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My Journey to the Israeli in Me

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The following saga details a wedding, a war and the angst of international travel during Covid.

The post My Journey to the Israeli in Me appeared first on Jewish Journal.

I’ve just experienced an awakening of the Israeli in me. After a month of intense joy and drama in the Promised Land, I am truly feeling at one with my inner sabra. I travel to Israel every year. It’s one of the great perks of making a living as an entertainer in the Jewish world. My Israel shows are always memorable and I often extend my stay to see friends and relatives throughout the country. Typically, on these trips, I enter and depart as an American Jew. I view Israel as a beloved Jewish Disneyland, replete with E-ticket rides (great hikes, museums and Old City explorations,) refreshments (shwarma, pita and chummus) and selfies with an abundance of characters. This trip, however, was no mere vacation.

My wife, Shira and I had the gift of marrying off our daughter to a handsome young man from the Tel Aviv area. Our celebration of the “sound of bride and groom in the hills of Judea” was exactly that: 250 guests partying in an idyllic garden setting in Gush Etzion. The spirit was tangible; Sarah, surrounded by adorable friends gathered over the three years since she made aliyah after high school and Kobi Luria, her 6 feet 3 inches tall combat soldier hunk of a husband, surrounded by rowdy comrades from his five-year Hesder army service/Torah study program. The following saga details a wedding, a war and the angst of international travel during Covid.

Sarah’s nuptials were planned right before Passover. After spending a month getting our half-inch stack of documents together to enter the closed country, we took off in an Uber at 6:13 am to the Los Angeles airport. Our papers were accepted in LA, but six hours later in Newark, the official made us wait on the sidelines rather than board the flight, thanks to a missing document.

Over the next few hours, we watched as everyone boarded until we were told the final verdict: the doors would be closing without us on the plane. We trudged dejectedly to an airport hotel and returned to LA the next morning, where we waited for our lost luggage, launched into last-minute Passover plans and re-engaged in battle with the Israel consulate. Much to my daughter’s chagrin, the wedding had to be postponed for a month and a half, until after Lag B’omer. We rebooked the wedding vendors, secured new lodging and purchased new flights. Even after several panicked visits to the consulate, we received the required documents only hours before our flight.

Over the next few hours, we watched as everyone boarded until we were told the final verdict: the doors would be closing without us on the plane.

Yes, we kissed Israeli soil when we finally landed.

Week One

We got COVID and serology tests at the airport and then picked up a rental car to meet Kobi’s parents for the first time. Before long, I recognized that sharing the road with Israelis required either channeling my inner Israeli or perishing. Upon our arrival at their Petach Tikvah high rise, my machatunim walked me to an outdoor Corona-style minyan where I received a hero’s welcome as Kobi’s new father-in-law.

We enjoyed a delicious Israeli dinner over the lights of the city. Even though our broken Hebrew was as shaky as our new relatives’ English, we immediately felt like family. After supper, we motored three hours north to meet my brother Yom Tov and wife Leah, their eight amazing kids and four grandkids in a sprawling six-bedroom rental in the Old City of Tzfat. There we would eat-pray-love over the Lag B’omer holiday and Shabbat. The following night I had my first experience visiting Meron, merging with over a hundred thousand happy Chassidim at the annual festival.

Over the next several hours, we nudged our way to the main hall where we danced in the closest quarters imaginable. In spite of my enthusiasm for this manic mosh pit, multiple times I shouted to my brother over the din of the ten-piece klezmer band, “This is a death trap!” The riotous slam dance intensified to the degree that I feared for the safety of my eleven-year-old nephew, Sruli. With determination, we ushered him to the rooftop of the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai where we watched the undulating crowd below with a mix of amusement and horror.

Photo courtesy of Sam Glaser

At midnight, the twenty Glasers on the premises got a WhatsApp message that the time had come to assemble at a meeting place in the forest. We would be welcoming Avrami, my brother’s oldest son, who had flown in that day from Brooklyn to surprise his seven siblings. As we climbed a trail up the mountainside, I saw the first of the ambulances approaching from the bottom of the mountain. Something had gone very wrong and I feared the EMTs would be unable to reach their victims.

As we climbed a trail up the mountainside, I saw the first of the ambulances approaching from the bottom of the mountain.

Tragically, my niece Adina’s husband Avreimi hadn’t received the message about our rendezvous. While we were celebrating the arrival of Avrami, Avreimi was still inside the courtyard and was caught in the wave of falling Chassidim, crushing those below him, and trapped by those who had fallen from above. The screams were deafening. And then the screaming stopped.

