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(photo credit: Judy Lash Balint)
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"Why should age be a determining factor in turning one's life around?" asks Ray Walker. After a lifetime of living and learning in many places around the world, the diminutive and articulate octogenarian packed up her life in the United States last December and started a new life in Israel.
Ray made aliya from New York City ("right in the area of the Twin Towers") and is eagerly trying to absorb all that Jerusalem has to offer.
A poet, teacher and spiritual seeker, Ray's motto throughout life has been to "go with the flow." On her walks and bus rides through Jerusalem, Ray finds she gets pushed and shoved by aggressive Israelis, but she's emphatic about feeling that she's finally home.
Newspaper photos of Ray practicing with her Tai Chi group in New York City's Chinatown or protesting the New York subway fare hike provide just a hint of the many turns her life has taken before making aliya. In earlier years, Ray was a teaching fellow at Denver University in Colorado, where she joined the Colorado Mountaineering Club and enjoyed white-water rafting; she traveled on a cargo ship to Morocco, spent six weeks in Mogador and five years living in Gainesville, Florida.
Her first visit to Israel was in 1958, when she spent several months teaching English at Kibbutz Ginossar.
Her spiritual path before aliya has been as varied as her physical travels. Prior to returning to her Jewish roots, Ray discloses that she almost became a Seventh Day Adventist and was a regular at the Sunday morning silent worship meetings of the Society of Friends (Quaker) in Brooklyn Heights.
Ray is the youngest of five children born to a secular Jewish immigrant family on New York's lower East Side. Her father came from Belarus and her mother's family from Poland. Both parents were professional performers and Ray fondly recalls performing on the Borscht Belt circuit in the 1930s.
Nefesh B'Nefesh facilitated Ray's aliya in December 2004. "I was on cloud nine," Ray remembers. The planeload of North American olim was welcomed by hundreds of prior immigrants and Israeli politicians. One of them, Jerusalem city councilwoman Mina Fenton, has become "one of my angels," Ray says. On the tarmac, Ray found herself dancing with the soldiers who came out to greet the new arrivals.
Ray's first month was spent at the Beit Shmuel hostel in Jerusalem while she looked for an apartment. "I met people from all over the world there," she says.
Ray is happy to be a retired teacher, community volunteer and perpetual student. She's constantly writing new poetry and essays. Since 1969, Ray has kept a journal (she stopped counting after book #135), which evolved into books of poetry.
"The poems were an outgrowth of the daily experiences that affected me profoundly." One book, called Mnemonic Devices, was published, and a New York publisher has expressed interest in another work entitled The Travels and Adventures of an Itinerant Teacher.
Ray complains that there's never enough time to get to all the activities she'd like to take part in. She's a regular volunteer at Yad Sarah, attends a weekly Tehillim (Psalms) group, numerous Jewish learning classes and a creative writing group.
In addition to practicing yoga, Ray makes a point of taking the bus and walking to get to know Jerusalem's neighborhoods.
After leaving Beit Shmuel, Ray moved to a comfortable apartment in the Old Katamon area popular with English-speaking olim. The central location has enabled her to try out various synagogues and walk to her various activities. While she's still trying to figure out the best way to keep the place warm in the winter, she says, "It's great - I'm home."
Most of Ray's friends are English speakers, but few of them are her own age. "People are so friendly here, and I manage to meet all kinds of characters," she notes. She's befriended people at the bus stop and counts many educators among her circle. "Last Purim I went from one party to another," she marvels.
Ray sold an apartment in New York and receives social security payments from the US government. "Food is not expensive here, but everything else is," she notes. As a vegetarian, she's enthusiastic about the cheap fruit and vegetables. "It's a vegetarian's dream."
With her limited Hebrew, Israeli telephone and utility bills sometimes leave her wondering what she's paying for.
"I'm an ulpan dropout," Ray admits. "But I can greet people in five languages." She is comfortable with liturgical Hebrew.
Today, Ray acknowledges, "Hashem is my boss," but she came to that recognition in a most untraditional manner. "Edgar Cayce's 'Search For God' study groups, in which meditation and breathing exercises played a big part, turned me into a practicing Orthodox Jew," Ray reveals.
While part of the Cayce group in the early 1970s, she felt the need to light Shabbat candles. From there she found a conservative synagogue and began to observe Shabbat. Pretty soon she was living in the religious Brooklyn neighborhood of Boro Park studying Judaism.
"So today, I felt that God gave me a religious education that I would never have had if I had been born into an Orthodox Jewish family."
Every morning Ray reads Psalm 19. "I need it," she says simply.
Ray identifies herself as a Jerusalemite. The woman who has traveled all over the world now says, "I just can't leave Jerusalem. I'd really like to travel to other parts of the country, but it's hard to leave this city."
Publishing more of her poetry and essays is a top priority for Ray. She would also like to resume teaching the Tai Chi classes and workshops on "freeing yourself from clutter" she left in New York.
And finally, she's looking for speaking engagements based on her "adventures" and life changes that would incorporate her ambition to be a stand-up comic.