoon crowd waiting to go home, all us of us lined up along the area where we wait for the metronit, the designated buses between the Krayot and Haifa. My Hebrew isn’t good enough for me to understand everything that goes on, but I didn’t need it to see what was happening in front of my eyes that day.

A crowd had formed around a few Ethiopians. Haifa is a mixed city, where Jews, Arabs (Christian and Muslim), and olim from around the world live. I could see a woman in traditional Ethiopian clothing yelling and crying, and a young man in a tee shirt with his back up against a wall, pinned by a bus official standing in front of him, the official’s arm outstretched with his hand against the wall. I have no idea what the argument was about, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Ethiopians here surrounded by angry crowds, and officials containing them. I looked at the young Ethiopian man. He couldn’t have been much older than eighteen. He was a tall guy; but the other man was even bigger. There was less than a foot separating their bodies, their faces, separating the powerful from the powerless. I could see the young man face away, with the same look I saw too often in the young African American men in similar situations in the states. The same look of defeat, of humiliation, of just wanting to get out of there. There’s a difference between the eyes of a man who’s resisting, a man who’s known what he’s done, and the look of a man who feels powerless. He had the look of a men robbed of agency, stripped of his humanity, surrounded by a crowd of people who only saw him as a potential, or inevitable, criminal. The same held true of the woman, she was like so many desperate faces I had seen back in the states. Mothers, grandmothers, givers, caretakers, women who wanted to protect but needed help, who were ignored, who were fought, who were distrusted because they looked different.

You can tell so much by the tone of a cry. I remember hearing a woman cry at the funeral of her three year old son, and I remember thinking that I had never heard anything so striking, so penetrating, so entirely filled with pain and frustration that all of her endeavours were for naught. This woman’s cry pierced me like her’s. Surrounded by angry strangers, in a place where she was supposed to be welcomed, instead feeling as foreign as an enemy in our midst. It was the cry of someone pleading for the help she deserved and receiving the treatment she expected. The endless struggle for equality only to be let down by the people that are supposed to be there to protect you. Her Hebrew switching to Amharic, and back again, trying to get someone to see what was wrong. There is nothing like hearing a woman’s cry of defeat and hopelessness, doing everything she can for people to see and actually listen to her.

In the middle of this month of Elul, a month of reflection, this will be the moment I reflect on. Every day we blow the shofar to wake up our souls to return, to prepare ourselves for the King to judge us as worthy or lacking. That woman’s cry was more powerful than any burst from a ram’s horn that I have ever heard, and the look on that young man’s face said more to me than any penitential prayer has ever spoken to me. They were my call from heaven to pay attention to those around me, and to fight for what is truly important in this land. Not that we should build on every inch of it, or that we should be so strong that our enemies tremble at the mention of our swords, but that no mother and no son should live among their own people and feel like a stranger. That we lost our Temples because we hated each other with out reason, that we burned our stores while the Romans were at the gates.

Our country prides itself on being a beacon of hope to a wandering people, a shelter to a nation hunted and pursued, and as a model for the future of a people reborn from the ashes. All of those hopes and dreams brought me here, but that woman’s cry keeps me here; that young man’s closed eyes and fear tell me to that there is work to be done. They told me when I came here that life would be hard, that you can’t eat Zionism. I’ll tell you something more: you can’t keep this place alive with just Zionism, you need the love that the harshness of this land often robs us of. You need the love of the widows, of the orphans, of the strangers. You need the love of a father and mother to their children, and the children for them. You need to see the men and women standing next to you as more than religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, Russian, gay, straight, or whatever. They are our family, no matter how distant. Don’t just listen this month to the shofars and the lectures about what you need to do, listen out to the cries for help from those around us. I am no prophet, no sage, no rabbi, but I believe that G-d’s call comes through his people, and not just through an animal’s horn. Listen, see what you can do, and then fix this world. Make the connection between one another, and let that connection flow towards the heavens. This is hard place to live in, let’s not make it worse by devouring ourselves from within. I was told once that you can never intuit what happens to a broad segment of a population from one event. It’s the same voice that told me that I can’t assign guilt from a section of a videotape, or from one part of a speech, or from one rash action by one person of authority; but we all know that’s not the truth. When we know that there is a history of persecution, when we know that the statistics point to discrimination, and when we hear countless people tell us, beg us, to see what is front of our eyes that anything else is to at best lie to oneself, and at worse to be cruel to the kind.

G-d willing, I will see that young man and that woman again, but with smiles. I hope to hear the special kind of laughter I hear between the Ethiopians here, a laughter filled with joy and happiness just to see one another. Their community has such warmth and love that its hard not to smile with them when I see friends surprisingly encounter one another on a bus. I want to see that young man standing tall and proud, the master of his own fate in his own country. I want that laughter to erase the memory of that cry, because until I hear it, I will feel unsettled in the land that I am supposed to transform with my presence. I fear that there will be an asterisk next to my name in the Book of Life, telling me that I still have work to do. I know that I only saw one moment, and that even this problem is immensely complicated, but I know that a little more love in the formula just might make a difference. Until then, I will think about those two men and women in this imperfect land, two people deserving more from a people aiming for salvation in what we believe is the center of the universe. Forgive me for the sin of not knowing enough to help then, it is a shortcoming I will not allow myself to repeat.

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