On a layover in New York on my way home from Israel, I ran into someone who works with my husband. Mike is a writer on a popular show that The Gorilla produces, but I hadn’t seen him in ages and under the circumstances I didn't immediately recognize him.
At 7am, I had secured a coffee and a croissant and was waiting at the gate for my second leg home, still bleary-eyed from being on a plane for 12 hours from Tel Aviv. Mike was wearing glasses and carrying a wardrobe bag over his shoulder. After our surprised greetings, he told me he had been in New York for a family funeral. We were both returning to Los Angeles tired.
Mike is Jewish, and I barely let him get settled into the hard plastic seat before I started rattling off all the things I had seen and learned in Israel. I have dozens of Jewish friends in LA, some of them I had texted frantically from the Holy Land, feeling like I understood them better now. Mike told me that he had been to Jerusalem with his girlfriend-now-wife on their birthright trip years ago, and for the briefest of moments had considered dropping everything and making a life in Israel. “We came to our senses,” he joked, and we both laughed.
Though just the week before I had met several people, American-born, who had done just that. I had dinner with Michelle, a native New Yorker, who had moved to Israel and started a family and years later she and her husband started Shabbat of the Lifetime, a business that pairs up tourists for a traditional shabbat dinner with a local orthodox family. She spoke so genuinely of the sabbath they keep, how this ritual shapes their week and eventually their lives. Michelle told me how their family rests, truly rests on this day. They nap or read. She doesn’t cook or clean or do anything otherwise considered productive. She has little children, as I do, and she laughed when she described how they fight over the iPad all week, as mine do, but not on the sabbath. They know that on Saturday’s until sundown there are no exceptions, no inch in which they could take a mile. The sabbath is holy.
Rabbi Yehoshua, who hosted our whole group for shabbat dinner in his home, moving out the furniture so that dining tables would accommodate us, believes that the Jewish people wouldn’t even have survived until now with the sabbath. The time is that crucial.
Their words soaked in, a message I needed almost more than anything else thrown at me during my week in the Middle East. Sabbath. Rest. Ritual. Holiness. It is all woven together and it is vital. Without it, we are carried along from activity to activity, work between periodic play, the desperate passage of time. To take a full day every week seems radical. What kind of world have we created that scheduled rest and reflection seems scary or embarrassing or a waste?
Mike and I parted ways and I didn’t see him again after we landed in California. We do not know one another well enough, nor did the circumstances seem right, for me to ask him about the Holocaust. But I’ve been quizzing my Jewish friends, fascinated by what they were taught growing up about the persecution of their people and how they feel about modern Israel. Whether this is generational, I’m not sure, but their answers don’t vary much. It's all hard and complicated, what they were taught, and what they believe now. Of my close Jewish girlfriends, only one of them married a Jewish man. This is a subject we’d talked about before, but I see it in a different light now. I hear them better when they speak about it.
Trips abroad, life experiences, they never change you in the predictable ways. You hold your breath and prepare for your butterfly metamorphosis, but when you open your eyes you’ve turned into a raccoon instead.
Maybe you keep waiting to be the butterfly. Maybe you embrace being a raccoon. Or maybe after so many "insteads," you just decide to do the best you can every day, curious to see what happens next.