After what seemed like hours, the rescuers finally arrived to pull bodies from the wreckage. Thankfully, Avreimi was carried into an ambulance and rushed to a hospital in Tzfat. X-rays revealed his crushed legs weren’t broken, but his body had released near fatal levels of the substance CK-MM. He would require another four days in the hospital on an IV drip to avoid renal failure, but thanks to a miracle, he was able to walk out of the hospital unassisted.

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We spent the rest of the night wandering Meron, eventually finding a local family friend who let us wait in her backyard. For hours we listened to the sirens of emergency vehicles. There would be no bus service back up the hill until 8 a.m. Just before dawn, I passed out on the family’s trampoline. I awoke a few hours later to find myself in a clump of Glaser bodies, my weight having caused various nieces and nephews to roll beside me. Finding a bus to take us home took another few hours. We walked like zombies from the bus depot to our Tzfat compound, prayed the morning prayers and passed out for the rest of the day.

That Shabbat was both celebratory and somber. The quaint town of Tzfat is delightful on weekdays. When Shabbat comes in, it is nothing short of magical. Dozens of synagogues welcomed pilgrims from the world over. There wasn’t an empty bed in the city. Our meals were plentiful and delicious and the z’mirot were sung with particular urgency. We joined the entire Jewish world in earnest prayer for the injured and shared a sense of profound grief over the forty-five deaths.

After a musical family Havdalah, I walked the Old City streets alone with my melodica, delighting in eerie reverb of empty synagogues. I perused the famous cemetery with the graves of Rabbi Isaac Luria (father of contemporary Kabbalah and ancestor of my new son-in-law,) Hoshea the prophet, Rabbi Yosef Caro (author of the “Code of Jewish Law”) and the extended family of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. I serenaded the bones of R. Shlomo Alkabetz, author of the L’cha Dodi, with the rendition that I composed. I eventually joined a jam session of a few dozen musicians playing heavenly Jewish songs into the night. At about 1 a.m. we were asked to stop playing; a funeral for one of the Meron victims was about to commence. After several tear-soaked eulogies, a Sephardic cantor took the mic and led a succession of the Psalms of David. It was impossible not to weep in the presence of a chazzan so overcome with emotion. All the musicians in our jam joined the call and response wailing. Our empathy for the mourners evolved from lip service to utter oneness.

Photo courtesy of Sam Glaser

The next day my wife and daughter joined me on a tour of the Golan Heights, through Arab, Jewish and Druze towns, exploring the spectacular ruins of a thousand-year-old Crusader fortress and the lush gardens and waterfalls of the Banias river. We stayed in a lakeside Tiberias Airbnb and enjoyed natural hot springs, an adventurous hike climbing Mt. Arbel and a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. This would be our last chance to fêteour vivacious Sarah as a single girl. I made a point to join minyanim at the tombs of such tzadikim as Rambam and Yochanan Ben Zakkai, Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNess and Rabbi Akiva and his wife Rachel.

The blended city gave us the chance to interact with Russians and Ethiopians, religious and secular, Israelis and Arabs. I must state for the record that in my dozens of Israel trips I have experienced only respectful relations with our Arab cousins, other than a pickup street soccer game that I joined. At one point, a mother noticed that a tall, Jewish guy was playing goalie amidst Palestinian youth; her blood-curdling screams sent us all scattering.

At the end of the week, we returned to Jerusalem to attend the wedding of one of my daughter’s childhood best friends. Visiting Sarah Hulkower over the years was part of the reason our daughter eventually decided to make Israel her home. Now the two twenty-one-year-olds would marry within five days of one another.

Week Two

We moved into a 10th-story apartment in central Jerusalem right by the Machaneh Yehudah shuk. This marketplace is a shopper’s delight by day and a raging nightspot when the sun goes down. Our aerial view of the City of Gold was dizzying. We were blocks from my brother’s home and my parents’ Airbnb. We were so grateful that my 91- and 81-year-old dad and mom were cleared by immigration to make the arduous trip for our occasion. The next day, Yom Tov joined me on a hike in Wadi Kelt, a lush river valley replete with red rock arches, springs and swimming holes.

Toward the end of our hike we had run out of water. Upon returning to the river’s mouth, I spotted a lone Bedouin and asked in my best Hebrew if he knew of a source of drinking water. Suliman didn’t really want to speak to me but after a few gentle prods, he finally led us to a hidden fountain of pure spring water emanating from the rock wall. In spite of the refill, the end of the hike required a few miles of ascent while ninety-degree dry heat leached moisture from our exhausted bodies. We managed to convince a passing Jeep to give us a ride back to the car. There was no room inside so we stood on the floorboards and clung to the roof racks as the driver careened up the pitted dirt path. We sang the Indiana Jones theme song the whole way.

There was an incredible feeling of love and gratitude in the room during our festive Shabbat meals, especially now that Avreimi had been dismissed from the hospital. So many happy Glasers were present, other than our two sons who couldn’t make the trip since they hadn’t been vaccinated. I prayed Friday night services at the Western Wall with Jews from all over Israel. They had amassed in the capital for a three-day weekend that would culminate in Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the celebration of the 1967 reunification of the holy city. In spite of the throngs of worshippers, I sensed an emptiness generated by the absence of Diaspora Jews. Indeed, this trip would be an unprecedented experience of Israel just for Israelis. No Christian tour groups, no backpackers, no youth groups or Birthright trips.

In spite of the throngs of worshippers, I sensed an emptiness generated by the absence of Diaspora Jews.

Tragically, punctuating our prayers was the din of stun grenades overhead on the Temple Mount. The Arabs were concluding the month-long observance of Ramadan and grew intolerant of the presence of Israeli police deployed to keep things orderly. Stone slabs, rocks and fireworks had been stockpiled in anticipation. Over two hundred were injured in the aftermath. Remarkably, the riot didn’t dampen our ecstatic worship just below.

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Our Friday night dinner was a collaborative effort of the half dozen chefs in the family and was devoured among singing, divrei Torah and l’chaims. Then on Saturday morning, I joined Yom Tov at his favorite spot, the Pinsk-Karlin headquarters in Meah Shearim. Grateful for my undying sense of direction, I found this group of gold-coated, shtreimel-wearing Chassidim screaming the morning prayers at full volume. In Pinsk I’m known as Achshel, a nickname gained from association as “Ach shel Yom Tov,” the brother of Yom Tov. Every few minutes of the service, I was enthusiastically embraced by yet another blond-haired, blue-eyed member of the extended Pinsk dynasty that had called Jerusalem home for hundreds of years.

It’s possible to spend all one’s time in Israel sitting in cafes and air-conditioned living rooms. I prefer to walk the land. That Sunday, I convinced a family friend, Yudi, to join me on an exploration of Nachal Darga, one of the most intimidating and spectacular canyons plunging two thousand feet to the Dead Sea. We emerged from the hike on our last legs only to cover ourselves with mud and float in the 31% salt concentration of the Dead Sea, alternating with forays into co-located Olympic-sized freshwater ponds. Only in Israel!

At last, Sarah’s Yom Yerushalayim wedding day arrived. I wandered the Old City amidst thousands of holiday revelers while my wife and the bridesmaids primped. We then drove to the arid venue a mere ten miles from Hebron. Our joy was overflowing as we greeted guests from various chapters in our lives, all gathered to bring joy to the bride and groom. The band, Rimonim, kept the energy going throughout.

Photo courtesy of Sam Glaser

Just before the ceremony, we assembled for the afternoon prayers. We could hear explosions in the distance as Hamas fired the first salvo of rockets toward Jerusalem. Many asked if I wanted to know what was going on. “No,” I said, “I’m trying to focus on my daughter’s wedding!” Still, some people had departed to comfort alarmed children or report for duty. My dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Katz was set to offer words of Torah at the chuppah; he was forced to return home since sirens were sounding in his community. Nevertheless, the wedding proceeded peacefully and we ate and drank and schmoozed and danced in frenzied circles until our aching bodies couldn’t handle another rotation.

Week Three

Traditional Jewish weddings don’t end after the reception. Seven days of partying follows and we were scheduled to visit a different city every night to continue the celebration. In spite of hundreds of rockets launched daily, we drove to Beit Shemesh, Nof Ayalon, Ranana, Petach Tikvah and Sanhedria. We kept track of attacks with cell phone apps, ready to run for cover at a moment’s notice. Several of these festive meals were outdoors; as we dined we watched the light show of Iron Dome protecting the citizens below. Unwilling to give Hamas a victory by letting rockets stunt my trip, I managed to sneak in a few more hikes in Park Canada, Beit Guvrin and Mt. Heret, and spent a wondrous day perusing art and archaeology at the Israel Museum.

Petach Tikvah came under attack during our Shabbat lunch event. We had to dash for bomb shelters multiple times. At one point, as we walked with the bride and groom back to our hotel, the sirens began their harrowing growl. One does not want to be caught outside since the miraculous defense system, known in Israel as the Iron Kippah, unleashes shrapnel with each interception. The ladies sprinted, heels and all, to a nearby building’s stairwell. This time the concussion was directly overhead. After waiting the requisite ten minutes, we emerged to see the smoke ring right above us. A bit close for comfort.

