Wandering Back to Jerusalem

My lineage has “Wandering Jew” written all over it. Like many Americans Jews, I’m a hybrid of several ethnicities:  Russian, Hungarian, Moroccan – and Israeli. Poverty and persecution brought my ancestors  to the promising shores of the United States at various times in the 20th century, forcing their family to separate and split for years at a time, and in some cases, forever.

It took three generations of arduous integration, sacrifice, and hard work to build the upper-middle class, suburban existence that I was born into: a life of immersive Jewish education and community at day schools, camps, synagogues, Shabbat afternoon play dates with Shabbat-observant friends, and holidays with beloved family. Three generations to build a unified family unit that puts aside the stresses of everyday life every Friday at sunset and set up huts, seder plates, and all-night learning every year in place of board meetings, office retreats, and the season finale of Survivor. It took decades to create the familial harmony, normalcy, and cohesion that I was blessed to be born into.

Why would I leave that?

Because, I believe with full faith that Israel is where the wandering ends. My roots are in Jerusalem. My great-grandmother was born here. My great-great grandmother was born here. And so it goes further back, on and on and on.

Every generation has to do something to fortify the foundation that supports and upholds our people. Oftentimes, it involves wandering to a new place or plane with which we are are unfamiliar. It seems to me that with wandering, uprooting, and re-rooting comes continuity, longevity and legacy.

How blessed I am to wander back to Jerusalem.

Advertisements

How Hamilton Prepared Me for Aliyah

Two weeks before I made Aliyah, I caught up with the rest of New York City and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. Okay, I also watched several episodes of Ham4Ham and cast my lot into the daily drawing, thinking maybe G-d would grace my last weeks in the US with a ticket to Broadway’s most popular show (in case you haven’t heard, the only way to get tickets in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable amount of money is by entering a lottery. After each drawing, 21 lucky people get orchestra seats for $10 a pop). All year long, co-workers, friends, and the occasional fellow subway rider insisted that this musical was absolutely brilliant, like nothing else out there. Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought a whole new genre of auditory euphoria to the masses, and there’s no reason to miss out on the revolution.

But it’s rap, said the hesitant little voice in my head amid the sea of recommendations, and rap doesn’t speak to my soul. I was quite content with my classic Broadway playlist on Youtube, so, by fault or fate, I wasn’t going to embrace Hamilton unless something significant steered me toward reconsideration.

That something was the pre-Aliyah packing process. As a single twenty-something, I’ve only been able to accumulate whatever fit in storage-less Washington Heights apartments, my room in New Jersey, and whatever my grandmother let me store in her basement. I didn’t think it would take hour upon hour to unpack, sort, trash, clean, and repack all of my earthly possessions – but it did – and during those hours, I needed something to keep me awake. Leaving life as I knew it in the US to pursue what was up until this summer a longstanding dream killed my usual preference for sugary sweet pop songs. I listened to Torah lectures and TEDTalks, and those kept me going for a while, but there comes a time when music is the only thing that gets through to the heart.  Les Miserables, Cats, and even High School Musical kept me alert and agile, but I needed something more; something thought-provoking and relevant; something historic, idealistic, and cognizant of the space where dreams and reality meet. In essence, I was looking for something that reflected what I was going through.

I knew a little bit about Alexander Hamilton. During my time in the Big Apple, I visited the Museum of American Commerce and Hamilton’s (restored) Harlem house, both of which gave the basic narrative of his life story. The short version goes like this: Hamilton was born in the Caribbean to unmarried parents (a social blight at the time) in the mid-1750’s, where he spent most of his childhood. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, the orphaned Hamilton was passed from relative to relative until he arrived in New York, where he put his smarts and drive to work. It didn’t take long for him to take off in the intellectual and political circles there, where he attended Kings College (now Columbia University), became a lawyer, noted writer, and eventually the second in command to General George Washington.

