The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the water''s buoyancy was liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed. My Jerusalem half-marathon run had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone, meaning the hip socket. One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.
My physiotherapist -- like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious, generous-minded and far-seeing of our species -- recommended I try swimming. Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem Pool, with its fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn''t formal, repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my injury.
This summer, during a three week family vacation in the Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming. Whenever I plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial sterility, with its clear chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor, versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles floating around as you swim.
Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in twenty years of summer visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young -- my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics not running, jumping, or swimming.
It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up injured. I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?
Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My fifteen-year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my twelve-year-old and ten-year-old kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.
I started strong. My rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl, created a soothing, symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart started pounding faster. The shore was looking mighty far away.
With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature emerges.
Recovery from trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as reimagining.” Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their lifestories.
This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of “Resilience studies” introduced in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds – personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic -- reflects what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.” This is not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new circumstances. Resilience, ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,” being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles, to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions, to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to apologize or forgive.
This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.
Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son arrived. We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.
Returning back, I flew, er, swam briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water, fully cured, with no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not Hollywood. Still, I return from vacation strengthened, refreshed, recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized yet, if you do it right, very real rupture, repentance, reimagining, and rebirth. And I look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals. Happy Elul.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of "Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today," his next book is "Moynihan''s Moment: America''s Fight against Zionism is Racism."