“The blurriness of joy and the precision of pain — I want to describe, with a sharp pain’s precision, happiness and blurry joy.” Yehuda Amichai
Twenty years ago this summer, I arrived in Jerusalem for my junior year abroad at Hebrew University. That year, Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty. One year earlier, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. It was a time of great hope and optimism. I visited Egypt and Jordan, crossing borders with ease. From my dorm on Mount Scopus, I took the bus regularly through East Jerusalem, to get to the kotel for Women of the Wall each Rosh Hodesh.
Two weeks ago, my family and I arrived to a very different place. We spent the first few days enjoying a soft landing, thanks to friends in Herzliya, but we were at the edge of our seats, waiting to hear about #bringbackourboys. It turned out they weren’t coming home. We slowly moved our things from our friends’ safe haven to our modest new home in Jerusalem, where we’re now settling in for a year. Walking home from our cousins’ house after our first Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem last week, our 10-year-old son, Aaron, noticed a huge #bringbackourboys banner hanging near our house. He asked why it hadn’t been taken down, since everyone knew by now that the boys were dead.
And then we heard our first siren two nights ago. Ninety seconds is the amount of time we had to grab our two sleeping kids, to decide where to take them, and to head down three flights of stairs to the basement. We remained there for the recommended 10 minutes, grateful to find an old mattress pad on which we placed the kids, who fell right back to sleep. My wife Hope carried them back up to bed; my hands were shaking too much to do so safely. Iron Dome feels like God’s outstretched hand.
Aaron said that the reason we are in Israel is because of me, because I’m in rabbinical school and we came for a year of my studies. But really, we’re here for him. And for our 4-year old daughter, Ami(chai.) Coming to Israel with the kids was a dream Hope and I shared even before we had children. We knew we wanted them to fall in love with Israel as we both had in our separate times and ways, to develop a lasting attachment at an early age as Hope did when she made aliyah with her parents in 1973, at the same age as Ami is now. Hope and her parents lived through the Yom Kippur War in Jerusalem. They returned to New York after a year, her mother unable to consider raising a child in a war zone 30+ years after she survived the Holocaust. Jerusalem is where our relationship began and it is the center for so much of who we are as a family now.
When I’m not numb to what’s going on around us, when I’m not wondering if the high-pitched tone of a vacuum cleaner in a nearby house is really the sound of the siren beginning, when I’m able to stop and to breathe, I remember the incredible privilege it is to be able to study Torah nearly full-time at the age of 40. I remember how grateful I am for this life. For our families of origin and our family of choice. And I am happy. Despite the pain of having to run the children to the basement in under a minute and a half. This week, as Yehuda Amichai wrote, “I learned to speak among the pains.”
Melanie Kohler Levav, a current Wexner Graduate Fellow (Class 26), was most recently the assistant executive director at the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, a JCC serving the Russian-speaking Jewish community in south Brooklyn. Melanie is pursuing rabbinical studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary to deepen her Jewish knowledge and broaden her professional skills, with an interest in end-of-life issues. A former FEREP scholarship recipient, she is a licensed social worker with masters degrees from both Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Currently living with her family in Jerusalem for the year, Melanie is proud to call Brooklyn home, where she resides with her partner, Hope, a Jewish day school educator, and their children, Aaron and Amichai. Melanie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.