Each spring the Torah reading cycle takes a detour in the Israelites’ ongoing journey saga. Before the narrative of the 40-year desert sojourn picks up in the Book of Numbers, there are lists to be made – in this case, mainly about the sacrificial and other holy practices led by the ancient priestly clan, as recounted in Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus.
Lehavdil, I’m making lists and plans, and anticipating some new ritual experiences, for my first ever Passover in Israel. In a few weeks, I’ll be travelling there with my 17-year-old son, for his first ever visit.
Like many in the Diaspora, we have family in Israel. When I stepped off the plane to be greeted by a relative for my first trip at age 16, I was meeting a stranger. Stranger still were the vistas I beheld. My cousins’ Tel Aviv apartment, with its trisim, metal blinds in place of windows, in a neighbourhood filled with dazzling white buildings, was the base for my independent travels that summer, which included trips to the southern and northern ends of the country, from Sharm el-Sheikh to Rosh HaNikra.
There were so many unfamiliar landscapes and experiences on my journey: the wild heat while pushing an Egged bus stuck in the desert sand; seeing the names of my perished family members etched in a memorial wall on my cousin’s kibbutz; the renowned (infamous?) jostling in non-queues at bus stops – topped with ceaseless queries about when I would make Aliyah!
One of many things that will be different for my son will be our visits to synagogues. Over the years, I have visited a wide range of traditional congregations, including settings quite unfamiliar to me, such as an Erev Shabbat service in a Yeruham synagogue led and attended by Jews from Cochin, India.
This spring, we may be able to attend a lively Kabbalat Shabbat outdoors at the renovated and repurposed First Railway Station in Jerusalem, complete with instruments and dancing in the streets, led by one of the many Shabbat communities that are part of the native Israeli Jewish renaissance.
Another difference, though of a markedly different quality, is the state of the occupation. This was not a feature of my awareness or of my preparations in the summer of 1973. What I did notice was the separation between Jews of white Ashkenazi descent, like myself, and those of African and Middle Eastern origins, and between Jews and Arabs. With my highly tuned and newly emerging youthful political consciousness, I was appalled by what I perceived as straight-up racism.
My son may have the opportunity to witness something entirely more endemic and institutionalized. If we visit Bethlehem, for example, our entry will be through a checkpoint in the separation wall, and our exit experience will be markedly different from Palestinians with differently coloured identity cards.
This journey, in today’s Israeli-Palestinian landscape, will be so different for my son than it was for me. We can’t journey as far south at Sharm el-Sheikh. He knows far more than I did at his age about the issues. As we prepare for our trip, and I prepare to teach about the ancient priestly rituals in Vayikra, it’s good to remember that our people’s story continues to evolve with each succeeding generation.