Sharp Longing, in Jerusalem

Ты пахнешь Израилем: You smell of Israel, my mother says to me every time I return from Israel. The truth is, this smell never goes away.

At the departure gate, breathing Hebrew again. This language I labored years to recover.  An urgency, a mutual recognition. “You are going to Israel, too?”  “Where are you from?”

The fervor of the Hasidim.  The наглость, the audacious insolence.  Looking into you, takhles.

I turn to the person next to me, saying something in Hebrew out of a deep desire to demonstrate, I am one of you, I speak Hebrew, too.

I grab my Israeli passport out of my backpack and make it visible, revealing, I am one of you, an open secret between “real Israelis.”  I let the gold Hebrew letters show, should anyone mistake the navy blue of my passport for my American passport.  I walk on the ramp from the airplane to passport control in Ben Gurion Airport.  Orthodox mothers rushing their strollers to the door, Russians bickering.

My body floats with trepidation through an airport rife with deep nostalgia.

Have my relatives discovered that I’ve arrived?  Did my father tell them?

I step out of baggage claim, choking up as I see grandparents, fathers holding children on their shoulders, lovers welcoming their international arrivals.

I had long buried the part of me that wants my relatives to know, and care, that I live in Israel.  There is no one there to meet me.

At the platform to the trains, the air encloses me whole.

No matter the time, the place doesn’t seem to loosen its grip.


My mother is a pianist.  She ran away at age eighteen from Moscow in 1991.  Her family followed a year later.

My father is a physicist and luthier.  He came with his family to Israel from Sukhumi in 1989.  They were received as scientists at the Hebrew University.

My parents met under musical circumstances in Jerusalem, where I was born.

I spent the first three years of my life in Jerusalem, in Neve Ya’akov and Ramot.  In 1998, my parents immigrated to America.  They left everything: grandparents, parents, Russian and Hebrew, what could have been a life in Israel.

I grew up in Minnesota.  I did not choose where I grew up.  I did choose never to forget what my father told me: Remember who you areRemember where you came from.


The longing for Israel is physical.  It hurts physically to be away, to be deprived of a lifeblood, my whole body crying out for the other shore.

My parents brought me to Israel every summer, to Pisgat Ze’ev in Jerusalem, where kada and khachapuri waited for me on the kitchen table, and to Kfar Saba where I lived on Arlozorov with my grandmother and spent the summer evenings dancing in Kenyon Arim.

As I grew older, I began to realize the obvious.  My cousins could all speak Hebrew, I could not.  Israel rested for Shabbat, my family did not.  My cousins had a Jewish education, I was enrolled in a classical school run by Catholic parents in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Everyone was together, we were torn across the world.

Immigration is aggressive.  A brutal severing, shattering your sense of home forever.

I have never belonged anywhere.  Not in America, where all my schoolmates’ grandparents lived in the same city or, at most, a city over.  Not in Russia, where my nineteenth-century Russian is long dead.  And not in Israel, where most of my relatives don’t know who I am.

I felt, in all of my relations, that I had to hold back something essential:

<Это не земляки, а прохожие люди, / это всё к настоящему только прелюдия.>

“These are not fellow countrymen, but passers-by, / all of this is just a prelude to the real.” (Sergei Yursky, 1977)

This word, Израиль, Israel, became for me a legend, an obsession.  Israel was a delicacy we could only taste, a hit of oxygen we could get only once a year.  I became possessive of these experiences.

Something lay dormant in me that I could not express to anyone, a feeling that came alive listening to Klezmer, singing Tumbalalaika and playing Jewish songs on piano, overhearing my parents whispering Hebrew when there was something they did not want me to understand.

I lived in the question of “When will I return?”  “When will I find you?”


A personal history is not easily discoverable, especially when everything feels buried.  To imagine for yourself a life not yet, but to be, thin threads held together by nothing but your will to know.

It takes an obsession to dig.  Where are my people, where are all the real people, где найти настоящих людей?  My страсть, my passion, was maddening.

I am describing a pain for Israel—когда всë внутри болит, when, unendingly, everything hurts inside.

I struggled to disentangle myself from this search—that is what makes it existential.  Existential because Israel does not accept a search that is לשמה לא, lo lishmah, not for the sake of the name itself, that is not total.

The longing didn’t do me in, but it could have.  I felt this need to be irrepressible.  I had to return to swallow this air again.


