It was the summer of 1994. I had just finished my freshman year in college and I spent the summer in Israel. Those were my first days of falling in love with Torah, truly one of the most magical chapters of my life. On one of those honeymoon nights, I was walking with friends from the center of town to the Old City. Apparently there was some big concert happening in Safra Square. It was right there in front of the Municipality where I now make my regular treks to register my kids for school and pay my city taxes. But in those days it was just the site of a concert I didn't have the money to get in to.
My friends and I loitered around at the entrance, listening wistfully. The music was upbeat, engaging, and the folks entering seemed to be of kindred spirits. We were not alone in our loitering. Apparently there were lots of other young Jewish hipsters who, like ourselves, didn't have the spare change to buy a ticket. We were the party of the “can't-pays”, getting a contact-high from the vibes that wafted over the gates. We were on the outside, but making the most of it.
Suddenly, though, the music stop. We heard the mysterious singer call out to the powers-that-be – “Hey, you guys at the gate. Forget about the money. Just let everybody in!” Was it a joke?! Was he talking about us?! Sure enough, they opened up the gates and we all started gleefully streaming in. It was the first and only time I have ever been suddenly let in to a concert for free! – And, of course, it was Shlomo.
We flooded in to find a world of hundreds of circle-dancing, Hebrew singing, funky and FRUM members of the tribe. I recall being shocked that there was a split between men and women, a phenomena I could have never imagined at a concert. It was so pure, yet wild. It was fresh and new and yet old-world, old-style.
I looked around and knew I had found my home in the homeland.
I had no idea who Shlomo was. Little did I know that he was about to change my life, even from a distance. I would later learn that this was the last concert that Shlomo did in Jerusalem before his untimely death a few short months later.
It was not long after that concert that I ended up formally falling in love with the Shlomo-hevra. I became a devoted groupie of Ein Safek, and one of the many who made the Moshav my home for the holidays. I lived in the Old City and had the enormous merit of davening under the arbors of song that was the Dovid-Hertzburg-led-Shlomo-minyan at the Kotel. Manna from heaven! Actually, it was feeling like a part of the Shlomo-hevra that enabled me to eventually move to Israel after college and make aliya a year after that. The Shlomo-hevra gave me an invaluable anchor of community. For once, I had family, in Israel.
As I think back to that magical night at the concert, the thing that most stands out from my singular slice of “meeting Shlomo” was the moment the gates were opened; the moment that we realized that we were being let in. It was a totally unexpected, seemingly unearned, gift. I was filled with a sense of, “Yes, the universe is friendly. Yes I am welcome. Yes, I have value beyond the cash in my pocket. Yes, I belong here in this city, with this people.” After all, as a baalat-teshuva, I sometimes have this creeping fear that I just got too shmutzed up in my life to ever really be an authentic frum Jew. I couldn't possibly ever really deserve to be let in the front gates of this palace of God. But then it happened. I was on the outside and making the most of it. But then, Shlomo let me in. It was nothing short of Messianic.
That was the gift that Shlomo blessed us all with. That sense that we are all invited in....and we don't have to pay admission when we're coming home. He gave us a sense, a knowing, that we do belong to this Jewish millenial dance-party. And, in fact, it really isn't much of a party without us.
So I owe enormous thanks to Shlomo and to the holy brothers, sisters, shleppers who have been my surrogate family of gate-openers to the Holy Land.
The poem below tries to capture that “ecstacy of entrance”, that sense of being newly-turned on to Torah, and that sense of the wonder that comes with being invited to enter into the gates of Jerusalem.
The Live Tree
So this is what it means to be a Jew --
Who knew that Torah was
ancient and yet progressive
mystical, intellectual and impressive
grounded yet elevating
paradoxical and penetrating.
Suddenly I am plumbing depths and thumbing through texts
that have been thumbed and plumbed
for generations past and more to come.
Here in these courtyards of holy Yerushalayim
filled with Torah wisdom and higher vision.
Living the return of Judah’s long lost children
- so far gone, so far hidden.
Now come home to the old books
of OUR OWN venerable tradition!
Here in the study halls of Rehov Beer Sheva
in hutzot Yerushalayim
in Nachlaot, in Bat Ayin
crawling on berkayim
just to kiss these stones - and make a home
in Yerushalayim’s now-revived old bones.
We Jewish children are coming home
coming streaming like four cornered gleanings
clamoring with higher calling
cleaving to deeper meaning
shining with persistence
and a 3000 year-old commitment
Commitment to the Torah, to something more
than the mores & norms of the Western world
with her hordes of the immoral and the impure.
Committed to something more than a Manhattan latte
and a pumped-up paycheck to “provide for the family”
that may smile wide for the cameras
but weeps inside, for their bankrupt neshamas.
Famished for a richer truth
than the loose change of material gain
famished for the fresh fruit of the living tree
stamped with God’s name!
And so I pace myself with the stealth
of a leopard on the chase of the truth
which darts like a gazelle
through these hills of Yehuda
and tomes of Gemara
I will come to know so well.
With a fire hotter than a 1000 degrees
from the cool Ivy League.
My ivy climbs the Western Wall
- a beanstalk tall to which I cleave.
For its a living tree of Torah, Ketuvim, Neviim.
I'm a member of the band belting songs of the Leviim!
We have returned to these streets
to breathe these books
to dream these dreams.
If Torah is a tree of life
then I will change my life,
that I may sit amongst her leaves and read...