After waiting the requisite ten minutes, we emerged to see the smoke ring right above us.

The week of Sheva Brachot culminated in the holiday of Shavuot, the anniversary of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This holiday is unusual in that the Torah doesn’t tell us the specific date for its observance. We do know that it’s seven weeks after the Exodus on Pesach, the 50th “jubilee” day, an ethereal moment outside of time and space. So, too, is our Torah eternal and ephemeral. So, too, is the Jewish People and, unfortunately, the ghastly plague of antisemitism guaranteed by the Torah to infect the nations as we wander the globe. In Israel, our resolve was strong and we shared complete unity in the need for an effective military response. Each time I checked my cell phone for the international news, however, I noted a diametrically opposed unity among reporters to spin sympathies toward the “war-weary residents of Gaza.”

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This was the first time in my life I kept only one day of the Shavuot holiday. Normally, in the Diaspora, we hold by two days of observance. But now my inner Israeli was fired up, and my Beverlywood Chabad rabbi told me that if my wife is with me in the Promised Land, it’s as if my home is truly there. Since Israel was only open for Israelis, it was clear to me that a two-day celebration would have been superfluous. That night I taught an all-night-learning workshop for a women’s group on a breezy rooftop in the Old City of Jerusalem and after jumping in a crowded mikvah at dawn, joined thousands of worshippers at the Kotel. The cacophony of dozens of minyanim culminated in netz, the moment of sunrise, when the entire plaza launched into the holiday Amidah. The world fell silent. Only the chirps of swifts broke the cool morning air. Pure inspiration.

Week Four

Hamas cancelled our return trip to the U.S. Thanks to the 4300 rockets launched on civilian populations over ten days, American carriers stopped flying, leaving El Al as the only way out. I had to purchase a brand new ticket to get back to LA for a wedding, a client’s album release party and a busy week of work in my recording studio. I was grateful to our archenemy for one thing: I got an extra few days to tour the country and one more precious Shabbat to enjoy my relatives, pray at the Wall and dance in the streets with my fellow Israelis.

Shira and I realized that had the Israeli government allowed us to enter the country before Passover, we would have had a peaceful trip with a relaxed wedding and minimal drama. Clearly, God had other plans for us. In hindsight, I’m grateful to have the Israeli in me awakened. Jewish survival is not merely theoretical.

We returned to find the masses on the American streets joining fundamentalist Islam in a call for Jewish blood. Teachers, journalists, unions, actors, musicians and Black Lives Matter protesters gleefully jumped on the Israel-bashing bandwagon. Antisemitism lurks behind the veil of anti-Zionism, crouching at the door, waiting for a skirmish like the war with Hamas to bare fangs and let true colors shine. I’ve seen a plethora of videos explaining who started this conflict, extolling the ethical conduct of the Israel army and lambasting Hamas for using Palestinians as human shields. Our feeble attempts at hasbara (pro-Israel propaganda) may be falling on deaf ears but that doesn’t absolve us of the imperative to try.

Antisemitism lurks behind the veil of anti-Zionism, crouching at the door, waiting for a skirmish like the war with Hamas to bare fangs and let true colors shine.

It’s time to take off the gloves and influence whomever we can. We need only look back a generation or two to see the effectiveness of trying to hide, assuming society won’t cancel the “nice” Jews. It took a trip to Israel during wartime to drive home the point that we are all in this together, like it or not. There is no hiding. In my book, “The Joy of Judaism,” I emphasize the importance of affiliating and proudly wearing a kippah or Jewish star jewelry. Hostility toward the “other” unravels with face-to-face contact. Let us be in the faces of those who would oppose us, let them see that Jews are human and love their children too.

Israelis are known for being tough on the outside and sweet on the inside. Let’s share that inner sweetness while clarifying that even after 3333 years since Mt. Sinai, we still stand strong as an ancient, accomplished, brave people. My conversations and social media postings emphasize that no apologies are necessary; Jews are the indigenous tribe in Israel. Seven million Jews in the world’s only Jewish homeland versus three hundred million Arabs in the Middle East—and the Arabs are the underdogs? The “occupation” in Gaza is thanks to Hamas, not Israel.

My brother Aharon was advised by his rabbi to wear a baseball hat rather than a kippah for his recent trip to Phoenix. I say the opposite: display Judaism openly and be ready for whatever questions, skirmishes or eye rolling the symbols engender. Approach those who seem to be in opposition with conversation and kindness. We can fight this battle, even if we’re not in the Israeli Defense Forces.

My inner Israeli is wide awake. I hope it never goes back to sleep.

Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.

The post My Journey to the Israeli in Me appeared first on Jewish Journal.

Source: Jewish Journal

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