These days, my parents return once a year.  My mother to Kfar Saba, my father to Jerusalem.

They left nothing for me in Israel.

Not long ago, my father visited his mother in Jerusalem.  He took me to Moshe’s bourekas stand in Ramot, to the playground where he took me in a stroller every Shabbat, to the violin studio of Eyal Hofmekler on Ha-Tayasim.  It was there that I realized what Israel meant to him, watching him look out over the city, biting into a cheese bourekas, choking on memory, on the thought of what could have been.

Your material life may be in America, but can you deny an inward commitment?  Your senses relive it.


I am twenty-seven.  A little over a year ago, I left Berkeley, California, where I am completing my doctorate, and returned to live in Jerusalem.  To collect remains of myself, to face myself.

At the gate, before take-off and when I land, I am on the phone with my mother and my uncle.  I want to share this experience.  Who is on the plane?  Do you hear Russian?  How many Orthodox, in the aisles, congregating by the bathrooms on the plane?

It is bittersweet for them to see me return.  The joy and pain of something just out of reach.  Nostalgia for the particular—Café Turki, banana gamadim, Bamba, blue Pinuk shampoo, the scent of clothes hung to dry in the Jerusalem air. . .

This is our Israel, innocent, dear.

They live it through me.

As the plane touches ground, I feel the gravis in the body, a rabid effervescence, ten years of life brought back to my face.  I clap passionately, suddenly a little girl again.  I look around, inciting the others to clap with my eyes, whispering under my breath, “why aren’t they going louder?”

Arriving is not strict or clear.  Arriving is return into a pain that managed to remain raw.  Return is complicated by the expense incurred struggling to connect.  It is bizarre to return to a place that means so much and to have nothing to show for it, no real place to stay.  Return is not a moment or in a moment, and yet, the moment of return is everywhere felt.


А сердце – отчего так медленно оно

И так упорно тяжелеет?

То всею тяжестью оно идет ко дну. Мандельштам, 1910


And the heart—from what does it so slowly

and so stubbornly get heavier?

So all this weight, it goes to the deep. Mandelstam, 1910


Tяжесть, weight.  Abrupt descent.

Winding labyrinthine streets, a topography that demands deep physical knowing.  Dark recesses, the curvature of a body needing to be discovered.

The transition from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a shift in being.  One must take Bus 480 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the only real way to get there.

One has not experienced Israel until one has arrived into the bowels of Jerusalem.

No wonder so many people avoid it—as most would avoid, and thereby belligerently miss, what is beautiful about a complex person.  To be here is to struggle.

Every aspect of existence is difficult, cramped.  Life doesn’t flow freely, the city doesn’t allow you to move aimlessly.  Something, essentially unspoken, perhaps life itself, matters here terribly.  This intensity gets caught inside, a feeling resurrected in the bones.

Hourly aching, weight of the subtlest movement.  Inability to move from Jerusalem’s gravitational field.

The body follows, for the arrest is physical.


Иерусалимский ветер, Jerusalem air,

existential, joining mountain and desert,

hamsin blowing from the desert.

Torn, lived faces, searing recognition.

In Jerusalem, the weight of existence is felt,

a particular relation with living required of you

a pressure, like a siren call, emanating outward from within.

Intolerant of visitation, of relative engagement

In Jerusalem, it is not only the observant who shokel.

Jerusalem is not a place, it is a feeling that all your bones declare.

Jerusalem waits for no one but awaits everyone.


I stand on my grandmother’s balcony in Pisgat Ze’ev, overlooking Ànata, children running beneath, an old man carrying a plastic bag of bread rolls.

There is no sunset, no bleeding sky, like this one.

At dawn, the Fajr startles me awake in the room with my mother’s piano, where I used to sleep as a child. The sound reaches the bones.

A Hasidic man playing the violin, handing out scripture.  Бешенство, madness.  I have arrived into an urgent life, a life that is urgent.

Jerusalem holds you in a difficult tension.  A tension made obvious by having been born, but never grown up here.

“Did you come here alone?”  “You came here all alone?” Hungry passersby wondering how, at my age of twenty-seven, I could be so brave as to return here alone.

Is everyone together here?  I just arrived from a country where everyone is alone, where for years, I have been able to count only on myself.


But what is return?

Can you just return and expect to belong?  Yet painful is not that “I don’t belong,” but that I’m not just a visitor here.

Belonging is paradoxical—a priori by having been born here, by being a Jew no matter what, and labored, for that not being enough to have a real life in Israel.

