I’m in bed in the early morning in Delhi, with gathering traffic sounds outside and a brace of pigeons fluttering at the white building and grand leafy tree across the way, seen through palm leaves on the porch.
I did get to spend Shavuot eve with my friends the physician and artist. They still seem rather English although in Israel forty years, but they have Israeli children, and grandchildren who struggle with English. They are four generations now, since Elliot’s ninetyish mom, hale, graceful and charming, was there to enliven the dinner conversation. I asked her if she and her late husband had found it hard when they made aliya twenty years ago; no, her son had smoothed the way for them.
I have other English-Israeli friends who are devoted to fighting for Arab equality within Israel and against the appropriation of Palestinian land by the separation wall. (It has hugely reduced terrorism but has been built within Palestine, sometimes substantially, another blow to peace.)
But the English are a close-knit group, distinct from the Americans. Another guest was a talkative semi-retired businessman who escapes the Jerusalem winters for Southeast Asia, where he consults with startups trying to emulate Israel’s. Part of the dinner chat was comparing huge Chabad seders in Thailand and Nepal, where my friend the physician has often worked.
I walked back with the businessman, passing many couples and families on this spring late-evening, strolling after services at the many synagogues, looking for lectures. Shavuot is z’man matan Toratenu, “the time of the giving of our Torah,” and some would stay up studying until morning prayers in the dawn light. At one point my companion led me past the Prime Minister’s house, a blockish grey structure with Israeli flags aloft. We walked through a gate past a security guard and very close to the house, exiting past another guard. It didn’t seem secure, but what do I know?
Two nights earlier I’d slept in one of my favorite places, the ranch resort Vered ha’Galil (Rose of the Galilee). I was too tired for a horseback ride, and after watching the sun set over the Kineret and the lights flicker on in Tiberias I drove a few kilometers north to Rosh Pina. I was looking for a reputedly hip restaurant and saw a plump middle-aged woman in modest dress hitchhiking (two fingers out and down) on the main road climbing to Tsfat.
I was hungry, so when I saw the little handwritten sign for the restaurant, I parked and walked past the woman. But the restaurant was closed, and when I passed her again I found she spoke English. Could I take her somewhere?
She was grateful, apologizing a lot for taking me out of my way, very soft-spoken, with a thick Israeli accent. She was late for Torah study and called to say she was on her way. Were they studying the week’s Torah portion? They had finished that and were preparing for Shavuot. What did the men think? “I’m divorced,” she said, “but the other women are married. Their husbands like it very much.” She groped for the words in English. “They like it because it…it makes you a better person.”
I also asked about the new medical school on the mountaintop, which had caused tensions by bringing Arab-Israeli medical students into a sacred Jewish city, where parts of the Kabbalah had been written. “It’s good,” she said, “it brings a lot of different people.”
She made sure to set me back on my right path down again before getting out of the car. I didn’t shake hands with her, but I told her how much I enjoyed the conversation and asked if she was safe walking from there. “Oh, it’s very safe here.” I realized I had driven all the way to Tsfat, where I had not been planning to go again on this brief trip. The view of the night sky and the plain of Galilee strewn with sparkling lights was spectacular. I certainly felt closer to something.
I drove down and ate minced lamb with mint and lentils in a place called ‘Amburger,’ a play on the owner’s name, Ami, and perhaps also on ‘am’ where young middle class couples and friends spoke Arabic at tables near me.
Next morning my friend the Rav asked in his usual deadpan, “Does your wife know you’re picking up strange women at night on the road to Tsfat?” I figure it was a mitzvah to help a chubby middle-aged woman in need, a mitzvah to take her to Torah study, a mitzvah that the study was with women, a mitzvah that it was in preparation for Shavuot, and a mitzvah that I went up to Tsfat. That’s a lot of mitzvot.
Or perhaps at this point I should say a whole lot of good karma.