Jerusalem Journal: Through the eyes of others

Fearing that we wouldn't be 'interesting enough,' I told my children to look alert (and interesting) and help me maximize the visit.

It happened just as I was beginning to forget and for this I will always be grateful to Emily. She saw the life that I live through objective eyes and expressed amazement at things I had taken for granted. In less than 48 hours, Emily showed me that the mundane is often marvelous, gasping at the sight of a four-year-old girl trying to lift her brother to the water fountain in the park across the street or learning that many people don't tear toilet paper on Shabbat. How is it that this fresh-faced, 23-year-old American Rhodes scholar dropped in to my Jerusalem living room one Friday afternoon? My dearest friend - who lives in Manhattan - had sent me a quick e-mail that explained that a young friend who had been teaching English in Turkey had a sudden yen to visit Israel for a few days. After attending the only Pessah Seder she could find at the apartment of Christian missionaries, she sensed an inexplicable need to visit the land of her forefathers. Without hesitation I said, "But of course!" We love guests, and this sounded so interesting, if a little daunting. Scheduled to arrive during the Remembrance Day/Yom Ha'atzma'ut week, I wanted to make the most of her visit. Fearing that we wouldn't be "interesting enough," I told my children to look alert (and interesting) and help me maximize the visit. Emily wrote me to ask my advice about where to stay in Jerusalem. I felt timid telling her to stay at my house over Shabbat, not wanting to overwhelm her with our observance or - Heaven forbid! - be accused of proselytizing. Not knowing her budget but thinking that this had to be a pretty expensive jaunt in the first place, I recommended the Sheraton Hotel on King George Avenue. "It is a nice hotel and walking distance from everything, including Rehov Ben-Yehuda, the German Colony, the Old City, etc. It is a good place to be when there is so much going on," I wrote. She wrote back a few hours later. "There are no hotel rooms available in Jerusalem that weekend! I've tried everywhere. In the end, I booked a room in the (No Name) Hotel on Rehov Agrippas. Have you heard of it? Also, I hope I'm not being presumptuous or overly inviting myself, but for Shabbat are we talking Friday night, Saturday services or both? This way, I can know what to pack." Oy vey. Yes, I had heard of it. If images of a red light district and "Please pass the hypodermic needle" mean anything to you, you know the place. I wrote back: "Emily, you will cancel your reservations at the (No Name) and stay here. In the first place - and you aren't presumptuous at all - Shabbos is the whole deal. I would have been clearer but didn't want to scare you with our modern Orthodoxy. You come on Friday afternoon and will go to a lovely, funky shul with my children. Afterward, you'll come home and get the full experience. "In the morning we go to a fabulous place with a great rabbi and wonderful people. On Friday night we will have a full table of friends and I think that people will be interested in meeting you. Oh, for Shabbos day we are eating with my good friends. She is the famous author Joanie Ploney and I'm pretty certain that you have read her books. "Oh, my boys just walked into the house and I told them about your reservation at the No Name and they fell to the floor with laughter. Two nights in Jerusalem? And one is Shabbat when you HAVE to be here? It's a no-brainer. Best, Andrea." From Emily: "Dear Andrea, I can't wait to meet your children! BTW, Joanie Ploney is my favorite author! Warmly, Emily." She arrived bearing two parve chocolate babkas and seamlessly melded into the frantic, pre-Shabbat routine. She was elegant and sensitive and even kept her shower short - Israel style - instead of the natural-resources-be-damned fashion of so many American visitors. I feared that our religious observance might smother her or that she'd find the Shabbat routine dull, but I needn't have feared. Emily loved every moment of Shabbat and kept asking questions which I had, either by virtue of sloth or complacency, almost forgotten the answers to. Through Emily's eyes I understood that my entire life is God-centered and there is little we do that isn't honed by one commandment or another. For example, it always seemed natural to perform the morning ablutions within moments of arising; but with Emily around, I had to explain. Every day I thank the Lord for creating me according to His will, but now I was urged to dissect the statement. It was a Shabbat that both exhausted and exhilarated. Because she was counting the hours until she had to board the return plane for Ankara, we barely rested. Rocking with my sons at Yakar Synagogue on Friday night, she returned home humming the Carlebach melodies. Everyone had something to share about either the Torah portion for the week or about the intermediate days between Pessah and Shavuot. Interestingly, she was pretty knowledgeable about prayer and ritual and impressed us all as she joined in with our Grace After Meals. We made it to synagogue earlier than usual the next morning, and I ashamedly admitted that as long as someone else was looking, I was stronger in my outward observance. (I made a note of it.) After a large communal kiddush at Shir Hadash Synagogue in Katamon, we climbed nine flights to the apartment of my author friend. Politics, comparative religion, foot molds and prayer styles were only a few of the topics we tried to cover in a very long and joyous lunch. By the time we got home, there was little time for a serious, near-holy Shabbat nap. Because at 5 p.m. we were scheduled to attend a lecture followed by a communal seuda shlishit (third meal). Is anything ever perfect? Dunno. But I can say that the Shabbat with Emily was as fine and inspiring as any Shabbat I've ever had. She made me laugh on the way to the lecture when she said, "How can I explain to people that you all relax by spending your day off learning? How can I explain to friends that I loved it?" It was through Emily's eyes that I understood that this fractured life I live has an admirable home base and that, perhaps, I should ask and answer questions myself so that I can keep the good feeling buzzing; that taking things for granted can easily slip into smugness if I don't stay alert; that I should feel the eyes of both God and of strangers upon me as I negotiate the maze I call my life. Oh, it wasn't all loftiness because apparently Emily and my daughter Talia spent a good part of Saturday café and bar-hopping. And don't tell the principal but my youngest daughter, Tehila, stayed out of school on Sunday to take Emily to the shuk, my favorite Jewish bookstore and the Herzl Museum. We even managed to scarf down some shwarma before driving her to the airport. And there was one other thing I learned: You can meet someone for the first time and cry when, less than 48 hours later, they say goodbye.