Elizabeth: A Holy Land Pilgrimage is available in paperback and on kindle and is being reprinted on Catholic News Agency with author’s permission. Cheryl’s non-fiction book is called Our Jewish Roots: A Catholic Woman’s Guide to Fulfillment Today by Connecting with Her Past.
The Lord will guard your coming and going both now and forever. Psalm 121:8
Never one to need an alarm, Beth was up early on her first morning in Israel. She was looking forward to attending synagogue with the Goldfarbs, while not really knowing what to expect. While Beth’s conversations with God and her devotional time remained consistent, her own church attendance was sporadic at best. For the past few years she felt a longing and an inability to fill a void that seemed to be growing more cavernous with each passing day. Elizabeth felt that any and all help the Lord was willing to throw her way would be greatly appreciated.
Having been assured by Ayala that it would be perfectly acceptable to “work” on the Sabbath, Beth felt somewhat relieved that she wouldn’t be expected to follow Jewish customs and practices completely. Although she would have, out of respect to her wonderful hosts, she was glad that exceptions would be made for her.
The Goldfarbs, however, would maintain their strict observance of the Sabbath which meant no cooking or any other activities that constituted work. Beth, on the other hand, would have her cake and eat it too. She would have the freedom to do as she pleased, but would also enjoy whatever the day would hold with the friends and neighbors of Meir and Ayala. Beth thought of the Goldfarb children and felt a bit of a pull at her heart. How funny, thought Beth, to call adults “children.” Beth was beginning to feel an ache for her own children. She silently asked God to watch out for them and to let them feel her love through the time and space that separated them.
Having given the matter over to God, Elizabeth moved around the apartment feeling a great sense of peace. All was right with the world as she walked into the kitchen area to put on a pot of coffee. Off the kitchen was a small balcony that had an inviting wicker table flanked by two wicker chairs. The cushions looked worn but clean and Beth decided it would be the perfect place for a cup of coffee and more reading of the magazine. The coffee pot was clean and located on the counter right below the cupboard that held the coffee grounds, sugar, coffee cream, and cups. Spoons were in a drawer to the right with the other utensils. Filling the coffee pot with water Beth found herself humming. Although she would have been hard pressed to identify the tune, she was nonetheless humming!
Looking at the coffee choices, she was once again delighted to see the thoughtfulness that went into her comfort. Along with a couple of different blends that would be in keeping with coffee she would find in the states, there were two intriguing coffees that were apparently made in Israel. Opening one of the blue and red foil bags, Beth was greeted by wonderfully aromatic coffee. Luke, being the real coffee lover in their house, came quickly to mind. She knew he would love to share a freshly brewed cup of coffee with her on the terrace and wondered how he and the kids were doing.
Settling on the freshly ground coffee from Israel that smelled like vanilla and cinnamon, Elizabeth clicked the coffee pot on and decided to splash some water on her face before heading outside. She also remembered to pick up her reading glasses. Stepping into her slippers, Beth made her way back to the kitchen just as the coffee finished brewing. The fragrance filled the kitchen. Beth liked the large cups that she found in the cupboard and poured herself a steaming cup of coffee. Tucking the newspaper under her arm and slipping her reading glasses into her pocket, Beth opened the terrace door. It was a sliding glass door that moved easily on the tracks.
The morning was exquisite and Beth couldn’t get over her continued good fortune. The temperature was comfortable, maybe in the mid-sixties. Beth settled into one of the wicker chairs and looked out at the slumbering city. She decided that this would be her spot for morning devotions and raised her cup to Adonai. Shalom, Abba, she said to her Creator and Lord. Shalom. May this day give you honor and glory through the words and actions of all your people. May you continue to show us love, kindness, and mercy. Please accept my gratitude for the Goldfarbs and I ask that you bless them. I raise my own family to you, knowing that they are as precious to you as they are to me. Maybe even more so!
Finishing her morning prayers, Beth picked up the newspaper and put on her reading glasses. They sat just enough down her nose to allow her to look over them at the emerging pedestrians and drivers below. Enjoying her coffee, Beth read through three complete articles before she realized that time was truly flying by and that she had promised to join the Goldfarbs for the Sabbath.
