Critical distance

Last week’s trip to Europe was an opportunity to take stock of our sabbatical experiences and my reaction to those experiences. One thing I saw — and felt — was the immense effort I have expended on holding this place at a distance, emotionally. On staying as neutral as possible.

Neutrality is kind of a joke in Jerusalem. This is no Switzerland. Most people coming here to live, rather than as tourists, bring strong feelings which only seem to intensify over time. Religious feelings. Political convictions. Attitudes towards big concepts like Zionism. Judaism. Anti-Semitism. Occupation. Statehood.

I don’t want to sell myself short, but these are not issues on which I feel any right to comment. I simply haven’t had these experiences. I can read and learn and question and listen and ‘encounter’ — and I have tried to grab opportunities to do so. But I still will fundamentally not “get” what draws others to move here. I can’t relate on a deep level to a person making aliyah. (My  designation from one college friend as an “Honorary Jew” does not pass muster here). Nor can I feel the same, certain passion as activists, NGO and aid workers seem to have.

Of course it’s more complicated than that. It’s always more complicated here. Were I to get to know any of these folks better, I would doubtless find layers of ambivalence and questioning. Terence is finding some of that in his teacher interviews. But people don’t wear ambivalence on their sleeves. Public expression of emotion towards this place skews to the extremes.

Terence’s grant puts us in the role of researcher, listener, observer. In a way, it’s a thrilling opportunity. We can go everywhere, crossing literal and figurative boundaries that so demarcate life here. My US Consulate friends are jealous that we can go to Ramallah and ride Egged buses. And, obviously, most Palestinians in the West Bank would be jealous of being able to get to Jerusalem at all. Terence, especially, gets to visit everything from UNWRA schools to yeshivas. But because we skim the surface of so many worlds, we don’t participate in any of them fully. Or, more accurately, the world in which we participate fully is the world of other scholars and diplomats — people whose jobs put them in similarly distanced roles and who send their children to JAIS.

So often, I don’t know what to think. I don’t understand the context. I am afraid of unleashing others’ feelings that I can’t fully grasp and certainly have never experienced. My reaction is to stand at a distance from all of…..that. Maybe this explains what feels like pathetic paralysis. For how many months have I been complaining about not understanding Hebrew? I could have finished an ulpan by now. But then again…who says I should learn Hebrew instead of Arabic? And for how long have I wanted to do something to make this place better? Not working runs very, very counter to my personality, upbringing, everything. But choosing an agency with which to volunteer is fraught, and I start to question whether I have enough skill and facility to be useful, anyway.

Am I over thinking this?

This year has been amazing for so many reasons, but not so good for my self esteem.

I came home from Germany telling Terence that we needed to spend more time with “real Israelis.” For example, I’m ashamed that we haven’t directly participated in much Jewish practice. Sure, we’ve witnessed bar mitzvahs at the Kotel and hung out in a friend’s Succa over Succot. But we have yet to attend a service in a synagogue or a real Shabbat dinner.

And of course we need to get to know “real Palestinians” as well.

I’m trying to proceed on two tracks here. One, to gain more understanding and even appreciation for my need to hold all this stuff at a distance. But also two, to take some small steps towards bringing it closer to me or me closer to it. Whatever it means. Turning that vague impulse into concrete ‘to dos’ is an interesting challenge.


About hilarymead

Taking two young kids, a great husband, and a whole lot of questions to Jerusalem for a year's sabbatical.
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2 Responses to Critical distance

  1. Launa says:

    Is it possible that you had to go through that period of staying neutral long enough to get comfortable? And now, with home on your horizon, you can let your guards down and connect more? A lot changed for us after we bought our return tickets. For some reason, knowing there was an end helped all of us to relax and be where we were. (except Bill, who was already so fully there.)

    • hilarymead says:

      Launa…I think yes and no. I agree that realizing that this experience isn’t forever, that we will go home at some point in the not-too-distant future (July 2), liberates us to take more risks and open ourselves to the experience. A now-or-never mentality. But I don’t know about the feeling comfortable part. I don’t know many people who feel truly comfortable in Jerusalem. Stimulated, challenged, inspired, troubled, yes. Comfortable, no.

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