It is still an amazing thing to me. This place feels like home. While I’ve not visited everywhere in Israel (and won’t be able to before I leave the first of December) every city I’ve visited seems like a city I could live in; the shuls I’ve visited feel like ones that if I dropped some of my usual defenses would welcome me; even when I have one of my not uncommon panic attacks I surprise myself by quickly getting myself together and knowing whether to have a latte in a café, find a park to sit in for a bit or to return to where I am staying for a little more unfocused time.
It is also a place that is very hard for someone who can’t always cope with crowds. I found myself honouring Yom Kippur at a shul and not at the Wall which was only a 20 minute walk away because I could not bring myself to join in with thousands of others in a public expression of a shared experience. Religious celebrations often bring strangers together to rejoice in their commonality but efforts by me to join in have not proven fruitful.
I have pushed myself to be more publically Jewish, but that isn’t always easy. Wearing a kippah here includes donning the expectation that one speaks fluent Hebrew. As someone who has barely pushed myself through the Aleph level, being expected to know Hebrew is a problem. And yet this is also encouraging. It means that I am accepted as a Jew and it is only my limitations that interfere in my being more fully a part of the Jewish world here and in Toronto.
Like in my previous visits I listen and observe more than talk. I am hearing more European voices than in my previous visits—more Russians and French talking about growing anti-Semitism at home and difficulties with daily life in Israel.
There have been odd and unexpected experiences. While riding the LRT in Jerusalem I noticed that Orthodox women would sit beside me but not beside Orthodox men. With a couple of noticeable exceptions, store owners in the Suq in Jerusalem or the Arab quarter of Haifa seemed subdued. I see lots of women wearing hijabs on transit but few in the stores.
Every urban centre I’ve visited or passed through is having a building boom. There are objections being raised from a number of perspectives that seem familiar—heritage preservation, need to preserve parkland and agricultural land, urban expansion is taking place on other people’s land. And the responses echo those made elsewhere but come down to ‘the population is growing so more housing is needed.’
I am not seeing some of the positive signs I noticed in previous visits, perhaps due to where I am staying. But I’ve not seen pick-up soccer games of Jewish and Arab youth, which I saw in my first visit. Nor have I been invited to, or come across ads for, cross community events which I noticed in my second visit.
I did take an organised tour of sacred sites in Jerusalem, which included sites sacred to followers of Islam, Christians and Jews. The tour guide stressed the wonder and hope that three such diverse and complex faiths have found in Jerusalem sacred space and despite centuries of tensions still are finding way to honour the sacred in different ways in such a small place.