Twilight over Tioga Lake

Sunday, May 3, 2009

What I Brought Back

Most of the time, I am thankful for the dwindling nature of memory.  Life can be overwhelming enough.  We couldn't possibly live a normal life with every experience we've had at the forefront of our minds.

But how I do wish the memories of travel stayed with us a bit longer...or rather, that the travel afterglow lingered for just a bit more.

When I got back from my time in the Middle East, that specific "travel feeling" clung to me for exactly a week.  I wandered around in a dopey, happy haze.    The smells and sounds were still within grasp.  Since most of the trip was an intensive learning experience, I had much to process.  The thoughts and feelings started at the top of my head, and continued to melt down through me.

I felt so certain this trip would stay with me the longest.

And so soon it started to fade away.

Many people asked me, "When are you going to write about your trip, Elissa?  You must have such great writing material now!"

Of course I did have lots to write about--but it has taken--and may yet continue to take--some time.  Israel is not a place to remain unmoved and neutral, no matter where you stand.  There was much to filter through in the days that followed.

So far a couple of poems have come from the experience.  I may not be able to recapture that feeling in full--but writing the poems was a little like visiting again.  And until I can visit again for real, that will have to do.

Where have YOU been?  Or, where are you going?  Go.

Salty Breakfast    4/27/09

"Boker Tov!"  

I blink red-eyed at the sunny smile sitting at the breakfast buffet desk, searching for the Hebrew response to good morning.  

"Boker Or!" My mouth fumbles around the alien words.  Morning light.  My brain is gummy with jet lag and exhaustion.  I pry it open each morning for the deluge of facts and experience that comes with the day. 

Deep breath in, and enter a clinking and crunching commotion.
Blood sugar drains down my spine, leaving my brain hollow and achy.  Juice will help.  I rush to the beverage table, and drain what I suppose to be orange juice into a glass.

But what is this?  Eyes scrunched, I peer at the pallid concoction in my glass.  It is definitely not fresh squeezed.  More watered down than concentrate...yet salty-sweet.  Is it?  It is.  Tang.

Hmm.  So they like Tang in Israel.  I can live with that.  Now for the food.  

Scanning the steaming rows, I first notice what there isn't.  No bagels.  No pancakes.  No waffles.  No more thinking.  I turn off my brain and take.

After many tong fumblings and awkward "no, you first" with other travelers, I sit and stare at my plate.  I took some things that are not the norm for my breakfast.  No fear allowed.

Cottage cheese is a familiar comfort to start with.  I spoon it in.  Surprised by a thick tanginess.  I semi-successfully spoon it onto a round roll, shove it dripping into my mouth.  Laugh.  This is fun.

The buffet was fertile with salad.  Lentil, cabbage, carrot, pasta, pickled vegetables.  Crunch into the cabbage.  Peppery, brackish, and slippery.  Perfect counterpart to the chewy, soft cheese and bread concoction.

Now for the next step.  Pickled herring.  I carefully introduce it to my tongue.  And am shocked by delicious brininess, the texture firm and inviting.  I can do fish for breakfast.

Cheesed pasta--not unusual for lunch, but this is 7:30 am.  Kind of heavy.  Sip bitter and sweet Wysottsky tea, pray for it to be found at home.  Orange watermelon, yellow grapefruit, lemony avocado.  I squeeze it in, no longer hungry, but because I can.   And we do.  I look at my companions, each drowned in his or her own adventure: struggle down instant coffee, indulge in Cookie Crisps with 3% milk, suck on hard boiled egg.  Get up and get more and more and more!

I saved my obsession for last--a plateful of Kosher pickles.  Julienned, a deeper olive green.  I could cry at my favorite food being offered at all hours.  Place one in deliberately--one would think I was savoring a damn priceless truffle.   

Yes.  Nothing could have made this better.  There is no vinegar in these pickles.  Just a simple brine, which I suck out, then bite down into a crunch.  I eat one and another and another, until a lonely white plate with green tear drops stares back.  

Drunk on this salty newness, I see my friends stretching into action.  Time to go.  One last swallow of Tang for the road.

Surprise?  After all the savory salinity, the Tang kind of works.  

The day is ready for me.

Three Times to Kotel 4/30/09


The sky spits on us as we walk through the Dung Gate--an unceremonious introduction.  We are lagged and still adjusting: spine empty, brain grasps at everything handed to it.

As we approach the square, the sun does not come out.  There are no rainbows to confirm a revelation.  The sky remains a watercolor gray wash above.

But then we pass through some sort of vortex: an immediate energy change shivers through me. Our walking bodies fall into a murky slow motion.   Wall up ahead to the right, fortress to the left, ice-rink golden limestone underneath.  I look, and look, and look.

We stop, to listen and learn about this place.  But I am not for learning right now.  The wall wants me to feel it.  I stand impatiently in my body.  

And then I hear Jerusalem.

Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah.
Ash-hadu an la ilaha ill-Allah. 

The Muslim call to prayer.  Haunting, alien, resonates across the square and through my organs.

Then the clanging of the Christian churches.  Familiar, slightly jarring, counterpoint to the call.

Underneath it all, the vibration of prayer and wailing at Kotel itself.  Even at this distance the exposed emotion transfers.

How is this happening?  How did I get here?  Everything comes together at the Kotel everyday.  

But for me this is once in an eternity.  Surreal, and so real....

I accept my place at this moment.  Contact will Kotel will come.  I can listen.


Evening now.  Aquamarine twilight soothes down the golden walls.  Now we can touch.

