August is an interesting month. There are weeks to go before summer’s end, leaving us plenty of time to catch fireflies and watch bubblegum-colored sunsets sink into the ocean. Yet before we know it, we’re distracted — by ads for school supplies and dorm furnishings and seating for the High Holidays. The dog days of summer, while still carefree, begin to feel more like a prelude to fall, fast-forwarding time to September.
The Jewish calendar slows the tempo down a bit this season, carving out a three-week period of mourning that culminates with a public fast on Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the month of Av. The day is the darkest of the Jewish year, when we mourn the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem and our subsequent exile around the globe.
Each summer, this mourning cycle feels like a thick cloud of dust scattered by the wind. I breathe it in, letting the sadness nestle deep down into my chest, and find myself grateful that Jewish observance keeps the memory of what we’ve lost palpable and present in our daily lives. We face the direction where the Temple once stood when we pray and yearn for its reconstruction in the language of our liturgy. We remember it even in our happiest moments, like when we break a glass beneath the wedding canopy.
Our longing to return to Jerusalem notwithstanding, my family is presently anchored in the Garden State, not the State of Israel. But I’m always mindful, even more so during the three weeks of communal mourning between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’Av, that Israel, though imperfect, is a modern miracle. At a time when anti-Semitism continues to spike worldwide, we cannot take the comfort of its existence for granted.
Throughout Jewish history, we have been uprooted, exiled, cast out, and deported from shtetls and cities, from communities we helped build and countries whose histories are entwined with our own. To witness the number of individuals and families now making aliyah on timelines they’ve established for themselves, this season especially — before the school year begins and the Jewish holidays — stirs joy in my heart. Still, I admit to a little envy, knowing we are missing out when I view the videos of their arrival on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion.
This breadth of emotions hit close to home this summer as a dear friend prepared to make aliyah. I watched as she compiled the necessary volumes of paperwork and secured the official seals. Meanwhile, she began condensing her belongings to make sure they’d fit into a shipping container, which would set sail weeks before her own departure.
I am thrilled for her, and for Israel, too, which is gaining the kindest of new citizens. And I am moved by the bravery and commitment it takes to pack up an entire life and start again thousands of miles away, however wonderful the destination. But I’m also finding it’s hard to be the one staying behind. I will miss having her nearby.
A group of her close friends wanted to get her something, a gift to remind her how much she means to us. It had to be small enough to fit into her hand luggage, yet meaningful enough to carry the depth of our blessings. In the end, we chose a mezuzah, hoping it would serve as a siman tov
— a good sign — in her new apartment. It seemed perfect, a way to notify passing angels that her home is filled with love for God, Torah, and kindness.
As I left the Judaica shop, the beautiful mezuzah in my hands, I began to daydream, as I’m wont to do. I envisioned the layout of my family’s future home in Jerusalem, impossibly equidistant from the Kotel and the Mediterranean Sea. I plucked pomegranates and kumquats from the trees I planted in our garden and inhaled the scent of fresh spices I just picked up at the shuk. All the while I prayed, hoping that one day, we too will have the opportunity to write a chapter in the story of our people in the land of our people.
For now, though, Jerusalem may as well be on the moon, and I will have to live vicariously through the experiences of those I know and love who have transplanted themselves to begin new lives as olim, new immigrants. I will watch from afar as my friend fulfills her dream. And I will think of that mezuzah we gave her, grateful that God and the holy words written on the parchment inside it are watching over her, waiting to welcome us there, too.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.