Gathering up her empty coffee cup, the newspaper, and her reading glasses, Beth went inside to shower and prepare for the day ahead. Whatever sleepiness was left after Beth’s coffee was washed away in the warm shower. Elizabeth spent extra time with the conditioner, hoping to show the Goldfarb that if nothing else, she could get her hair under control. Drying her hair Beth found herself humming again and made a note of this interesting development in her personality.
The weather looked to be a match of yesterday’s and Beth decided upon a long skirt made of cotton jersey material that had just enough fabric to give her comfortable movement without being too flowing or dressy. The top Beth selected was also a taupe cotton jersey that pulled over her head and had two pretty pearl buttons at the neck. The entire wardrobe she brought to Israel was easy, ready to wear material and pieces.
She had found the stretch denim-like pants that she wore yesterday to be her best friend and had purchased them in every color. She then went around the store, carrying nine pairs of pants and matching tops. Her purpose was to attain a well groomed appearance while maintaining comfort throughout her trip. She felt she had been successful and now looked at her closet filled with drab, dull outfits, each looking less appealing than the last. What were you thinking? she asked to herself as she walked across the hall to the Goldfarb apartment. Within a few seconds Beth was tapping at the Goldfarb door. “Good morning!” Miriam said as she greeted Beth, “Shabbat Shalom.”
“Shabbat Shalom,” Beth comfortably responded to Miriam and marveled at how easily she had taken to the family. Usually Beth was quite reticent about new acquaintances but with the Goldfarbs had felt as if she had known them for ages.
“Emma and abba will be ready in a moment. David is just coming up the walk, I saw him out the window. We’ll walk over to our synagogue on King George Street and then we’ll walk to the home of some friends who live a few streets over from there.”
“Well, we have the perfect weather for it. Do you always attend synagogue together?”
“Yes, it has always been the one thing that emma and abba have insisted upon and now, well, we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Beth felt a twinge of guilt hearing Miriam talk of the parental expectations of worshipping together. Beth had become lax, as had Luke, and their children were surely suffering because of it. She made a mental promise to address this issue when she returned home.
“Shabbat Shalom!” Ayala pulled Beth towards her for a hug and commented on Beth’s “smart” outfit. Beth felt a bit better about her clothes. Maybe she was, as usual, being too hard on herself. She noticed that Ayala had a small, lace head covering. Ayala, never one to be caught unaware, noticed Beth’s eyes take in the head covering. “We cover our head out of respect for Adonai. I have extras, would you like one?”
“I would,” Beth heard herself saying. “That would be very generous of you. Would it be okay. Being that I am not Jewish?”
“Of course it would be okay! How could our Lord, blessed be His holy name, not love that you are honoring Him in such a way?” Ayala always had a way of saying things that made Beth feel the extent of God’s agape love.
“Good morning, good morning, Bethula!” Meir had already turned Beth’s name into a term of endearment and Beth was honored.
“Good morning, Meir. Shabbat Shalom.”
Just as Beth was saying this to Meir, David walked in and greeted everyone. “Well, it looks like we are ready to go. Shall we?”
Walking down the stairs and out onto the street Beth felt as if she were part of a hypnotic crowd, people everywhere were moving in peaceful silence towards a predetermined destination. There were young and old, men and women, families and individuals. It was an amazing experience and Beth simply walked in the silence, once again feeling a great sense of gratitude and asking the Lord to prepare her heart for worship. They arrived a few minutes before the nine o’clock service was to begin. Beth used the time to sit in her seat and take in her surroundings. The shul, another word that David used when talking about the synagogue, was quite impressive.
It was larger than Beth expected and quite modern looking. What were you thinking, she said to herself, Herod’s Temple? Getting past her disappointment, Beth walked in with the dozens of other people who had taken the same route. She followed the Goldfarbs to cushioned, fairly luxuriant chairs and settled in. Looking around she noticed a magnificent scroll that took her breath away. Now this, she thought, was what I was hoping for!
The synagogue had no paintings, no statues, but was beautiful nonetheless. Beth was trying to make mental notes of things she would later ask Meir, Ayala, David, or Miriam. To her delight, David began giving her a lesson in the layout of the building. “The east wall is where the ark is kept. It is behind that elaborately decorated curtain and it is why we are facing east. It is the center of our worship and our focus during our time here.”