Can you share a blood and ground relation and expect to feel a connection?  The place of mattering to someone is not easily earned.

Then is it just a matter of recognizing your inheritance, as my observant friends would say?  This suggestion arrogantly takes for granted having been led by the hand through tradition since childhood.

You may carry an inheritance inside, but how do you access it, how do you get it to break free?

I grew up a gypsy in tradition, anarchic against religious orders.  Any attempt to be absorbed in the fulfillment of mitzvot—and there have been many—felt like a distraction from the real perils of life.

What do people mean when they speak about return as if it delivers peace, as if there is a final deliverance?  I do not experience return as “reconciliation” or “reparation,” as if a living wound could possibly close before its term.

Only in an abstract sense is belonging part of my experience of being a Jew.  Exile colors the hours of my everyday.

Is not exile, then, an essential part of who I am as a Jew?  Do I even want to be a part of what feels like a performance?

Return solves nothing.  If anything, it makes the pain worse.  It is a precipitate of earlier struggle, a turn back into yourself.   Returning is an aspiration downward, into the living heart of pain.  That ascent is continuous.


What, then, is home?

Is home a place from which you don’t want to run?

Maybe Jerusalem feels like home if you have a Shabbes table waiting for you, if you don’t have to scramble for a month’s worth of invitations for the High Holidays or arrange not to be in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur.

Should I feel at home returning to Jerusalem as an olah chadasha, a new immigrant, when in fact, I am a sabrit, a Jew born in Israel?  Returning to a Jerusalem where most of my relatives reside but with most of whom I have no connection?  Should I feel at home when I am alone on endless Shabbatot?

This is not to say I cannot create this, but is it not bizarre to have to do it as if from nothing?

I yearned to be included in Shabbat, not as a mitzvah carried out by a family, but genuinely to be an insider.

But this is unrealistic and most of those with the privilege of having been raised in tradition do not understand it, how could they?  For them, to be Jewish is to belong.


What happens when your parents get up, wander, and leave?  You internalize the wandering.  At home doesn’t mean not feeling exile.

Homelessness and exile manifest themselves physically, a physical pain extending from the chest to the legs and culminating in the stomach.  Sharp, incessant stomach arrest.

Моя иммиграция внутренняя; My immigration is internal.  I feel my parents’ immigration coursing through my blood, proliferating outward in an undeniable urgency.

But if my exile is internal, so is my freedom.  I pay this price, and live this gift, for having been severed from an origin in childhood.


I live in three languages at once, but in none of them totally.

My sentences begin in Hebrew, continue in English, end in Russian.

Why wasn’t I taught Hebrew?  I live with this question.  It would have been easy enough, my parents spoke it at home.  I feel this betrayal inside, for having been a silent bystander to this holy tongue.

Only many years later would I discover Hebrew words woven into my Russian, would I with force unbury this language from my heart.  The choking and the strife of the discovery of Hebrew words in my Russian is not quite describable.  “Acquired fluency” could not undo the original shame, the need to prove myself to my Ulpan teachers, to the shopkeepers trying to find me out: “I was born here, I speak Russian, my parents never taught me Hebrew.”  Or to prove to myself that I belong.


Was it a betrayal of my parents to return to Israel, a mere fantasy to try to live the life they couldn’t?  What was lacking in my life in America to provoke such a return?

It would have been easier to remain in America.


Дави, дави. Press, press.

Jerusalem is давление; לחץ, lachatz, pressure.

Jerusalem exists in chiaroscuro, a severe prevalence of darkness, a taxing noon-time light.  Everything in uncompromising extremity.

In humid enclaves, whispers of prayers emerge to touch you.  A feline unconscious emerges at night: cats moaning and shrieking, a little boy carrying his violin home, the sound of Chopin on the piano out of my neighbor’s window.

In Jerusalem, encounter and close embrace, those mystical successes in human experience that in the new world have atrophied, are possible through a living friction. Jerusalem knows you, takes a personal interest in you.  Jerusalem takes you in on her own terms.  Like a lover, “I am holding you and I am not letting go.”


When I taste Hebrew, my body comes to life.

Speaking Hebrew outside of Israel is commanding the רוח, ruach, spirit, satisfying the deprivation for having to live in an English largely bereft, for me, of expressive meaning.

Speaking Russian in Israel is to be judged for having an accent, is to reveal the Russian exile you are.


