I should go.
I didn’t want to go.
In all honesty, I was embarrassed to admit it, I was afraid to go.
This was an antiquated, angrily disputed place; quite small, really. Though you’d never guess it by the media attention it drew. I pushed it to the back of my mind, but it lingered there, unresolved.
In all honesty, I was embarrassed to admit it, I was afraid to goIt didn’t really speak to me. I saw its ancient sites when I looked through picture books about Israel, I saw it in my own daughter’s neatly arranged photo album, but it lay flat, mute. It didn’t jump off the page, beckoning, imploring me to wander through its nooks and crannies, kiss its stones and soak up its energy, like Safed or Jerusalem. I felt I had been in these two holy cities way before I ever set foot in our homeland; their charm, mystery, smells and sounds almost tangible in my imagination.
The Me’arat HaMachpelah was different. It looked too large, square, solid and imposing. True, it was the burial place of our forefathers and mothers (Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah), but even that didn’t make my soul tingle. I knew intellectually that Hebron is an important part of our heritage, one of the four holiest cities, but felt little magnetism, no pull or attraction. Well, I did actually feel one visceral connection; something resonated when I heard the word Machpelah. Grandma Ida was buried in a cemetery in Detroit that bore this Biblical name—near the Michigan State Fairgrounds, in a rundown neighborhood.
Two of my daughters spent lots of time in Hebron during their seminary years; one even declared it was her favorite place in Israel. Hardened Israelis looked at her in bemusement. What? That place of discord and violence? She dreamed of spending a year learning and living in that embattled compound.
Malky is a boisterous adventurer, while I pine after peace and tranquility. I imagined she loved the challenge, the gritty courage of the Jews who live there, and the feisty spunk of their kids, long sideburns flying in the wind, scruffy sandals scooting up the narrow alleyways.
But Malky never told Avi about her forays into the Hebron Hills, going down from Jerusalem on the heavy green armor-plated Egged bus. At least not until she was safely tucked back in her dorm. Big protective brother Avi is five years older. He knows the other side of life in Hebron’s twisting alleys. As a soldier in the IDF from 2004–6, he spent a good chunk of time there, a twenty-year-old kid with a gun. Hours of tedious guard duty; grueling monotony while you hover, poised to catch a sign of trouble. Arrests of terrorists. A fellow soldier was picked off by a sniper before my son’s young Midwestern eyes. Is this a place for my nice Jewish boychick? Avi was not happy with his little sister’s passion. Too many bad memories and close calls.
What should a mommy say? That same idealistic passion that drove Avi to defend his people and overcome the many difficulties in moving to Israel and piecing together a new life, led Malky to boldly explore. I lay in bed praying, worrying too. How could I dampen their flames, the youthful sparkle in their eyes? Real life has a way of tempering their dreams soon enough. We tried to raise them to be full of faith and love for their people. They took the ball and are running, they’re flying. How can I clip their wings?
Abraham purchased the Machpelah Cave to bury his beloved Sarah, the first parcel of the land of Israel legally purchased by a Jew, documented bill of sale and all. It seems Abraham foresaw our times, when the city is embroiled in contentious dispute.
On my first trip to Israel in 2003, the Intifada was in full swing. I tentatively but resolutely ventured partway into Judea, to visit a dear friend in Tekoa. We visited a natural spring in Bat Ayin, and drove around, viewing the olive groves and vineyards of beautiful Gush Etzion. It felt a bit surreal to be driving down the same Highway 60 that occupied too many news reports with grisly attacks, but this was my friend and this was her home. Many Americans couldn’t understand visiting the “war zone” of Israel at all. Hey, I figured, attacks were happening everywhere, and we weren’t about to give up the whole country. Was going into Judea that different?
Many Americans couldn’t understand visiting the “war zone” of Israel at allI saw daily life go on. My friend’s children, transplanted from Boston, were taking root, hardy and healthy. There were the sun-baked tiles of the suburban-looking stucco homes, the caravans clinging tenaciously to the sides of the stony hills. The achingly and elegantly simple synagogue in Bat Ayin, the outpouring of creative Judaic art of the Gush Etzion gallery, the winery in Tekoa with pungent bottles of fine vintage, handcrafted the old French way, put a human face on the “West Bank settlers,” too often depicted by the media as rabid intransigent radicals.
