We spent part of the day at the beach in Tel Aviv today. It was good, on this second day, to be able to bathe in the sun, get our feet buried in the sand and dip our toes in the Mediterranean Sea. To me, these moments are a doorway to a deeper presence, to a relaxed place in my body.
But just before we walked the beach, Jana brought us to this little corner of the Tel Aviv beachfront promenade, where every Saturday, early afternoon, Israelis come together to dance what is called here: “Rikudei Am,” or traditional “People Dances” in English. A DJ sets up in that little square and people just show up to dance together. Most of us think of the “Hora” when we think of traditional Jewish dance, but there is so much more to it than that. Traditional Israeli music includes influences from the Yemenite, Middle Eastern, Spanish and African traditions as much as—and, in fact, much more than—the Klezmer and Eastern European musical styles that we mostly encounter in North America. For close to two hours we watched Israelis from all walks of life, young and old, men and women, dance and sing together around that little square by the beach. It was incredible!
It was incredible because most of us see Israel through the prism of the news media. We create in our minds a certain image of the Israelis. We generalize. But here, we were confronted with the disarming simple reality of a people that is deeply united by a powerful sense of a shared experience, a people that loves to dance in the streets of its cities, very much alive and vibrant. Watching this group dance helped me remember the human side of Israel, with all its flaws and all its problems, still clinging to a semblance of normalcy, still wanting to celebrate the light of its being. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful.
We closed the day driving back up to Jerusalem to witness the kindling of the eighth candle of Chanukah. We walked the streets of Nachlaot, an old neighborhood right at the center of the city just as people began to light their Chanukiot. A few orthodox guys suddenly appeared at the window of their street level apartment, and as they were pouring olive oil in their eight little cups, not just our group but perhaps 30 Israelis wandering the streets with us, stopped to watch them too. They lit their Chanukiah while all 40 of us in the street joined them in chanting the blessings and singing the traditional Chanukah songs. I looked at all these people and I found them beautiful too.
Israel has that power; the power to remind us to stop running and pause to pay attention to this life as it is fast unfolding in front of our eyes. People are beautiful if we only take the time to look at them without letting our vision be blurred by the stories we have made up about who they are. Israel teaches us to let ourselves be surprised, to approach each moment with a sense of awe, an eagerness to discover, and to be comfortable with not knowing what’s next. It is a state of being that is very freeing even if scary for some of us who like to live more predictable lives; but it holds the keys to falling deeply in love with what is, and that is priceless.