Rabbi David Ackerman: Pilgrimages, Mosaics, Kaleidoscopes

Every so often, we will be featuring Tzion students, rabbis, and colleagues as guest contributors.  For our first segment, Rabbi David Ackerman talks about the dual purposes behind his most recent trip to Israel.

As my El Al flight crossed the eastern Mediterranean and we saw land for the first time, my neighbor and I communicated our shared experience of anticipation and excitement every time we landed in Israel. I mused that this was my 30th or so trip (I long ago stopped counting) and each time feels like the first. It’s just not any old trip, and while enjoyable and even restful in many ways, it’s certainly not a vacation. Pilgrimage is really the only word I can come up with. It feels like a sacred journey for me, a visit to a special and even holy place. I use none of those terms lightly; their weightiness scares me. And that’s before I start contemplating the truly worrisome theological implications. And yet, pilgrimage is how it feels to be here this time as every time before.

My current pilgrimage to Israel consists of two distinct parts. I’ve come on my own to spend some time with our son Josh who made aliyah a mere six weeks ago. With Tel Aviv as home base these past two days, I visited with Josh in his new home in Ibim, a small youth village at the edge of the southern development town of Sderot. He, in turn, came to the big city to spend an afternoon with me and a number of relatives and old friends. That’s part one. Part two begins tomorrow with the arrival of a group of Christian clergy from Philadelphia and surroundings with whom I have the privilege of traveling over the course of the next week. There’ll be much to say about that interfaith journey in the coming days. For now, some reflections on two days in Tel Aviv and Sderot.

In recent years I’ve come to think of Israel as akin to either a mosaic or a kaleidoscope. Like a mosaic, Israel consists of a multitude of little stones each with its own tale to tell. When placed together, even in surprising or unexpected ways, the stones form a larger picture, a mosaic that describes this thing called contemporary Israel. As with a kaleidoscope, the picture that you see depends on how you hold up all the pieces, on the intensity of the light that you allow in, on the angle that you choose. Not only does each piece differ from all the others; each observer sees those pieces in a different configuration and a different light.

What follows are some small stones or bits of kaleidoscope glass that I managed to glimpse since arriving a few nights ago. Even before the group of which I’m a part arrives, and, remarkably, without yet encountering the ‘conflict’ in any direct way, I’ve seen a whole variety of stones in some strange and wonderful combinations.

My first night in Tel Aviv, after checking in to my hotel I went out in search of a bite to eat. This is not a challenge in this city that truly never sleeps. To the contrary, the challenge is how to narrow down your choices. On the recommendation of my hotel’s desk clerk, I ended up in a small Indian restaurant call Ma Pau which bills itself as a ‘Bombay Food & Bar’ establishment. The food was delicious; fresh and flavorful. The crowd was even more interesting – a mix of young Israeli hipsters (they look like the American and European varieties) and foreign workers and their families. The restaurant staff, in turn, combined local millenials and African refugees who work as kitchen staff in many a Tel Aviv eatery.

Just to make matters more, well, delicious, Ma Pau sits on the corner of two of Tel Aviv’s earliest streets, Nahalat Binyamim – likely named for Theodore (Binyamin Zev) Herzl – and Ahad Ha’Am – for certain named for one of the central early Zionist thinkers, Asher Ginzburg, who wrote under the title ‘One of the People.’ Herzl is seen as the founder of practical or political Zionism while Ahad Ha’Am focused his energies on articulating what came to be known as cultural Zionism. In a very real sense, the intersection of the two created modern Israel. Today, Indian food is served at that crossroads. While snarfing down my very wonderful vegetarian thali, I found myself wondering what Herzl and Ginzburg would say about Tel Aviv circa 2017. And then I found myself wondering whether it even matters.

The next morning, I took a cab to one of Tel Aviv’s ultra-modern rail stations to catch the train to Sderot. An hour later, and what felt like at least two or three decades earlier, I got off, along with a horde of students heading to class at one of Israel’s excellent regional academic institutions, Sapir College. You may remember Sapir and Sderotas frequent targets of rocket attacks from Gaza over the past number of years. Right now, thank God, the rockets are quiet; thousands of students study at Sapir, and thousands more, my son among them, live in and around Sderot. Josh lives in a Jewish Agency owned youth village called Ibim which has housed a few generations of new immigrants to Israel over the decades. It took me back to the kibbutz, not too far down the road in fact, where I volunteered as a teenager nearly forty years ago. Same look, same feel, same mud, same Israel.

This past Shabbat was Tu B’Shevat – the annual festival of trees – and so Josh’s group spent some time planting trees on the day I visited. Beautifully, they were joined by a few groups of soldiers stationed in the area who took time out to visit the village and their newest colleagues and to plant trees that will provide shade and pleasure, it is hoped, to yet more generations of newcomers to Israel. A bit hokey, perhaps, but also wholesome and uplifting. Current soldiers, almost all of them native born Israelis, circulating around Ibim to meet and welcome future soldiers, almost all of them native born Canadians and Americans.

Josh and I made our way back to Sderot for lunch at an outstanding local restaurant called Ha-hummus shel Tehina. Check out the meal we devoured –

In the middle of lunch it started to rain very hard and a few minutes later the sun came out. Almost immediately the restaurant’s staff poured out onto the sidewalk to see the rainbow that had formed just about Sderot. While I could see the full spectrum rainbow from the dining room window, I ventured out to take in the scene. Half of Sderot was on the sidewalk gawking, grinning, and grabbing photos on their phones. It was a truly beautiful moment – rainbow above, rainbow below.

Heading back to the train station I tripped over what appears to be a long lost family business, one I knew nothing of until this week. Who knew? (No relation as far as I’m aware, but it’s good to dream, or so I imagine!) —

Back in Tel Aviv, more stones in the mosaic emerged. Walking back from the train station I made my through the south Tel Aviv neighborhood that houses the ‘new’ Central Bus Station. I vividly remember its predecessor from my student days in the 80’s. The ‘old’ Central Bus Station was an open air set of platforms and series of streets filled with all the sleaze Tel Aviv had to offer. The place a vague sense of danger about it, probably more real and more dangerous that I knew at the time. I was, after all, a young and naive (and not so smart) rabbinical student. All of that and more is now crammed into Tel Aviv’s cavernous ‘new’ Central Bus Station which sits in the middle of Israel’s biggest African refugee neighborhood. Store windows in African languages, internet cafes, ethnic barbershops and salons lining the streets tell some of that story. And it’s all mixed together with Israelis of Ethiopian, Russian and North African origin. It’s quite a heady stew.

A few blocks to the west, hipster Tel Aviv starts to take over. The closer you get to the sea, the hipper. This renewed part of the city is also the oldest part, a phenomenon which yields yet more lovely juxtapositions. For instance, a block off of Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv’s very first street, I spotted a swank new restaurant and bar called Brut next to an optometrist’s shop that has been in place since 1924. A few doors down I stopped at a literal hole in the wall which turned out to be an espresso bar called La Cortado. The coffee was spectacular. The bar could have been in Queen Village or Greenwich Village just as easily as in Tel Aviv. Sipping my cortado, I pondered whose dream today’s Tel Aviv might fulfill. Herzl’s? Ahad Ha-Am’s? Ben Gurion’s? Much more to come, and I’m already certain that none of it will be simple.

You can read more of Rabbi Ackerman's blog here.  If you're interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Gabrielle!