Holding back the tears, I bite my lips, and tell myself – not here, not now. It’s 5pm and I’m on a packed subway train in Manhattan, strangers’ faces inches from mine, Spanish, English, Chinese, Hindu spoken all around me, music blaring from the headphones of the guy to my left, shopping bags bulging with xmas stuff, and it’s all just too much. But what pushes me over the edge are the two words in Hebrew from some random woman that I can’t even see, somewhere in the middle of the crowded car: ‘rotza habaita’, she says’ “I want to go home’. Don’t cry, I tell myself, hold it together.
The tears, as tears do, come just like that, and I hold back coz this is not the time for a breakdown. And actually, why cry at all?Rushing to light up (candles) with the kids – im excited- but suddenly I feel like a total stranger in a strange land, like I don’t belong here, and this ‘here’ is a random nowhere at all. In just a minute the train will stop at 86th St, so familiar, and I will step out into the rainy night and open the door and the kids will yell abba! and it will smell like latkes and it is all so lovely and I am lucky and gotta focus on what’s wonderful and not on the half empty cup and the rumble in my belly which is a combo of loneliness and honest questions about what the hell is home and where do I feel like I really belong. Is this what exile feels like? even when it’s what I wanted? what I chose? What I (also) love?
I read my news online in Hebrew and dream ( I think) in Hebrew and write a lot in English, pay my taxes in the US but vote in Israel; I wish that my next significant intimate relationship will have fluent Hebrew in bed, for pillow talk and poetry, and when I sing and pray, it’s often in both. I’m an Israeli who has spent the last 15 years in the US, and has a green card and almost a citizen, and lives in both worlds, but, somehow, sometimes, at the end of some days like today, the both can lead to neither. The dreidel falls on Here or There – but not on both at once.
So sometimes things fall apart and in the so called anonymity of a subway car the mask crumbles. But only for a minute: Gather yourself, hold back the tears, not because it’s bad to cry or men don’t weep but there’s a time and place and now it’s time to focus on the lighting, not the dark. And that’s when I remember Joseph.
This happened to him too and this perspective helps me out. A Hebrew boy ends up in Egypt, rising up in ranks from slave to second in command, names his children for the home he lost and when, after many years of distance, sees his little brother Benjamin again it all comes back, the years of homesick silence, his tears come down, and he tries to hold them back. The boss cant cry. It’s all in this week’s Torah text, Miketz, the stuff of Broadway legend:
“And Joseph sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there…And he washed his face, and came out; and he restrained himself, and said: ‘Set out the bread.’ Genesis 43
Smile and wave.. the tears will come way later, publicly and loud. For now, he cries in secret, then restrains himself, wipes his face, and claps his hands, publicly on stage. Show must go on.
I think of Joseph, Hebrew boy turned Egyptian leader, crying backstage, and wonder what language he dreamed in, if he dreamt at all anymore.
And when I open the door last night there is a package waiting for me, with a book of photos by a dear friend in Brzail and the title is welcome-home.
The dreidel spins and falls, and spins again, and on.
Happy end of Chanukah – Shabbat Shalom
Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org