Beth nodded to show David her appreciation of the information he was sharing. It was her hope that he would feel free to continue and he did. “Above the ark is a lamp called ‘ner tamid’ which shows that God is always there. It literally means ‘eternal light’ and comes from the middle candle of the first menorah that did not stop burning. You will see when the curtain is drawn back that the Torah is also covered in a beautifully decorated velvet wrap. The Torah is part of what you call ‘The Old Testament.’ It is actually the first five books of it and everything we do revolves around our love of these words, inspired by God, and our obedience to them.” It looked as though the service was about to start and David’s silent attention went towards the ark.
Beth began thinking of Christ, himself a Jew, studying Torah. She knew this to be the case as He had so often used these words to reveal Himself as the fulfillment of them to God’s people. It was an amazing understanding for Beth as she, too, concentrated on the ark.
The service was longer than Beth had anticipated, close to three hours total, and yet she enjoyed it immensely. Walking towards a friend’s home where they would enjoy an afternoon of visiting and eating, David picked up where he had left off. “The first part of the service was the blessings and hymns. Their purpose is to focus our minds and heart on the everlasting glory of our Creator. We begin by saying the ‘Birchot Ha-Shachar’ which are the morning blessings. These blessings make us aware of the incredible nature in every single thing we do and everything around us. Saying these blessings bring to mind the miracle in even the smallest acts, like waking up and brushing our hair.”
Beth was nodding as were Miriam, Meir, and Ayala. It was as if they were all thinking the same thing, Who doesn’t need to be reminded that every single part of our daily lives is an opportunity to praise God!
David continued explaining the service. “The ‘Baruch She’amar’ is my favorite. We say, ‘Baruch she’amar v’haya ha-olam Baruch she’amar’ baruch Hu Baruch oseh, oseh v’reisheet Baruch omer v’oseh’ which means, ‘Praised be the One who spoke and the world came to be. Praised be the Source of Creation. Praised be the One who spoke and the world came to be. Praised be God.’ We follow this with the ‘Ashrei,’ which is our way to tell our God how we will exalt Him at all times. It is really quite beautiful, quite poetic, and very humbling to know that we serve a God who loves us so very much. It comes from one of King David’s Psalms that says, ‘Blessed are those who dwell in Your house.” David continued explaining the service and Beth both heard and felt her stomach rumbling. She was hungrier than she had been in ages.
Miriam was asking David a question about the reading and studying of the Torah during service. All Beth caught was a portion of David’s response, “Well, that is why, before we study it we say, ‘Barchu et Adonai ha-m'vorach Ba-ruch Adonai ha-m'vorach l'olam va-ed Baruch Adonai ha-m'vorach l'olam va-ed Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam asher bachar banu mi-kol ha-amim v'natan lanu et torato Baruch ata Adonai, noteyn ha-torah.’ which means, ‘Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has chosen us from all peoples and has given us His Torah. Blessed are You - the Lord, Giver of the Torah.’
This is also why, when are finished reading from the Torah we say, ‘Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheynu melech ha-olam. asher natan lanu torat emet, v'cha-yey olam nata b'tocheynu, baruch atah Adonai noteyn ha-torah.’ Which means, ‘Blessed are You - the Lord our God, King of the universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, and has planted everlasting life in our midst. Blessed are You - the Lord, Giver of the Torah.’”
“David, would it be possible for you to write down the English translations for me to keep? I find those words incredibly beautiful.” Beth knew she wanted to say them before and after her own time in Scripture and then added, “Actually, is there a way to write in English, the Hebrew words?”
“There sure is and I would be glad to do that for you!”
They were now at the front door of an apartment building that looked larger than the one Beth was staying in, this one appeared to have six or seven stories and was a bit newer. Meir buzzed for the occupants of apartment D9, The Cohanes. Within a few seconds the buzzer sounded to release the lock and Meir held the door for everyone to get inside. Although the walk had been invigorating, none felt a need for the elevator. Beth was guessing that they would all sleep quite soundly tonight as they headed towards the stairs.
Arriving at the Cohane apartment, they were greeted by delicious aromas wafting into the hall as an elderly gentlemen held the door open for their welcome. Meir commented to Ayala, “Ben makes the best cholent! My mouth is already watering.”
“I’m telling you,” Ayala responded, “it is his butcher. I have been trying to get you to go to Ben’s butcher for years now. Believe me, that cut of meat he gives Ben is so much better than what we get.”