Страсть, ardor, it is not only Hasidic.  Pacing back and forth, in a strange fervor.

I want to do justice to my life.  Move, do something.

Hands shaking, intent brisk walking.  Vigorous bowing, straightening.  Involvement of the whole body in prayer.  In Jerusalem, it is not only the observant who shokel.  The psychosis is shared.

I feel Shabbat.  All my bones declare it.

We are together struggling within time—against it.


As I walk, everyone looks into me.  I reciprocate.  Faces that are yours, each one familiar.  A depth of contour that reveals a suffering from and into the ground.  A connection from the old, lost world.  Searing facial recognition, a lack of anonymity to yourself and to others.

Entire parts of you begin to matter.

No one is here without a reason.  Here, how we are with one another is different.

You cannot walk into a café twice without being remembered.  You are recognized by the worker in the makolet.  You are remembered by the unruly bus driver when you board the same bus the following morning.

And when you leave, your absence is felt; when you arrive, your presence noted.  There is enigma, but there is no hiding from anyone.  It is to say something else: you cannot easily betray this place because there is a particular respect for being required of you.


Jerusalem demands a commitment: all or nothing.  It is intolerant of visitation, of relative engagement.  If you are not committed fully, you are not committed at all.  If you do not give all, you may as well give nothing.  You are commanded to be unconditionally engaged.

You have to be willing to die, to give up, to love, give all.  Anybody who is not actually showing up will be discovered right away.

To return is to live this requirement.  For in Jerusalem, you are held to yourself; held, namely, to be.

That is why to be here means to feel the bare הנני, hineni, a state of being in pure, astonished, unguarded nakedness.  Hineni, refers plainly and literally to what is at stake in being without distraction, the severity not of the prayer you utter but in the prayer that is your being.  It takes an honesty, a rigor to survive in Jerusalem.

To be alive in Jerusalem is to be in a constant state of discomfort, that is life.  It is not for those who cannot bear very much reality.

Is the depth of struggle equivalent to the immensity of reward?  How can words be put to a struggle that is internal?

Desire, and search, and patience, and the length of time.


I am a Jew by feeling, not by Torah.  By music, not by practice.  At a crossroads between practicing religion and internal religiosity.

“Not Jewish enough.”  Is the Jewish feeling a practice?

Perhaps I am better off with the Russian misanthropes of Tel Aviv?  I, a troubled child, uninvited to the Seder.

Can I deny that there is a resonance of tradition in my body?

I am religious, but not observant: there is a distinction there.  I live the liturgy inside.

In Jerusalem, I experience a repulsion from practice, an inner anarchy.  I want to belong, but will I lose myself if I do?  If at a synagogue, seen by others, I utter my most intimate prayer?

Away from Jerusalem was as deeply religious as I ever became.

My brothers turned to me and said: “You are not Jewish.  You do not go to the synagogue.”

I turned to my brothers and answered: “I carry the synagogue within me.”

My brothers turned to me and said: “You are not Jewish.  You do not pray.”

I turned to my brothers and answered: “Prayer is my backbone and my blood.”

(Jabés, The Book of Questions: Book of Yukel, and Return to the Book, Wesleyan University Press, 1991)


My grandmother says about herself something similar.  У меня есть сердце и в моем сердце моя религия: I have a heart and within my heart is my religion.  So it goes, Моя молитва внутренняя, my prayer is internal.


Once, just once, to have been home.

To be here is to be בגלות בלב, b’galut b’lev, in exile at the heart.  I live on Palmach, around the corner from Yakar, the synagogue that was once the original hospital Misgav Ladach, my birthplace, and a few minutes from the violin studio where my father worked and the French restaurant where my parents had their first encounters.

I cannot express what it means for me to be here.  I am exposed to lack in a way I would never be elsewhere.  I am trying to find the people I need in order to be able to live on in the world, мою русскую душу, my Russian soul.

I had asked, what is home?

Where are my people?

Is the longing over, now that I have returned?

Nothing is over, the struggle is tenfold.

Being here solves nothing.  I haven’t found this place, within the world or within myself, from which I don’t want to run.

I am caught between blind faith and despair, battling the impulse to leave.

This is the subtler meaning of return, not תיקון, tikkun, but תיקו, teiku.

Perhaps there are beautiful things that only come out of that darkness.

I confess that it’s hard to write about it while living it.  And perhaps one shouldn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles