By Jason K. Friedman
Ma’arat Ha-machpelah, the alliterative name sounded as magical to me as the lives of the people buried there: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. I learned about the so-called Cave of the Patriarchs, Judaism’s most ancient site, in Hebrew day school, and I still remembered the Hebrew name when I went to Israel for the first time, four decades later.
Since my upbringing as a yeshiva boy in southeast Georgia, I’d moved north to college and stayed, experiencing my own secular enlightenment. I’d become a progressive and a Yom Kippur Jew. But all my religious learning and feeling was still in there, easily recalled when needed to say the prayers over the Chanukah candles or sing the Shabbat Kiddush.
My first brush with the reality that someone with this biography might not be welcomed with open arms to Israel came in Ben Gurion airport. A reedy young woman in uniform plucked me from among the blue-T-shirted young American Christians I’d flown over with, and escorted me toward baggage claim.
She asked me questions in Hebrew. “A-nee lo mayveen,” I replied. I don’t understand. In English she asked how I learned Hebrew. “B’beit sefer,” I said. In Hebrew school. “B’beit sefer,” she repeated. [Read more…]