Going all the way to Hebron still felt more than a tad outside my comfort zone, however. I sent a donation to Jewish educational efforts there from time to time. I deeply admired those valiant pioneers who held down the fort, maintaining a Jewish presence. But I just didn’t relate, not spiritually, not personally. It was for tougher, cowboy types, not softie scaredy-cats like me, I mused. I couldn’t readily imagine that a nourishing spiritual light shone there and sustained them.
Fast forward to August, 2010.
We packed up and excitedly prepared to bring the gang to Israel for Avi and Ayala’s wedding. We roughly sketched out an itinerary. Where did we want to go? Hebron came up several times. My heart fluttered. We’ll see how things go, I demurred. Again, the pang of conscience. I should go. I should bring my family. It’s one of the holiest places. And visiting gives strength and support to those who live there. I tried to brush off my fears.
Thursday was another scorcher. The kids were up early, scrambling around with my husband. Hats. Water. Sunglasses. Snacks. “Hey, Ma! We’re taking the bus into Jerusalem and catching the afternoon bus to Hebron. Are you coming?”
“I guess,” I mumbled, letting myself follow rather than think. “Where you go, I will go . . . . . .”
We met up with Avi at the Central Bus Station. His mixed feelings seemed to match mine. He came along, to somehow protect us if we were dumb enough to go, and to see what would unfold. He had visited Hebron with my husband some six months before, which seemed to begin a healing and more benign feeling about the place.
We looked around anxiously for nineteen-year-old Yeshaya as the bus pulled into its port and the people in line started boarding. He had wandered off for a slice of pizza. Where is that kid!?!?! Over there—hurry up! All aboard, we headed off, the kids duly subdued and impressed by the bulletproof smoked glass.
It was an uneventful trip snaking through the Judean hills. I murmured Psalms and took in the Biblical landscape. Isn’t that David the shepherd tending his flock, under that tree? We arrived. Through a checkpoint, around a curve. Concrete blocks, barbed wire, joyful music greeted us as we disembarked.
I braced myself for a feeling of fear, anger, determination. I was going to make a stand for Jewish pride and resolve, and march resolutely into the Machpelah Cave.
But I didn’t expect . . . this.
It revived and surprised me.
The air, the energy was festive. People strolled on the grounds, but there wasn’t a swarming crowd to make that carnival feeling. Something intangible but very real in the place itself. A delicate joy. The music wasn’t inane or incongruous, it was totally appropriate.
I braced myself for a feeling of fear, anger, determinationThe Cave looked different in real life. Not forbidding. Perched on the grassy hill, it didn’t beckon shyly, but exclaimed joyfully. It was Momma, waiting to reunite with her kinderlach, her returning children, with open arms and hand-baked goodies warm from the oven. I couldn’t wait to ascend the steps and enter her welcoming embrace. The air sparkled, sang. I felt light and young.
We walked up together, admiring different views, and entered through security, bantering with the soldiers and guards.
Inside, we wandered from one resting place to another, looking, reading, thinking, praying, and soaking it in—the special atmosphere. Quiet. Joyful. Intimate. Relaxed and intense in a very natural way. Sweet, comfortable, homey.
We ended up in the central area, used as a synagogue, where a group gathered for the afternoon prayers. Prayer is usually an effort for me, but it just flowed. Springs of prayer welled up naturally. I wanted to bring a cot and sleep in there, just soak up the sparkling, warm, comforting, inspiring energy that rooted me deep and reached to the heavens, like a pillar.
I saw Avi in a corner, pouring out his heart in a moment of deep introspection, gathering strength and heavenly help for his upcoming marriage and new life. He seemed to be tuning into the riches this unique place so generously offered.
Coming out, later, back into the sunlight, back into time, I thought of the words Jacob uttered after his dream of the ladder ascending: “How awesome is this place.”
Several days later, I shared my surprise with our cousin Susan, a former American now living in Jerusalem. “You won’t believe it, it was just so special. Even more inspiring than the Western Wall, in a way.” I expected this moderate and levelheaded woman to be dismayed at both our foray and this impression. She paused, and nodded. “Well, you know, Dan says the same thing. I guess I’ll have to go there too.”
I don’t claim to have a simple answer to the issues surrounding this controversial place. But I learned something that August afternoon. Not book learning—but learning into my gut, heart, bones: Hebron is a living, breathing wellspring of spiritual treasure. A timeless, priceless part of us.
Miriam Karp is a writer, painter and teacher. Her Jewish Journey interviews, essays and Jewish social action articles have appeared in many periodicals. Her paintings explore the inner light and daily intimate moments of Jewish living. She lives in Cincinnati with her husband and family.
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