To Be a Jew

July 21, 2020

By Naftali Shavelson

One afternoon in September, I took a bus to visit friends in the Judean hills. They had been my neighbors back in New Jersey, but had decided a few years ago to leave their American life behind and build themselves a home in Israel. I boarded in Jerusalem, near the government district, and, along with my fellow passengers, made steady progress out of the city and into the hills of the Israeli heartland. At the top of one particularly steep hill, the bus seemed to pause and catch its breath. The passenger next to me, an older man with a rich white beard and bright blue eyes, was reading. A “best grandpa” beaded bracelet lay loosely around his wrist. I looked out the window, squinting into the aureate sunset, and marveled.

We were in the Etzion region, famous for its rich agriculture and richer history. Orchards, vineyards, and gardens met us on some turns; ancient sites and archaeological digs on others. The sun gilded the peaks and valleys with an otherworldly glow. A road sign flashed by: Derech HaAvot, The Path of the Patriarchs. Almost four millennia ago, while the rest of the world was deciding whether bronze or iron was a more effective tool to spill blood, Abraham walked from the fertile crescent to a tiny strip of land on the Mediterranean coast. Scripture says he walked with God. I wondered whether he knew at the time that his children would call those hills their home, that the land would serve for them as a refuge against those who sought to destroy them. Not once, not twice. Countless times.

Most likely, though, Abraham would wonder why anyone would want to hurt his children in the first place. After all, God had said that people would bless each other by his name, and that he and his progeny would be lights unto the nations, humbly toiling to make the world a better place. I instinctively reached for the phone in my pocket, its screen shrouding an Israeli-designed Intel chip inside. The bus trudged onward.

We ate dinner on their porch, a simple meal. The night was cool and clear. To my left, the Jerusalem lights twinkled in the distance. To my right, I could see the Jordan valley, and beyond it, the mountains of the Hashemite kingdom. I shivered. Before its ill-fated decision to join Egypt and Syria and terminate the Jewish homeland in 1967, Jordan controlled all the land I could see. That had left an Israel barely nine miles wide, or fifteen minutes’ drive in a well-oiled battle tank. Manhattan is 13 miles long. Israel’s tiny army had won that fight but had been unable to beat its guns into plowshares just yet. Over the next few years, its forces mobilized again and again, pulling husbands and fathers from their beds to protect wives and daughters.

My friend lost a brother in one such war. If that wasn’t enough, his daughter, taking the bus back from school the week before summer, was hit by the bullet of a terrorist hiding in the bushes, waiting for young children like her. The girl would never walk again. Now, the bus her wheelchair is rolled into each morning is bulletproofed, as is the one I took to her home that evening. The girl seemed happy at dinner, laughed as much as any of us. To go back inside, though, she needed to ask for help to clear the threshold, and the pain in her request was delicate and tragic.

After we put our dishes in the sink and washed our hands, we returned to the table to recite the grace after meals. With a simple, earthy voice, my friend led us, singing the songs our people had sung for thousands of years. He thanked God for giving us this land as an inheritance, a good and ample land. He thanked Him for delivering us from the bondage of Egypt and for giving us a place of refuge, at that time and forever, if we would need it. He concluded by beseeching God to grant us peace in our time, after far too many years. To allow us to live in true peace, by ourselves and among others, and to sustain us with His glory. Our chairs scraped the porch floor as we got up from the table.

Naftali Shavelson’s essay was a winner of the Combat Anti-Semitism Abraham & Sarah “Israel in Me” essay contest.