While I can’t vouch for Hamilton’s level of accuracy (there are plenty of other web pages dedicated to that), it aptly tells the tale of an immigrant who came “impoverished, in squalor” and worked his way up “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton has a grittiness that’s ostentatiously idealistic, legacy-centric, and unceasingly eager to make a difference. As a new immigrant, each of those drives played a part in my choice to disassemble and reassemble my life. Thank G-d, life in America was and is good. I wasn’t running away from something, but toward the focus, values, and legacy that I want to define my life.

See, there’s something that Miranda’s Hamilton – and perhaps the real Hamilton – knew about being an immigrant: immigrants can’t be successful without believing their stories matter. Of course, everyone, whether they move to a new country or not, has a life story that matters. Immigrant stories, by default, amplify this truth because starting over – acclimating to a new culture, and language, and any challenges that ensue, all follow this one move they made. As I folded my clothes and nearly mummified my toiletries in cling wrap, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Hamilton, “I’m just like my country – I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” and that though I was taking a risk, I was also ready to put my all into “not throwing away my shot.” This is my way of “thinkin’ past tomorrow,” the next year, and the next decade.

For the last 68 years, Jews have had the shot to make Israel home. No matter where I lived or what I accomplished in America, I couldn’t get through a day without thinking about building my life in Israel. This year, I knew it was time to decide whether I really wanted to make Aliyah, or if  I would put away with my other forgone dreams. I tried to talk myself into staying at some points, believe me. Jewish life in America is rich, meaningful, and immensely growth oriented. Yet deep down, I always knew that if I didn’t take the historic shot in my grasp, I’d wonder about it every day of my life. So, Baruch Hashem, I’m here, investing everything I have, because I want to be a part of this miraculous unfolding story called The State of Israel.

It’s been a month since the big day, and though I’ve ceased binge listening to Hamilton, its sentiments have stayed with me. A new chapter of my life has begun: I’ve received my Teudat Zehut (Israeli ID card), experienced the DMV-style systems at the health clinic and bank, and formed friendships with Jews from across the globe who are also starting out at Ulpan Etzion. Though I left New York City, the words of Miranda’s Schulyer Sisters come to mind, with a few alterations, each time I get a glimpse at the Jerusalem hills:

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

History is happening in Jerusalem and we just happen to be

In the greatest city in the world.

Teudat Zehut ceremony

(Oh, and Bubbie, thank you for making me watch the Tony’s.)

Gramma’s Sensitivity to Purpose

Gramma Libby

It’s my birthday tomorrow, and on this birthday in particular, I’m thinking about the woman I am named after, Lieba bat Aharon z”l (Libby Leibmann Levy), my great grandmother.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been told that Gramma and I share a common trait. I like to call it being creative, but it the big wide world, it goes by the name of thriftiness.  Now, there’s a common conception of thrift being punctuated by miserly or stingy habits. Yet, the founder of Mussar Movement, Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin Salanter, considered thriftiness (קִמּוּץ) one of the most important characteristics that a person can develop. Of course there are limits – you can only store so many plastic shopping bags before they converge as a tattery, staticky avalanche across the kitchen floor. I totally get that. However, a healthy approach to thriftiness stems from a much more positive motivation, one which demonstrates why Rabbi Salanter chose it as one of his Top 13.

The Hebrew word for thriftiness, (קִמּוּץ), has another meaning – closed tightly, or, clenched. When we don’t let something go to waste, we seal it off from becoming waste, making sure it gets its full use. Or as we like to say in education, we enable it to reach its full potential.

Gramma lived through the Great Depression, and I presume that heavily influenced her tendency to reuse plastic bags and sheets of tin foil. After all, a sandwich bag is just a sandwich bag…until you can’t afford to buy more sandwich bags. Then, even the most minute of everyday objects take on greater value. Beyond the days of the Depression, I’m told that Gramma continued to make each item and penny count. She made the most of the things G-d blessed her with. She didn’t let them go forgotten.

