My sister, brother and I spent a weekend in Sinai, before returning to Jerusalem last night. It was long enough to swim amidst the corals, to contract an asthmatic cold that settled into my lungs, and to talk talk talk talk. That’s what we three do, probably because I live so far away and there’s so much to cover when I’m here. The five-star Strand Hotel (I can’t recommend it highly enough) was $50 per person per night with full board, lots and lots of terrific food. There was nowhere else to eat so we stayed put except for a drive through the small town of Nuweiba some 20 minutes away.
It was the best birthday gift I could have gotten (save the asthma).
The Jewish nation, recently escaped from slavery, is said to have wandered for 40 years in the Sinai. Long ago the question came up: Why? They could have marched from Egypt across Sinai and up to Israel (then Canaan) in a few weeks. I studied this a long time ago, a child growing up in an orthodox Jewish home.
The most widespread answer has been that Moses took them a-wandering because the generation that had been enslaved had to die before they could come to the Promised Land. People with a long tradition of enslavement have a hard time adjusting to freedom and its responsibilities, and in the case of the old Israelites, they wandered and wandered till the older generation was gone and a new one could take over. Moses brought them through Sinai and the Red Sea into what is now Saudi Arabia, then up into Jordan, died looking down at the promised land on Mt. Nebo, and that’s where they came down and crossed the Jordan river into Israel proper.
Moses, too, didn’t make it into the promised land though he kept on leading the people, handing power to Joshua, after he found out the bad news.
It brings tears to my eyes as I contemplate this. It may be the asthma that’s making me emotional, but what kind of ancestor do I want to be? There are so many promised lands I won’t enter. At 70, I doubt I’ll enter a land where mass extinction of species will stop. If we took radical action today, it won’t end that quickly. I doubt I’ll enter a land where the earth beneath my feet is seen and treated as a living treasure house, a breathing giant whose innards we have extracted in reward for its generosity. I doubt I’ll live long enough to enter a land where people won’t be lonely anymore, stripped of their family connections to each other, to land and the unity of life.
I’m not going to get there because I’m part of the generation that was enslaved—to greed, to manifest destiny, to war, to enslavement of other humans and nonhuman species. The first part of answering the question What kind of ancestor do I want to be? Is admitting my role in abetting what has happened in the world, my confusion, the enormous energy I wasted in proving myself right and others wrong, in indulging restless, mindless inclinations.
In Sinai I stopped. I’ve continued to stop after arriving in Jerusalem last night because the asthma takes away my energy, leaving me to sit and ask myself many questions.
When you see yourself as an ancestor rather than a parent, essentially you’re saying: I won’t live to see it. I can work hard, I can correct my misdirection, I can help others do that, too, but I won’t live to see it. It brings you down to size, a sense of your true stature in the world.
This morning I spent several hours with my mother, who can’t remember what day it is or that the warm track suit in the bag in the corner is my gift to her though I’ve repeated this to her a dozen times by now. But she remembers her past, growing up as one of 11 children in an impoverished family in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Her father was a shochet, a kosher butcher, and barely brought enough food home every day. He wanted his sons to follow in his footsteps but they resisted, losing interest in religion.
“He couldn’t understand that times were changing,” my mother said, “—and this was before the Shoah. He wanted things to continue as they had for the past 200 years, but those who stayed put thinking things will go on were the first ones to die.”
Many others died, too. Catastrophes vent their wrath with little selectivity. We go down the list of her siblings’ names:
“Frieda married a nonreligious man, of course she died at Auschwitz; Jack was very smart but he wanted to play the fiddle and my father broke it in pieces in a rage; Alex of course got to England as part of the kindertransport, Eva (her younger sister) was running around with secular friends, and David, the only one ready to become a shochet like his father, fainted at the first sight of blood.” The world turned topsy-turvy. Three siblings were killed at Auschwitz, her father died of a heart attack, and the others who survived became business people. She went through the Holocaust, then a war in Israel, then immigration to the US, and then she returned here.
The three of us are her children. My brother remained orthodox, but asks himself every day what religious observance really means. My sister turned secular and leaned towards psychology; she’s the one who gently reminds us that judging other people, including ourselves, is a hard-edged, meager output of all our energy. And I went into Zen practice. Not just sitting on the cushion, but acting on the streets.
It hits me these days how much turmoil there was in just several generations in one family, and therefore how much room for misunderstanding, for anger and retaliation, how in our family, at least, the past has butted heads with the present and future even before I was born. And here I am, looking down the road, wondering how good an ancestor I can be.
For years the three of us made for a very combustible energy when we came together, but no longer, not in Sinai. We’d done our wandering for more than 40 years because we were a tougher nut to crack than the old Israelites, and we’ve entered at least one promised land, the one of loyalty and generosity to each other, ;of mutual respect and even awe at how we’ve survived the turbulence, each in his/her highly individual way, and ended up at the Strand Hotel in Sinai, in hard-won love and laughter, our own promised land.
The Strand seemed to have mostly Russian tourists who flew down to Sinai for sun and swimming directly from Russia, and some Egyptians (the staff was completely Egyptian, mostly Muslim). I was the only American, my sister and brother the only Israelis, and my brother wore a skullcap, a yarmulke.
“Are you okay wearing that?” I asked him. He knew what I meant.
“If I don’t feel good I’ll put on a hat,” he said, but he never did. He walked in that crowd and joked with staff and asked questions of management about why the neighboring hotels were so empty, and walking alongside him I knew it was my own unease I was feeling, not his. I could pass; he chose not to.
He liked to get up early and walk along the seashore at dawn. We agreed to meet later for breakfast; the time arrived and he, ordinarily prompt, wasn’t there. Instantly I fell captive to history and stereotype: He was alone and somebody knifed him; he got kidnapped (ISIS militants do operate in the north of Sinai, but quite far from the Red Sea). He arrived 5 minutes late, rejoicing in his pre-dawn walk.
The Egyptians laughed at our Arabic:
“Ahlan!” we’d greet them in Arabic.
“Ma shlomcha?” they countered in Hebrew.
And I thought of how the once bloody border now lets in tourists from around the world, how thousands of Israelis will cross that border when Chanuka begins next week, returning to where their ancestors wandered some 2,700 years ago.
Thank you to those of you who continue to email me re “donate” buttons. I think we’re almost there, only I’m far away and also sick. Soon it will all work out, I believe. Thank you thank you.