Heart of the Matter

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A heartfelt look by Aaron B. Cohen at the great arc of life through the prism of its details.

Heart of the Matter

A journey of (re)discovery

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What I learned on a recent visit to Israel, as recorded in my personal journal

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Next week, God willing, I'll return to Israel for the first time in five years, or maybe four? I've been to that tiny country that looms so large many times—enough it seems to have the exact time of my last visit dissolve into the vapors that swirl in my head and form the mist of memory.

Being in Israel, inhaling its air, eating the fruits of the land, rubbing shoulders on buses and cafes with the salt of its earth, has left no indelible marks on my body. But my mind has been irrevocably touched. Romanticism roars forth from my soul when I think of the piney scent of Israel's forests, of the play of lemon and garlic on my taste buds after each swipe of humus on pita, and when I feel the hot-blooded kiss of Hebrew on my lips and ears. 

I'm in love, smitten by the sensual images of a faraway place. You have to come closer to see that grime and dust, and stark cruelty coexist with bougainvillea and loving hearts. Heaps of stone, rock piles of history, narratives slathered one on top of the other like palimpsests trapped within riddles of their own making, I prepare for all of this to drive me mad. Each step, each encounter, each brush with meaning will register on my spiritual tableau. It is with no clean slate that I will enter that hallowed place next week. Inscribed within are words of ancient songs and tapestries of dreams. Strike the chord of yearning and stumble into the glaring light of human frailty; somewhere on those craggy cliffs lies the foundation stone. Somewhere it waits to be found. Next week I'll search for it again.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Just back last evening, and the visit was all that I expected per the previous entry. A bit less breathless, a tad less exhilarating, a touch more exhausting. I am 60 not 40 or 50, and the difference shows itself to me. It's not simply physical stamina that's somewhat diminished, it's also psychic absorptivity. I can soak up only so much feeling without encountering walls that have lost a measure of their elasticity and permeability.

It was magical to reconnect with Israel on the dirt-in-the-street level. Again, the place enchanted me; again it exhausted me. And it also surprised me. The level of building and development, even in the past four years; the seemingly good security situation internally; the feeling of being in a stable and sane Western country, rather than on a tipping point of Middle Eastern madness. Maybe all the problems that seemed so central and so vexing have paled in the face of the turn of the wheel of time. Maybe Israel has normalized.

The visit provided a new benchmark against which to gauge changes over a long time span, from my first impression as an eight-year old boy, to the first year I spent in Israel as a 19-year old student, to living there as a 26-year old young professional, to my many visits throughout the past two decades. The Israel I knew as a young man has disappeared, has been paved over and blurred by prosperity and growth, and the concrete that accompanies all that. Distance from the founding traumas and triumphs places a mask of distance and distortion between the great and pivotal events and turning points, and the current situation. I see all this in personal and symbolic terms—and must accept that “my” Israel—the one that I discovered when I was young—no longer is there in the way that it was. The huge and world-class visitors' center at Masada, with its McDonald's, has robbed the spot of its remoteness and exoticism. There will be no going back. Big Macs served at Masada challenges my notion of what is unique and special about Israel and the Jews.

Of course, it's a good sign that Big Macs are there, but also a signpost pointing to things that have been lost, and no longer can be as easily defined or even considered definitive. Maybe, and for this I pray, normalcy has come, and come to stay.

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