Friday, June 19, 2009

What is it?

In memory of my grandmother, Yehudis bas Alexander, whose 3rd yahrzeit is on Monday. She epitomized the truism that "you're never too old to learn."

What is it about Israel?

Here's a story, followed by an observation, followed by a question.

The story goes like this.

When I was in Paris way back when, this Jewish family I met told me that you could go study ancient Jewish wisdom in Israel, in English, basically for free.

They called it a yeshiva. I wasn't entirely sure what that was.

Well, I was intrigued, and I went to the Israel tourist office in the center of Paris to find out what my options were.

After sufficient security measures were taken to assure them that I was not a terrorist, I found myself sitting at the desk of a pleasant Israeli woman.

"How may I help you?" she asked.

"I would like to learn about the options for studying in a yeshiva in Israel."

She started to chuckle as if she thought I had made a joke. When she saw that I was not smiling, her eyes widened and she started laughing. Then she called to her colleague, "Chagai, bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-ba-bla-ba YESHIVA!"

Chagai rushed over, blurting, "Bla-bla-bla-bla-bla-ba-bla-ba YESHIVA!?? Bla ba bla ba bla!"

After the laughter subsided and she composed herself, she turned to me. "Sir, we do not send people to yeshiva. We send people to Eilat for vacation. If you want to go to yeshiva you have to talk to a rabbi."

Well, I didn't know any rabbis, not in Paris and certainly not in Israel. But I learned something at least. I learned that Israel means different things to different people.

A couple weeks ago, I challenged President Obama's assertion that our connection to the Land of Israel is based on the Holocaust.

You may have noticed that I didn't offer an alternative - I put the ball in your court.

Any thoughts?

I saw that other bloggers made the same point, but most referred to history - we Jews are supposedly the natural heirs of the Israelites who conqured the land 3,300 years ago and lived there for 800 years before being booted out, and who returned later to settle it once again for 400 years before being disenfranchised a second time by the Romans in 70-135 CE.

This argument is complicated because 600 years later some Moslem Arabs conquered the land, were disenfranchised by European Christians 500 years later, and then some otheSr Moslems reconquered it later, and there are Arab families today who can trace their ancestry back at least several generations.

From their perspective, they belong there more than I do, because my ancestors haven't lived there for nearly 2,000 years.

So the historical argument isn't so cut-and-dry. It feels good for a Jewish person, to feel connected to all that history, but frankly I have as nearly as much history in Eastern Europe as I do in Israel.

So what is it about Israel?

Here's one thought to share at your table. During the seven years that I studied there, and the several trips back that I've made since, I noticed something very strange.

When I'm studying in Israel, I learn more. Rabbis in Israel seem sharper than rabbis here with comparable training. These are subjective impressions, but I've noticed them again and again.

What is it about Israel? The Talmud says that its "air makes you smart".

There's only one way to test this. Next time you plan a trip to Israel, try to set aside at least 1 day to study in some kind of yeshiva (if you need suggestions, ask me - don't ask at the Israeli tourist office!)

Spend a day in some kind of yeshiva and see if it makes you smart.

Shabbat Shalom

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