It was 1971. I was just fifteen, and I was going to Israel! I had applied for, and been awarded, a place on a special tour of Israel for American teens. In my application essay, I had written:
I would love to go to Israel. Many people would love to go because of a lifelong dream they have had. When they even say the word, "Israel" something pulls strongly inside them. I respect these people greatly. I would love to feel something and believe in something as strongly as they do. I admire these people - but I don't share in their understanding.
I feel, somehow, that Israel could help me. I want to be in the spiritual city of Jerusalem. I want to go to the land where dreams are fulfilled. I feel drawn to Israel like a magnet.
I feel drawn to Israel like a magnet When I was in Synagogue, I saw an old religious man sitting in the back. He was praying with such emotion, such love, that it made my own emotionless state very evident to me. His face was filled with so many years of thought. I want to go to Israel because when I come back and say "Jerusalem" in my prayers - I will really be there - along with the old man in the back.
And I still have the diary entries I had written upon arriving:
July 1, 1971
I am here.
I know very strongly inside of me already that Israel and me were made for each other. After we got off the plane, the bus took us straight to Jerusalem, straight to the Wailing Wall, and the beautiful night hit me. The Bible actually came alive. It was spectacular.
I belong to this so much. It's me. Just by being here, I feel creativity growing in me already. Touching the Wall touched something in me that is buried deeply, afraid to come out. Can I find deep within me the strength that helps that Wall to keep standing?
I can hardly believe it's for real. The Old City looks like a fairy tale village I've been dreaming about for years.
July 5, 1971
The big "why" is hitting me in the face.
I am so spoiled.
Today we saw the memorial to the Holocaust
at Yad VaShem.
And now we are sitting around the dining area,
complaining about the food
and our hotel rooms.
But that photo of the man with prayer shawl and tefillin praying,
surrounded by laughing Nazi soldiers,
keeps staring at me.
How strong his prayers must have been,
With a feeling that even went beyond death,
can we still have that kind of strength?
July 16, 1971
There is still an ember glowing There is still an ember glowing which I have been trying to smother, but it will just keep on glowing, probably sinking deeper and deeper into my being. Is it a sacred part of me? Too much for me even to speak about.
July 21, 1971
When I am praying
when I am listening and learning
I feel like myself.
The next entry, written on July 23rd, was different. I had eagerly gone to pray that Saturday morning in the first Orthodox synagogue I had ever dared enter. It was a sincere exploration, but the expedition did not go successfully. My dress was inappropriate, I realized afterwards. I was made to feel clearly unwelcome by a woman I encountered when I entered that tiny synagogue.
After that, there were no more entries about seeking spirituality in Judaism. Not during the last two weeks of the tour in Israel, and not for years to come. My budding spirituality was replaced by cynicism. But even though I tried really hard to stuff my soul down—it just kept on popping up.
So I searched for spirituality elsewhere: in other religions, in expressive arts, in the vastness of science, in noble humanitarian causes, in romantic relationships with non-Jews, in all kinds of places. Places where I believed no one would judge me superficially, by things like how I was dressed.
Seven years later, after many degrading experiences that I wish I'd never known, I returned to visit Israel. I was still trying to figure out the purpose to life, and still exploring, when I met an Orthodox woman who did something that nobody else had ever done for me before. She smiled, and (in response to a blunt question from me) asked me right back: "Well, what do you think is the purpose to life?" Then she welcomed the answer that I paused to unearth for the first time - and all the questions that poured out after.
I was still trying to figure out my purpose Not one word was deemed inappropriate by this open and welcoming individual. And neither was the way that I dressed.
"The purpose to life?" After digging in the core of my being during a long silence, the only answer I could come up with was: "To be good?" And this patient lady responded, "Well, in case you're interested, Judaism provides the most details about how to be good." I never really liked details—they actually seemed pretty boring, so that can't really explain why I was interested. But that very bland statement of hers somehow got me intrigued. I began learning.
That summer I found in Judaism the spiritual sustenance that I had been craving. The insatiable longing I had had for years finally found the infinite pleasure it was always seeking.
One small human interaction can affect a person's life significantly—in a negative or a positive way. Possibilities can be squashed or realized by how we treat one another. Intolerance and close-mindedness can turn so many away. Genuine caring and acceptance can help miracles happen.
Just what did you do?
I bet you never knew.
How did you do more
Than anyone before?
Well, we walked for hours on that cloudy day.
You let me spill out thoughts - I could never say.
Winding on and on, through all the narrow streets.
Jerusalem's hills carried our feet.
A cynic scared to feel
Can't believe G‑d is real.
I'm fine. I'm A.O.K.
Then nervous laughter gave me away.
I'd asked many kinds of experts - but they never heard.
And with all my T.M. chanting—I said just one word.
But you were listening to me, so I began to talk.
I first used my real voice on that long, long walk.
Just what did you do?
It wasn't what you said.
You did not tell me.
You let me tell myself instead.
Brought up to the surface, my doubts didn't seem so black.
After I had let them out—I didn't ever want them back.
Step by step, as our shoes touched the ancient dust,
A new vista was becoming clear. In G‑d I could start to trust.
I never thanked you all these years,
But now I've got the chance.
You took the time to let me think,
And that's made all the difference.
You really listened. That's what's hard.
You didn't let me just go by.
You held the sky. I spread my wings.
Cocoon to butterfly.