Recently I returned to Jerusalem for the first time since leaving seminary in April 2016. As many people know, my year in seminary was difficult for a multitude of reasons. Returning to the neighborhood I lived in for nine months was, unsurprisingly, emotional and I journalled sitting on one of the streets I used to escape to. The following are words and pictures I recorded from that day.
And, just like that, I’m back. Back in the place I learned so much but none of it Torah. I suppose it’s the closest thing I’ve had to the school of hard knocks. I think people think it’s funny when I talk about my experiences in seminary. Funny that I came here in the first place. Funny that it all went so horribly wrong. And it is, in many comedy-of-errors-like ways.
Someone literally impersonated me, I lived in my own filth, every effort people made to help me went hilariously wrong. If it wasn’t my own pain I’d think it was totally funny too. But it is my pain. And here I sit on a crocheted bench that reminds me of the Sukkot fair here when I still felt hope and saw art.
A man drives up to the curb and asks me in Hebrew (and then English at my momentary confusion) to watch his car for a second because his daughter is sleeping in it. He goes to buy a lottery ticket. I want to tell him. This place is no place for vulnerable daughters. Tell him that this is my first time back in fifteen months. My third time in Israel total. That I once slept in this neighborhood, my own windows open, relying on the protection of impotent strangers.
That I played my luck here and the number was 3:48. I won unwarranted accusations based on the lies of shallow girls I thought I was supposed to be. Namely, frum and from New York. And it is not that that bothers me most. Perhaps the worst was when the supposedly licensed social worker effectively put me on suicide watch because she could not properly hear my hurt. The hurt which no one truly heard, or at least it seemed. People asking my roommate how she could bear to live with me.
They did not take from me a goal, an experience, a year. They stole from me a dream, an identity, a feeling. My innocence, really. But this isn’t a fucking bildungsroman or chavaya. This is where I fell in love with Jerusalem and out of love with halacha. This is where the smallest freedoms-a few inches of cloth, a couple of words said among friends-became the biggest rebellions.
This is where I found myself. Distorted. Disgraced. Through warped lenses I didn’t even know existed. I keep thinking (can’t stop thinking) that I’m seeing people I know walk by. Rabbis. “Friends.” But this is where the words dai and die became synonymous. A petit mort, but definitely not the good kind.
And it was in those days I would come to Derech Beit Lechem, Emek Refaim. The Way of the House of Bread, The Valley of Healing. And here I am, back in this place like you could barely tell it happened. The small stones of the sidewalk bear no scars or splattered blood. My favorite falafel place is already closed for shabbat, the bagel place on the corner closed with no trace of its former self.
A couple of middle school boys pass speaking American English-what had I been so afraid of? The racist teachers? The misogynist Torah? The group of alien girls who made me forget why anyone could find me loveable? I’ve processed and processed and overprocessed so much in the past year that it is difficult to recall the exact feeling.
Instead I simply feel an animal dread. Danger. You are not safe here.
I cross the street with some abandon because my bench has become too hot and wouldn’t it just be the most dramatic of ironies if I were hit by a bus on this street. Not just any bus, but the Kav Sheva. The one with the bus driver who’s plastered his entire bus with weird chamsas and stuffed animals. I’m sure he, Boaz, whould not even recognize me if I asked him. How a place forgets so easily yet sticks to you like sap. It’s as if I never left. It’s as if I never was here at all.