The medieval poet, Yehudah Halevy, is most known for his treatise called, The Kuzari, and for this poem:
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in foreign chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
Halevy here describes a deep longing, a yearning for the land of Israel that is palpable. Like a young man who is far away from his love, just thinking about his object of affection causes a loss of appetite. He just cannot think of anything else – he’s useless. As good as the best things in life are in Spain, he would abandon them all to just to see the dust of the remnants from the 2nd Temple. That’s some obsessive yearning. He would simply say that it’s true love.
I’ve been home from Israel for five days. And I’ve made enough round trips to and from Israel to keep my yearning at a tolerable temperature. When I went to Israel for rabbinical school in 1978, I fell in love with Israel. Hard. I even know when it was.
I went food shopping one afternoon at the Supersol in Jerusalem. I was going to prepare a beautiful, fancy meal and wanted to make saffron rice. Real saffron is very expensive. It’s made from the threads that grow in a crocus. It supposedly takes 20,000 crocuses to make an ounce of saffron. The woman at the cash register was tallying up my purchases, commenting as she did so. “This is good bread – better than the bakery across the street. This avocado… did you squeeze it first? Eat it soon or else”, and so forth. When she picked up the saffron and eyed the price, she stopped. She looked at me – very seriously. “You’re a student, right?” “Yes”, I answered as the shoppers in the vicinity leaned in, without shame, to hear her castigate me for my costly little vial of herb. “You can’t buy this. It’s too expensive. Use turmeric instead.”
I was in love. “This is where I want to live!”, I thought, “I want to be in a nation where everybody has an opinion about what I spend on spices. I want this kind of intimacy and connectedness.” Later I would learn the adage that the thing that you love most about your partner, in the beginning, is the very thing you come to hate 20 years after…
The real issue that ended up preventing me from making Aliyah was my chosen profession. There wasn’t a lot going on for American borne Reform rabbis in Israel in the late Seventies. I didn’t want to be an English teacher for Israeli high school students. The dream of being a rabbi was too deeply planted by then to replace my love for this country that so touched me to the core.
The wild love I had for Israel slowly attenuated to something a bit more manageable. Sometimes I can’t help but wonder what if I had taken that other path and followed that other passion. In the end, though, I know I made the right decision. Because of my wife and family. Because the work of the rabbinate is my calling. Because in my heart I am an American Jew.
I don’t feel myself a stranger in a strange land as Halevy did. There are no chains on me. Living in Israel is simply not the only authentic choice for a Jew in the 21st century. So I live that split level Jewish life, my heart and soul in the east … and in the west.