My Heart is in the East…

Next month’s article for the El Paso Jewish Voice — a sneak preview for my blog-readers…

My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west–
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lies beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain–
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.

Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141) lived in what is now Spain during a time of political turmoil, as Christian Europe and Muslim North Africa traded in influence and power. In his poem, “My Heart is in the East,” he gave voice to the pain of exile. The tension described in the poem was real, and personal, for the poet. Indeed, he spent a lifetime struggling with both the real challenges of traveling to the Holy Land and his ambivalence about leaving behind “the good things of Spain.” Angel Sáenz-Badillos, writing in the newly-revised Encyclopedia Judaica, describes his struggle this way:

Great difficulties lay before him. The long journey by both sea and desert was perilous. He knew that he would encounter very difficult living conditions in Eretz Yisrael, which was under Crusader rule at that time. Moreover, Judah Halevi had to counter the arguments of his friends who tried to deter him; he had to overcome his attachment to his only daughter and son-in-law, to his students, his many friends and admirers; and he had to give up his high social status and the honor which he had attained in his native land. He struggled deeply with his intimate attachment to Spain, the land of “his fathers’ graves”: at one time he had even looked upon Spain with pride and thankfulness, as a homeland for the Jews.

A millennium or so later, some things haven’t changed. For many American Jews, Israel is still a place of deep emotional attachment….and “home” is still in the uttermost west. Those of us who have considered aliyah, or who have settled in El Paso after living in Israel, no doubt resonate to the tensions inherent in Halevi’s life. And perhaps we experience a pang of sadness in knowing that he arrived in Israel, finally, on a ship from Alexandria, just a month or so before he died.

Halevi’s sad tale need not be ours. For what has changed, of course, is the ease with which we can move back and forth between our two lands. The circumstances surrounding the writing of this column are a case in point: Just before getting on a plane this morning, I paid homage to Halevi in a very twenty-first century way, as my Facebook status proclaimed: “Larry is in the uttermost west…but not for long!” Now I write, somewhere over the southeastern U.S. on my way to Newark (and from there to Tel Aviv), and I am struck by how easy it is for me to do what took Halevi a lifetime. As the hours pass, my body chases my heart eastward across time zones, and tomorrow morning, God willing, they will meet at Ben-Gurion airport. And, if the Wi-Fi in Newark cooperates, Grace will have received this article, dropped it in place, and sent the Voice to press before I’ve even landed! (and yes, it did cooperate, allowing me to blog it).

How blessed we are to live in a time when our ancient homeland is just a few flights away. How fortunate we are to have the opportunity to visit, to send our children, to maintain connections with our fellow Jews in the place that gave birth to our people and our Torah. I’m a month early in evoking the Haggadah’s conclusion, but given the topic of this column I hope you’ll say it with me now, and repeat it on seder night: “Next year in Jerusalem.”

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