Thriftiness, at its essence, is about making things count; seeing that which can easily go unnoticed, noticed. When we make the most of what G-d gives us, we give back fulfillment, or really, life, to that which we have received. Things don’t have feelings or lungs or other telltale signs of what we call “life,” but they do have purpose…and when we instill in ourselves a sensitivity to purpose, we’ll see it in the more complex arenas of our relationships to ourselves, others, and with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

May our acts of קִמּוּץ  in 5776 bring an aliyah to the neshama of Lieba bat Aharon.

My Golden Ticket

JechielZvi1

“The hidden things belong to the Lord, our God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:28).

Sometimes, it seems like there’s a lot more that is hidden than there is revealed, and as I sifted through a newly found crop of family memorabilia at my parents’ dining room table, I was searching for the kind of revelation that can only be seen over the span of generations.

Growing up, I’d heard a lot about my great-great grandfather, Rabbi Jechiel Zvi Eckstein, and finally seeing his face transformed him from a legendary character to a human being, with hopes for his future, his children. When I looked at the dates on the ticket, with a little help from the internet, I figured out that this ticket was issued in 1938 – the same year that he would end eleven years of separation from his family, and finally return home to the city of his heart, Jerusalem.  Like many other who suffered from the the hard knocks of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, he set out to wherever he would be able to feed his family, so in 1927, he took a pulpit role in Little Rock, Arkansas. For eleven years he officiated the life cycle events of hundreds of Jews, and yet the cycle of his own life was split in half, with children and grandchildren setting roots in America and Eretz Yisrael. Branches of the Eckstein family had been planted in Boston, Chicago, Denver, and New York, branches which he’d likely never see again if he went back to Jerusalem.

Yet, this kind of existence wasn’t new to Jechiel Zvi. He was one link the chain of an accomplished Hungarian family of rabbis and businessman whose ventures took them across the continent. There were his father’s brothers, Avraham Eliezer, who served as rosh bet din in Pest, Moshe, who studied with the Ketav Sofer in Pressburg, Azriel, who joined his wife’s diamond business in Antwerp, and Simcha Bunim, a learned layman from the outskirts of Pest, who raised the orphaned Jechiel Zvi from the age of two. When Simcha Bunim purchased one of the first ten homes in a Hungarian neighborhood in Jerusalem, the Eckstein family stretched even further. Young Jechiel Zvi took to his new home well, becoming a Torah scholar in his own right. Destiny had a different route for each Eckstein, but the goal was the same: the wholehearted service of G-d.

The paths to wholehearted living, in the individual and inter-generational life, is not clear cut. There is a lot that is hidden, and a lot that we will never understand, but that which is clear is clear forever. When I look at this High Holiday ticket, I am reminded of what is impeccably clear to me: leading a life of purpose takes work. Hard work. Concerted work. Sacrificial work.  And when it seems like too much and we are about to break, or already broken, the revealed streams through; those who came before me probably felt the same way, and yet, here I am. They left an example to follow, a trajectory which spans generations. My golden ticket ensures that I’m not in this destiny alone…it’s been in the making for centuries.

A Shabbat Shuva Letter

Returning, the act of looking around, turning around, and choosing a different direction, is one of the hardest things that we can do. In my own experience, I find that there are two particular factors that make teshuva difficult:

  1. trusting that I can make the changes I want and need to make
  2. trusting that G-d will forgive and bless me, despite my shortcomings

I guess, really, the one aspect of teshuva that leaves me feeling the most insecure, is trust. Can I really do this? Can I really change?

The letter below is from my great uncle, Yaakov Cohen, z”l. It reminds me what teshuva is all about – a return to faith. When Uncle Yaakov wrote this letter, I was only a month old. Twenty two years later, when I read it for the first time, I was astounded…he had so much faith in me at that age, before I ever proved to be capable of anything! He knew what potential I had long before I did.

Trust requires believing in potential…not letting fear get in the way of becoming the versions of ourselves we can be. There will be times when we second guess and wonder, am I cut out for this? Do I have what it takes? Look back. Look for that person, those people, who when they looked at one-month old You, saw a soul that would impact this world in a deeply positive way.

Though I do not have the dollar bill mentioned in the letter, thank G-d, I have the essence of what my Uncle Yaakov wanted me to pass on to the next generation:  Shabbat and Teshuva.

I thought to myself, what gift – what kind of gift – I could give to the newcomer to our family, Eliana Ahuva…I was at a loss as to what gift to get her. Our rabbis tell us that at the Binding of Isaac, G-d saw the Mesorah (teaching) from Abraham to Isaac, of the transfer from generation to generation of Yiddishkeit. And this was done with me; my parents taught me to be a Jew. When Daddy [my great-grandfather, Shmuel Zvi Cohen] passed, I received certain artifacts that belonged to him. One of these things was his Tikkun, the tree of life. I received it already old and covered with a brown paper bag, and taped to hold it together. This is what he loved.

One some pages were markings which I don’t understand their meaning….As I turn through the parshiot, I felt as if I was passing through the yearly reading as Dad had done. On page 333 I found three dollar bills, the page of Haftarat Shabbat Shuva.

We Jews like to play with numbers. Yes, three Forefathers, but Dad had a three of his own – his children. So he placed in his Torah, the valued book of spirituality, three dollars, three children of gashmiyut at the point of Shabbat and Teshuva [like Shuva]. Pretty strong stuff.

So he left us with a sign to teach us that Torah combined with valued things in the material world can lead us to Teshuva and Shabbatreturn to the faith. We can all use such examples.

Mesorah means the passing of one’s faith to child or student. So, Eliana Ahuva, I am giving you one of the dollar bills so that you can pass it on to your children from a great-great grandfather.

Love,

Uncle Yaakov

A Touch of the Divine on July 4th

Timing is everything.

It’s a platitude that excites me — sometimes with strokes of anticipation, and sometimes with strokes of dread — but never with  apathy. Time’s impact and influence on our lives is astounding, even in its inevitability. As I’ve often heard in R’ Aaron Rakeffet Rothkoff’s classes, every event in history – whether it’s international, communal, or personal –  comes down to the alignment of three factors:

1) the right person

2) in the right place

3) at the right time.

If you ever think about how timing must proceed ever so precisely in order for life’s opportunities to occur, it’s pretty mind-boggling. Divine, really. That’s how I know that G-d is paying full attention to my life, anyway.

Friday night, which also happened to be erev Fourth of July, after our guests had gone home and the leftover food had been wrapped and stored, my father pulled out two bulging manilla envelopes. He had recently gone to visit his mother (my Savta), and had come back with historic family photos and documents from her collection. We’re talking 80 year old family portraits, weddings invitations, Yiddish diaries, and a six-generation family tree with the names of family members I have yet to learn about. Where to begin?

My fingers first went for a yellowing, folded up piece of paper. My father had mentioned that among the assortment of documents was my great-great-grandfather’s naturalization papers from the State of Arkansas. I’ve heard many stories of Jechiel Tzvi Eckstein – how he came to America to serve as the rabbi in Little Rock, how he left half of his growing family behind in Jerusalem so that he could make ends meet, how he wanted nothing more than to return to Eretz Yisrael – but until that night, I had never held something in the original that was once his. And of all the things I got to hold that night, just hours before the Fourth of July, was the paper that granted him American freedoms.

Naturalization1

Naturalization Statement from the State of Arkansas, c. 1927

Hilda, mentioned in the last line, is my great-grandmother.

Picking up that paper any day of the year would have been exciting, but picking it up to the distant buzz of Independence Day fireworks was Divine. Without the sacrifices my great-great-grandfather made in order to support his family, I don’t know if I’d be here, a Torah observant Jew in the 21st Century. Without the freedoms and opportunities allowed to him in this country, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. G-d bless the USA.