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Faces of a Nation

Faces of a Nation

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So I'm studying and working in Jerusalem this year, acclimating to the different mentality and attitude of Israeli culture. Aside from the curt and often abusive style of many Israelis, there is also a forgiving and familial warmth a significant part of the populous exude. They embrace others as "brother" or "fellow Jew", or "rich American"… Whether their motives are of pure nature, or they simply want my money, there are moments when I nonetheless have some weak spot for their ploys. There is the shopkeeper insistent on me buying some precious piece of equipment, desperately trying to convince me that my life is utterly lacking without their product. There are the old people who randomly take my arm, as if an old friend, and ask me to assist them onto the bus. There is the bus driver of the green Egged line who throws his hands up violently in the direction of his mirror, shouting at "You, yes YOU, in the red shirt!" to move to the back.

I stand at the Western Wall with Jews of different creed and background. Some pray there daily, breaking out in tears the moment their fingertips meet the white stone. They weep for their families, for their lack of money, for the plight of the Jewish people. Others awkwardly approach, unsure of what this place means to them, how to interpret the hush of prayers flowing from the people gathered around. Each experience is deeply personal, each speaking the language of wind and soul – somehow understood, but without the restrictions and bareness of human words. Yet I am humbled by the space we allow one another. Beyond political views, affiliations and head-coverings… in this place, we leave it aside. We are here as individuals, and also as a people. We cry, inside our souls or openly… You for wealth, and I, perhaps, health. She cries for her orphaned grandchildren, and he cries for his ailing wife. But we respect the suffering of the other, and we smile openly at the bride in a white dress as she prays for her future life.

I regularly use the local transportation system and often find myself curious about the people that I encounter on my various bus routes. Are the crutches of a young man because of an attack? Are the tears of a multi-pierced teenager a result of her being dumped, or abused, or just plain miserable? There are aged people with plaid wagons who spend their day shopping in the open market – the shuk – and then make the long journey back to their apartments, often alone. I wonder if they have any family to share their days with. Many blank faces stare out the windows, others are brimming with expression, be it insanity, exhaustion or peace.

These are the faces of a nation, comprised of opinions and moods, attitudes and deep feelings. Each person is absorbed in the narrative of his own life, yet somehow, in some omnipotent way, I attempt to find myself in their story, to recognize our similar struggles. I know we are different. I know I may despise the way he treats his wife, or dislike this woman's cooking. I know we may completely differ on political matters, and think her clothing is outdated. I may not understand his severe drug abuse, or another's extreme piousness. Yet I know that my struggle somehow parallels the persons sitting next to me, and as I try to respect my own, I owe this stranger/human being/fellow Jew, the same courtesy.

Often easier in theory than in practice, there are times when I find it difficult to refrain from allowing myself to be annoyed by the person invading my space. It is an automatic response. But as I take a single conscious moment to reflect on my rash judgment, I realize that it is usually my own frustration with life or bad days… The excuses are stripped, and I realize that the issue is often my own. True – I may still not ponder the possibility of even engaging in conversation, but I often think of the relative serenity we could create were we to stop projecting ourselves on the people we encounter. Instead of cramming aggression and dislike into simple bus rides or other similar venues of interaction, I can simply choose not to. I have found that there is no deep or mystical answer. The reality is plain, although perhaps, it is often the simplest solutions we find difficult to act upon.

I have learned many lessons in this country. I have spent time with many kinds of Jews, who think, believe and practice differently, and I contemplated the dichotomy it presented. I realize that is often the people most similar, yet have taken their own path of service of G‑d and lifestyle, who share the most conflict, even animosity. Such is the situation in Israel. There are great numbers of Jews who could never see eye to eye on any religious, social or political matter… who dress entirely different… speak another language. They may harbor deep suspicion and disdain towards the other sect.

But beyond the individual systems and beliefs, I have found an element that unites us beyond our differences. I find it in the old woman who smiles and tickles the baby of the woman sitting next to her, the waiter who engages in a philosophic conversation about life and happiness, the cab driver who blesses me with a great life and a good husband, and the shop-owner who tries to convince me to move to Israel permanently.

Can this be, dare I say it, love for a fellow Jew? Sure, we Jews sometimes grind on each other, we make each other crazy. Such is the icon of Jewish fellowship – we always disagree! But inside our souls, in the language of soul, we still contain an inkling of love and unity that generations of atrocities and hatred could not dispel. We come from one source, and although unique in our services, we know that ultimately we are one. And even if I can't live with this awareness each day in its entirety, I can definitely respect the humanity of the individuals I meet, be it Jerusalem or NY. I can acknowledge their absolute right to exist and share the same air or space. I can respect their opinions and thoughts, and sympathize with the struggles of another human being. And maybe, just maybe, we can use these thoughts of unity and respect to create a better home for ourselves and ultimately, for G‑d.

Chana Lewis is a student, freelance photographer, and editorial assistant at Chabad.org.
Photo by Chana Lewis.
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Evan Jeck Philly, PA August 12, 2009

Beautifully written. Israel must be an interesting place to be. Unfortunately I haven't been, but I'm fervently studying modern Hebrew to prepare for my future trip. I'd want to see as many of the cities as I could, structures dating from the times of the bible as well as the modern and Avant Guard Tel Aviv. I'd especially want to visit the places where people are victimized by terrorism. I'm sure you felt more than just a tourist on your visit, and I feel the pain of Israeli residents whose homes have been bombarded by rockets. I believe Israel is not just a spiritual haven for us Jews, but also holds a special place in the hearts of Muslims and christians. G-d bless you, your family, the Israelis, and riteous Gazans, i hope the fighting will end. Reply

Anonymous Dickinson, Texas December 19, 2007

Israel Enjoyed you comments. We will be coming to Israel Dec.26th for 10 days. So what you wrote helped ne understand some of the life style etc. I want to be a good visitor. thanks, God bless you,
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Rifka Kaplan February 14, 2007

thank you for expressing
your words are refreshing Reply

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