I never had the schut of meeting Shlomo. But I did get one encounter-at-a-distance. It was sort of like smelling the bakery without really tasting the challah...though that shmek sure did open up my neshama.
It was the summer of 1994. I had just finished my freshman year in college and I spent the summer in Israel. Those were my first days of falling in love with Torah, truly one of the most magical chapters of my life. On one of those honeymoon nights, I was walking with friends from the center of town to the Old City. Apparently there was some big concert happening in Safra Square. It was right there in front of the Municipality where I now make my regular treks to register my kids for school and pay my city taxes. But in those days it was just the site of a concert I didn''t have the money to get in to.
My friends and I loitered around at the entrance, listening wistfully. The music was upbeat, engaging, and the folks entering seemed to be of kindred spirits. We were not alone in our loitering. Apparently there were lots of other young Jewish hipsters who, like ourselves, didn''t have the spare change to buy a ticket. We were the party of the “can''t-pays”, getting a contact-high from the vibes that wafted over the gates. We were on the outside, but making the most of it.
Suddenly, though, the music stop. We heard the mysterious singer call out to the powers-that-be – “Hey, you guys at the gate. Forget about the money. Just let everybody in!” Was it a joke?! Was he talking about us?! Sure enough, they opened up the gates and we all started gleefully streaming in. It was the first and only time I have ever been suddenly let in to a concert for free! – And, of course, it was Shlomo.
We flooded in to find a world of hundreds of circle-dancing, Hebrew singing, funky and FRUM members of the tribe. I recall being shocked that there was a split between men and women, a phenomena I could have never imagined at a concert. It was so pure, yet wild. It was fresh and new and yet old-world, old-style.
I looked around and knew I had found my home in the homeland.
I had no idea who Shlomo was. Little did I know that he was about to change my life, even from a distance. I would later learn that this was the last concert that Shlomo did in Jerusalem before his untimely death a few short months later.
It was not long after that concert that I ended up formally falling in love with the Shlomo-hevra. I became a devoted groupie of Ein Safek, and one of the many who made the Moshav my home for the holidays. I lived in the Old City and had the enormous merit of davening under the arbors of song that was the Dovid-Hertzburg-led-Shlomo-minyan at the Kotel. Manna from heaven! Actually, it was feeling like a part of the Shlomo-hevra that enabled me to eventually move to Israel after college and make aliya a year after that. The Shlomo-hevra gave me an invaluable anchor of community. For once, I had family, in Israel.
As I think back to that magical night at the concert, the thing that most stands out from my singular slice of “meeting Shlomo” was the moment the gates were opened; the moment that we realized that we were being let in. It was a totally unexpected, seemingly unearned, gift. I was filled with a sense of, “Yes, the universe is friendly. Yes I am welcome. Yes, I have value beyond the cash in my pocket. Yes, I belong here in this city, with this people.” After all, as a baalat-teshuva, I sometimes have this creeping fear that I just got too shmutzed up in my life to ever really be an authentic frum Jew. I couldn''t possibly ever really deserve to be let in the front gates of this palace of God. But then it happened. I was on the outside and making the most of it. But then, Shlomo let me in. It was nothing short of Messianic.
That was the gift that Shlomo blessed us all with. That sense that we are all invited in....and we don''t have to pay admission when we''re coming home. He gave us a sense, a knowing, that we do belong to this Jewish millenial dance-party. And, in fact, it really isn''t much of a party without us.
So I owe enormous thanks to Shlomo and to the holy brothers, sisters, shleppers who have been my surrogate family of gate-openers to the Holy Land.
The poem below tries to capture that “ecstasy of entrance”, that sense of being newly-turned on to Torah, and that sense of the wonder that comes with being invited to enter into the gates of Jerusalem.
The Live Tree
So this is what it means to be a Jew --
Who knew that Torah was
ancient and yet progressivemystical, intellectual and impressivegrounded yet elevating
paradoxical and penetrating.Suddenly I am plumbing depths and thumbing through textsthat have been thumbed and plumbedfor generations past and more to come.Here in these courtyards of holy Yerushalayimfilled with Torah wisdom and higher vision.Living the return of Judah’s long lost children- so far gone, so far hidden.Now come home to the old booksof OUR OWN venerable tradition!Here in the study halls of Rehov Beer Shevain hutzot Yerushalayimin Nachlaot, in Bat Ayincrawling on berkayimjust to kiss these stones - and make a homein Yerushalayim’s now-revived old bones.We Jewish children are coming home
coming streaming like four cornered gleaningsclamoring with higher callingcleaving to deeper meaningshining with persistenceand a 3000 year-old commitmentCommitment to the Torah, to something morethan the mores & norms of the Western worldwith her hordes of the immoral and the impure. Committed to something more than a Manhattan latteand a pumped-up paycheck to “provide for the family”that may smile wide for the camerasbut weeps inside, for their bankrupt neshamas.Famished for a richer truththan the loose change of material gainfamished for the fresh fruit of the living treestamped with God’s name!And so I pace myself with the stealthof a leopard on the chase of the truthwhich darts like a gazellethrough these hills of Yehudaand tomes of GemaraI will come to know so well.With a fire hotter than a 1000 degreesfrom the cool Ivy League.My ivy climbs the Western Wall- a beanstalk tall to which I cleave.
For its a living tree of Torah, Ketuvim, Neviim.I''m a member of the band belting songs of the Leviim!
We have returned to these streetsto breathe these booksto dream these dreams.
If Torah is a tree of life
then I will change my life,
that I may sit amongst her leaves and read...
Part of this piece can be found in Chaya''s one-woman performance entitled “Babel''s Daughter – From the Bible Belt to the Holy Land.”