Unwitting

Noa Kushner / March 10, 2016

Being a tourist in Israel makes me a little uncomfortable. I admit I am a visitor to the country but I just don’t feel that way. Israel feels like home. So anything that reminds me of my tourist status feels accurate but inaccurate too. I am not here just to see things from a distance. And so I wince a little when I notice the locals exchange looks while our patient guide moves us down the street. I want to stop and explain to them, “It’s not what you think.”

We heard about the murder after our praying. We had just finished being with the finest  Yair Harel in an old Sephardic synagogue with a robin’s egg blue ark. He taught us piyyutim from far away places. Yair had fluency, ease, command, and it was clear Israel had everything to do it – he was a plant flourishing in just the right climate.

I was transported, I remembered who I was somewhere in those prayers. And as I walked trancelike through the evening, back to the bus, I saw Barak, our educator. “Do you hear the sirens?” He asked. I listened. From far away I could hear them. I could see some red lights too but I wasn’t sure if they had anything to do with anything. “Three incidents today.” He said. “One was in Jaffa, right in the spot where we were last night.” Yishai, our guide was equally grim. He said, “It was on the bench where I have sat many times while waiting for groups.”

I did not know it at the time but I would find out later: the man who was killed in that spot was a young American. 28. Went to Vanderbilt. A tourist. Not a soldier but also not not a soldier, either. An unwitting soldier.

It is hard for me to explain how compressed I was, we were, in that moment. I am not naïve. I get the updates from Ha’aretz and Michael gets alarms even on his phone. I know when someone has been hurt in the latest wave of violence. I also know the overall situation is unsustainable and complicated and many other things. But knowing from America and knowing from one night and one walk away are two different kinds of knowing. I became a different kind of tourist: less self-conscious, more afraid.

The looks on the faces of our Israeli guides as they called their family, the diligence of the people in our group as they posted on facebook, these constituted another kind of prayer. Relief communicated in short bursts, as if by telegram. I’m okay, stop. Don’t worry, stop. These were prayers not necessarily to God but not not to God, either. I thought: God can listen in.

The words and musical phrases of the piyyutim were still ringing in my ears. I entered our giant bus, the tourist bus, only now I eagerly sank into the seat. It felt like the safest place in the world, my armored tank, our submarine. We glided through the night back to the Carelton Hotel, with all of its five star comforts. I was relieved when they told us to stay in and yet, it was clear we were not going to bed. Trying to shake it all off, or down, some people suggested we go up to the roof to sing a little more, a t’fillah for heaven. There were also those who suggested we drink. Since the stars and the bar were on the same floor, this ended up being surprisingly convenient.

Life had not stopped on the roof of the Carleton and this in itself was a comfort. There were the usual rituals of glasses being poured and raised but I did not expect what followed. After we were served, to the left of us, close to the side of the roof, with all of Tel Aviv glittering behind him, a young man got down on one knee and proposed to a young woman. I saw the ring sparkling in the box. They kissed and we cheered, forever a small part of their story. Unwitting witnesses. Not exactly important but not not important either. Someone had to see it and we were lucky it happened to be us.

As a rabbi, I have often said to couples getting married: “Remember, you represent hope, but it is not only for you. Those of us witnessing your wedding also need that hope. We need a good wedding every once and a while to remind us that we too can still believe.”

Yes, that night, there was an act of terror in Jaffa and in other places too. Yes, the darkness remains. Yes, I am still only technically a tourist, but now I am a little bit of a witness too. So if you are in despair from the news, I can tell you, I am here to tell you, that even with everything that’s going on, on that night in Tel Aviv, the skies and bars were thick with prayers and there is at least one young couple who still believes.