A small group of us move towards the women's side.  We approach slowly and with reverence.  I clutch a piece of white paper filled with printed prayers of friends, family, and students:
I wish people would stop fighting and have a peaceful day.
I wish my tummyache would go away.
May all beings be free of suffering.
I hope people stop throwing trash on the ground.

Will there be room for my note?  I suddenly get nervous in this position of an ambassador of prayer for so many.

There are many women praying close to the Wall.  Some are davening, but in near silence.  I feel large and awkward.  Is it ok to be doing this?  My friend smiles at me, anticipating and encouraging.  We get closer.

It takes a minute to find space.  I stick my arms against myself so not to jostle the pious.  Finally there I am, squeezed up against a stairway on the far right side.  

Before reaching out, I look up.  The Kotel is much taller than I had thought.  And this was only the outside wall of the Temple.  Imagine the real thing...

My hand reaches, makes contact with the Wall.  

Smoothness.  That is what touches me first.   Glossy, no rough edges on this surface.

I run my hand up and down it, and the magnitude of it all crashes onto me--how many hands have felt this, rendering it so polished?  Thousands and thousands.  So many tears and hands and raw emotion laid bare onto this surface.  It pulses into me.

I look to my companions, wondering at their experience.  One has her head bowed to the wall, eyes closed, deep in touch with it.  The other looks at me, her face open and smiling in recognition of the incredibleness of this moment.

Remembering my mission, I remember to breath and concentrate.  Predictably, there are no vacancies in the cracks around me.  No choice but to unceremoniously put my prayers on the ground.  The paper looks like a common piece of trash down there.  I feel shrunken and childlike, wondering if my and everyone's prayers will be heard.  

Surely God will hear them in my mind?  This is the closest you can get to God, many believe...

I creep closer.  Close eyes.  And think.  Hard.  For me.  For everyone.
Peace to Israel and all people of the world.  Health and happiness to my friends and family. Peace to friends and family no longer with us.  

My parents' prayer.  May Elissa and her group have a safe and mind expanding trip.

Four year old Brody's seemed especially relevant.  I hope that people stop fighting over the Jesus story.

Fingers continue to stroke the smoothness that has seen everything, and I feel something.  A humming, singing vibration.  My hand stops.  Right there.

I don't know where God is.  If God is.  But an energy persists here.  As if the Wall has absorbed all the emotion, fervor, longing, tears into it.  I cannot avoid it.

Or maybe God is here after all.  

I see my companions backing away, and I break contact.  

We walk backwards; slowly, slowly.  Back into the walking, talking now.  Back into comfortable, Godless reality.  We go on with our night.

Remembering that smoothness to this day.  


Friday evening.  We are deposited here once again to witness the Shabbat fervor for ourselves.

Alone I go towards the wall.  But this time is different.  There is a hushed intensity among the ever-increasing commotion in the square.  I feel more an interloper than an anticipated guest.  But I need to see this.

Woman pray quietly, sitting or standing by the wall.  The men's side, starting to swell with noise and activity, tempts me to watch.  I glue myself to the partition, peer between the metal slats.

First I smile at our three guys, let loose in the mayhem.  They have pulled up chairs right in the middle, absorbing the pious pandemonium around them.  I envy them.

I see all sorts of hats entering.  Tall black ones, circular fur ones, kippahs.  What else is there?  Long black coats, army green jackets, blue windbreakers.  Long gray beards, trimmed ones, smooth child faces.  Guns.

There is a maddening stacking and unstacking of white plastic chairs--to what end I have no idea.  Men start to gather in small groups, nodding, talking, touching.  A celebratory seriousness.

Still more come and come...where are they fitting?  They stream into every open space, eddy into the corners.  

Sometimes I focus in on one person.  An older man mouths words from the Torah in his hand, slightly rocking back and forth.  Behind him, a young man in bright blue kippah and raincoat spasmodically sways in a veritable trance.  Amazing to see, and a little frightening in its unfamiliarity.
I look back to my male trip mates, and see they have disappeared.  Maybe the thickening intensity finally got to be too much for them.  It would have for me.  I remain shielded behind the division.

Energy and voices continue to swell.  And I hear something--something I know!

David melach Yisrael,
Chai, chai, vekayam...

A song we sing with the children at Shabbat, being sung here at Kotel!  I feel a surge of connection once again to this place that was distancing from me.  I cling to the slats, pressing closer.

Now it is nearly dark, and the men's area nearly full.  Songs everywhere rise on voices, bodies rock back and forth, arms grip around backs.  Pulsing energy rides a wave of raw religion.

I shiver out of my own trance, and notice my whole group stands together in the square, minus me.  Once again I back away, slightly pushed on ripples of zeal.  

Once up and away and released, we look down on the joyful madness.  Even at a distance the voices shine on, now in full discordant harmony.  

Shabbat means day of rest, but the Wall Shabbat seems the farthest from rest.  Celebrate first--rest will come. 

The third time I was not so much a part of things--almost a voyeur--but remain thankful for having seen nonetheless.

We stroll along fortress walls, bask in the turquoise twilit calm.  The wall retreats behind me, ever and ever farther away.

Kotel is now months and miles from me.  Everyday more and more.  

I have left the wall.   I may leave it again some day.  But it will never leave me. 

About Me

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San Francisco, CA
Elissa is an east coast transplant making her way through life by way of San Francisco. This amazing city provides lots of fodder for writers of all types. I find inspiration for writing through life's little and bizarre events, such as grocery shopping for dog treats, salamander hunting, and insomnia. I am a preschool teacher in "real life."