“Maybe you are right, Ayala. Next week, its to Ben’s butcher we will go!”
“Shabbat Shalom, Meir, Ayala, David, Miriam. Welcome. Welcome. How is everyone? And who is this? Is this the special sheyne meydele you told us about?” Beth smiled at Ben’s question, getting a real kick out being called ‘sheyne meydele’ which Beth now knew meant ‘pretty or beautiful girl.’ Beth giggled like a teenager and smiled at Ben Cohane.
Ayala made the introductions and Ben ushered the small group into his charming home. Like the Goldfarbs’, the Cohane’s home was small and yet each piece of furniture was lovingly arranged and selected to ensure the comfort of any guests. Beth agreed with Meir that Ben probably made the best cholent ever. Of course the only thing she could base this on was the smell. And since she had never smelled cholent before, she was making a big presumption. However, her stomach seemed to be in agreement as it rumbled for some of the savory food whose delicious smells permeated the air.
Cholent, it turned out, was a slow cooking stew made with typical stew ingredients: beef and vegetables. It was a Sabbath standard because it could be put into an oven and cooked at a low temperature throughout the Sabbath night, thus supplying a meal for a household and any guests, without anyone having to work. The entire experience fascinated Beth as she enjoyed the questions and Torah study that ensued.
Beth had asked David to share more information about the morning service and he did so obligingly. He told Beth that the reason the Torah scroll is walked around the synagogue when it is taken from the ark, as well as when it is returned to the ark, is to show the great love and reverence that the congregants have for its teachings. David told his small audience that in many synagogues the people will even kiss the scroll to show their immense love for God’s word. David was smiling at Meir as he said this last statement, and Beth knew that Meir must be one of those men who loved God’s word so very much that he kissed the scroll. “Abba, what else can we share with our curious visitor?”
Meir joined the conversation by explaining that the reason the cover of the ark is so ornamental is in its purpose, which is to remind the people of the priestly garbs of the priests from the temple days. Beth loved the symbolism and deep faith the Jews had in Adonai. She learned that the last prayer of the service was said, in silence, by those members of the congregation who had lost a loved one. It is called the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish.’ What Beth found so revelatory about the Kaddish was in its declaration that love and family are not separated by death.
The peaceful day continued with Meir and Ben playing a few games of chess while David spent some time reading through a study book on the Torah. The women, including Ben’s wife Hannah, took a walk through the gardens in the back of the apartment complex. The day was perfect in every aspect, from the food to the company to the weather. Beth hadn’t felt such tranquility in a long time and as they said their good-byes, she felt herself overcome with emotion towards yet another warm and generous family.
The walk back to their own apartment complex was a quiet one, each of them lost in his or her own thoughts. As they approached the building, Miriam spoke up. “Well, I am going to head home, as is David. I hope you have enjoyed your Sabbath in our country and that you will let us take you to the marketplace tomorrow. I’m sure you would enjoy having some time in your own apartment right now, unless of course there is anything you might need.”
“Miriam, I couldn’t ask for one more thing from you or David or your parents. Yes, I would love to visit the market tomorrow and would also be quite happy to spend a bit of time tonight lounging around the apartment, maybe doing a bit more reading. I have had the most perfect day today and feel that God couldn’t bless me anymore!”
“Then it’s settled,” said Ayala. “We’ll call it a day and will see you tomorrow when you wake up. Don’t set an alarm or force any plans on yourself. We’ll just take the day as it comes, whatever God gives us, we will embrace.”
They all hugged as David and Miriam parted. David would drive Miriam to her apartment on his way home. Miriam lived about fifteen minutes from the Goldfarbs and David another five. It made their gatherings quite easy to maintain. Beth found herself hoping that her children would, one day, choose to live near her. She liked the idea of them being out from underfoot and yet close enough to see frequently! Although it was more than likely that Sophia would be living in New York where she could pursue her love of finance.
Beth knew Luke, too, hoped the kids would remain close but that Luke was more pragmatic, realizing that the children would go wherever their careers took them, just as he already accepted Sophia’s move to the east coast.
Beth, Meir, and Ayala took the elevator up to their floor and each turned towards their own door, “See you tomorrow. And again, thank you so much for such a beautiful day.”
“You are welcome, Bethula. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
The previous chapters are listed below: