Shabbat morning, a crowded room at a school in a Tel Aviv neighborhood, hot breezes and the sounds of birds floating in through the window:
I make my way up front to chant Torah, and my heart begins to pound so hard it threatens to jump from my chest. These words came from here--here!--and somehow made their way to a xerox on the Upper West Side. For the second time in my life, I'm alarmingly close to the source--for an instant, afraid I'll be burned by fire when I look. The fragile and beautiful sefer Torah, here via two continents and many, many decades, has what I imagine to be the same brown, translucent skin as its ancient sofer. My four verses are at the beginning of the parasha: Balak summons Bilam. I try to think about the meaning of the words as I chant, but can focus only on the fact that I'm the messenger of a request to a messenger. Which describes prayer as well as community, a big relay race of asking and giving so that we can help each other get closer to what we need. I return to my seat feeling like the blood of everyone present has jumped into my veins.
We walk back to the hotel after lunch, another two miles in 90-degree sun. I nap blissfully for three hours before a tour of Neve Tzedek, the old neighborhood that preceded Tel Aviv. As our guide talks about upwardly-mobile pioneers, I wonder how may of the lush, green trees are native and how many were imported and coaxed over decades to thrive in the desert. I see a row of three little ones with white bark that would look right at home in Riverside Park. Their trunks divide into three branches crowned with leaves: a letter shin. God's signature, in case I wasn't paying attention.
I've felt very comfortable since the minute I landed--almost too much so. The same hotel, Tel Aviv not so different than a year and a half ago; still amazement that I'm here, but for the first day I missed that sense of newness and change. Then at night as the sky turned purple and black, we walked through a small neighborhood lined with tan stone boxes of homes and stiebels (tiny shuls), not a word of English on the street signs, skinny cats prowling, children peering at us from balconies, and the city felt utterly foreign and mysterious once again.