Thursday, August 7, 2014

Gardening in Exile

I've been back from Israel for four days, and by now I've had a chance to savor those quintessentially American experiences that I just can't get across the pond:  iced coffee from Starbucks, listening to Pandora radio on my iPhone, waiting in orderly lines, and hugging Mom and Dad.  Also, my body more or less knows what time it is now, which is an added bonus.  But I'll be honest--it's tough to get reacclimatized, as it is every year at this time.  I see in myself all the symptoms of readjustment:  getting teary-eyed at random moments when a loved one in Israel pops into my mind; scouring Israeli online news sources and struggling with feeling 7 hours behind the ball; checking Facebook over and over again, hoping to connect with one of my Israeli friends and feeling at loose ends when it doesn't happen.

I know this feeling:  it's hunger.  Hunger for Israel itself, and for the feelings of connectedness and nourishment I experience there.  And as anyone who has ever suffered from an eating disorder can tell you, there are few sensations worse than hunger.  It is persistent and pervasive, taking over any crevice of the mind not actively occupied by something else.  When I check Facebook and Google Chat every five minutes with a sense of growing yearning bubbling up inside, I am reminded of the countless times I forced myself to sit through physical hunger as I watched the clock tick toward Time to Eat, thinking, "Is it time to eat yet?  Is it time to eat yet?"  Then, the beeline toward food, the careful rationing, and the speedy consumption, followed by a period of borderline calm paired with the understanding that I was actually still hungry, and in a few hours the whole cycle will repeat itself again.  That's hunger, and even when it's emotional and not physical, the pangs are just as sharp.

My return date from Israel this year seemed particularly apropos, since I arrived back Stateside on Erev Tisha B'Av.  Tisha B'Av is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, a time when we mourn the losses of both the First and Second Temples as well as several other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history.  For the past several years I have spent this holiday in Israel, but because of the leap year, this year I got to commemorate the Jewish people's historical exile from Jerusalem while actually being in exile from Jerusalem.

It could have been an emotional disaster, but as is often the case, I got some relief from a book.  My literary companion for the Three Weeks was, In the Narrow Places by Erica Brown.  In the final chapter, Brown addresses the issue of how one is supposed to behave in exile, which she defines as physically being in one place while your heart and mind are in another.  Brown acknowledges the agony of feeling that one is not where one should be, and offers as advice the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"Jeremiah, perhaps realizing the crippling impact of dislocation on the soul of a people, advised against this kind of thinking:

'This said the Lord of Hosts, the G-d of Israel, to the whole community which I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon:  Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit.  Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters.  Multiply there, do not decrease.  And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.' (Jeremiah 29:4-7)"

Brown notes that although building a house is a relatively immediate act, cultivating a garden implies an investment of time and energy into the place where one currently lives.  A shelter can be put up anywhere, but planting a garden encourages the individual to take advantage of the richness that can be found wherever he or she is, and to build a sustainable life in that place--even in exile.

Brown also cites a midrash on Psalm 137 in which the Levites in exile cut off their own thumbs so that they couldn't be forced to play their instruments for King Nebuchadnezzar.  It's a strong statement of resistance, but ultimately backfires, as Brown explains, " cutting off their thumbs, they made themselves ritually unsuitable for serving G-d in the Temple precincts after their exile.  Signs of mourning that are permanent can show profound loss but may also reveal a lack of faith in the future."

So, it seems that I have two main options for how to deal with the sensation of "being in exile:"  1) cut off my proverbial thumbs and wallow in despair; or, 2) acknowledge the pain but simultaneously go about investing in my life here, right where I am.  The truth is, my life in the States is ripe for gardening (metaphorically speaking, of course; I live in the city and don't even have a window box).  I've worked hard to cultivate a satisfying professional life for myself and am working on putting down more secure "community roots."  Although life outside Israel doesn't contain everything I want, it does have a lot of beautiful elements that I would miss if I had to give them up, and I should continue to honor my life here by cultivating them...and I should not discount the possibility that, one day in the future, I might be living a life in which I will feel more wholly satisfied.

It's hard to have my heart be in two places at once, when my body can be in only one.  But perhaps, out of this situation comes the potential to have two gardens instead of just one, and to draw on nutrients from more than one source.  That seems like the most productive way to handle the issue of exile and the best way to make the most of the situation I'm in.  Here's to another year of fruitful gardening...and, b"H, to next summer in Jerusalem!