Jacob was diagnosed with Leukemia in the Spring of 2019. His treatment plan required an initial month in the hospital. One of his first visitors, absent the family, was our rabbi and friend, Rob. Unbeknownst to us, Rob had been diagnosed with cancer days before. The three us cried, laughed, and cursed in anger over this vicious diagnosis. Our conversation evolved to our faith. We prayed together for strength and vowed to not stop fighting. We then made a promise: Once we defeat cancer, we would travel together to Israel and pray at the Western Wall, as a sign of our perseverance.
Until Jacob got sick, I had no desire to travel to Israel. It’s hot. Really hot! Heat and obesity are a deadly combination. I was raised in a Protestant Church house. We went to Church many Sundays. I even liked it at times. Our minister, Skip Holliday, was a dynamic speaker. He even managed to captivate me from the pulpit. Grabbing my attention isn’t difficult. Keeping it is a feat. He often did. I attended Plymouth through my teens regularly, even serving as an usher at times. In theory, I even knew right from wrong. Our church didn’t engage in politics or controversy. I felt safe and, although I sometimes went begrudgingly, always loved my time at Church.
One thing was always missing with me. Faith. I read The Holy Bible. I’ve read it cover to cover more than once while also reading passages and chapters multiple times. From the moment I read it, I believed certain truths:
- The stories lay a foundation for the meaning. The stories are mere parables
- The bible was the first game of telephone ever played
- Both books were written and inspired completely by humans
For these reasons, I couldn’t by into the divinity of it. I struggled with believing anything adults would tell me. This has remained the one constant in my life. Basically, if there is one untruth, by principle, the entirety of <insert anything> must be a lie. Perhaps this is what has found me trouble in life. I questioned everything. Ignorance is bliss and I’ve had few blissful 24 hours in my life.
In my early twenties, I decided to convert to Judaism. I was marrying a Jewish girl and had dated other Jewish girls. It made more sense to me. My conversion wasn’t forced. I went into my conversion with a seeking mind and heart. Over the years, I have found a love in the traditions of the ancient Hebrews. The focus of living my best life on earth and letting the “after-life’ handle itself makes sense, pragmatically. Keep in mind that theory of best practices doesn’t mean that I have always (or ever) practiced best practice.
So, back to the commitment Jacob, Rob, and I made. My niece played for Team USA in the Maccabi (Jewish Olympics) the past two weeks. Shameless flex, but she scored the game winner in the final minute of the gold medal game to defeat Israel 2-1! My sister-in-law, Becky, called us when Rachel made the team to ask if we’d be interested in going to Israel. Naomi and Ana have both been. Remembering my commitment on that early May 2019 Day, I said “yes.” Two weeks ago, we made the trek across the world to the Middle East.
My weight poses many logistical challenges. These problems weigh heavily (intended pun) on Naomi and Ana. They constantly must consider my lack of mobility. Israel’s lack of space doesn’t care about my issues. We made compromises. I was left to my own devices on “exploring” days. I went at my speed to the places I could. My first full day exploring took me to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. From there I wandered the streets and took it all in. I stopped when I had to rest and sat. I love history. To me, seeing the convergence of four cultures (Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian) in less than two square kilometers is perspective changing.
I walked through the Arab Shuk which led me down a narrow path toward the Western Wall. Vendors on both sides of the downhill stairs tried to sell me things I don’t need. Foot traffic in both directions made me keenly aware of pickpockets. I used my walking poles both as stability and a few times as a guard against my pockets being emptied. I was not unsafe at any time, merely cautious. As I finally made my way to the bottom, a group of a couple hundred men started to push toward me. I was a salmon going against the stream. My steadfast desire to make it to the end nearly walked me into the mosque as the afternoon prayer time had expired. I was pushed into a tunnel by an Israeli solider to a security checkpoint.
I walked through security and came out of an opening to discover I was staring at the Western Wall. Overwhelmed, I found a small bit of shade away from the crowds and removed Jacob’s Bar Mitzvah tallit and kippah. Inside its bag, I found Jacob’s Torah portion and examined it. I don’t read Hebrew, but I wanted to examine it anyway. I also found Rabbi Rob’s speech. As it was written in English, I read it successfully! He spoke of Jacob’s commitments and duty. Not only his duty to Judaism but to his greatest love: His sister, Ana. Rob knew immediately about Jacob’s priorities. Ana always came first.
After guzzling a quart of water, I composed myself and walked to the wall. I was first approached by the scam artists who tried to tie a ribbon on me and charge me money. Thanks to YouTube Israel travel tips, I knew to ignore them. Well, I said some words, then ignored. I found a spot on the wall and kissed it. I kissed it first for Jacob. I then kissed it again and prayed for peace for his friend Lori and her boyfriend Dan. She requested I kiss the wall, and knowing Lori and Jacob’s commitment to one another, I did. I spent about 45 minutes praying to Jacob for Rob’s good health and that of my friend Jackie. More on that to come. I also prayed for peace for the Ashdown Family and for that of Max’s family. I prayed for the St. Edward community, especially those who had passed recently.
I prayed for my family. I prayed for Naomi and Ana’s health and happiness. I prayed for my family and that if my in-laws. I spent special attention on each niece and nephew. These kids are special and amazing people. My final prayers were personal. They were for me. I spoke to Jacob. I listened for his reply. I am patient and will continue to wait for that.
So, more about my praying to Jacob. He’s my higher power. I look to Jacob for guidance in this world. I strive to live by his morals and ideals. Jacob was complex and simple. He lived with an inner peace, strength, and drive. I pray for knowledge and strength. I pray for discipline. I prayed once in my life for a result. That was on December 26, 2020, and it didn’t come true. This is not an indictment against prayer. I hope to find my own clarity. I hope to find my own answers through my prayer. I have always been results driven versus work driven. It’s my biggest obstacle as I don’t buy into the process of life.
We spent two weeks in Israel. We bathed in the Dead Sea, miles from Jordan. We visited the birthplace of Abraham in Be’er Sheva and felt the earth of the Maktesh. We spent two shabbat’s in the Holy Land and spoke to the people. I greeted Jews and Muslims with the same heart. I relished the history of a land claimed by many. I watched Orthodox Jews hurrying to the wall to pray with the same passion as Muslims call to worship at the Mosque. I hope nothing was lost on me.
My journey was deeply personal but not religious. I don’t feel any closer to my religion nor do I to any religion. I appreciate the Shabbat, and the need for a rest. I saw a small-scale view of the need for a Jewish state, in a land where we are not welcome. I am a historian by nature. The connection I felt at the wall had little to do with G-d. My connection was not religious. It was bigger than that. It represents a bond and commitment to two men whom I deeply love. Walking to the wall for many, isn’t difficult. It’s relatively short in distance from the house we rented. For me, however, I carried my regrets, sadness, pain, and weight. Each step felt like an Odyssey. The story is NEVER the ending. The story is journey. It’s the aromatic smell of seldom used spices in our culture. It’s the limestone, often called Jerusalem stone. The story is a gun-yielding 18-year-old Israeli soldier guiding my direction toward the wall. The story is my reading of Rob’s speech, and Naomi (or Jacob’s) care to have his Torah portion and letter in the bag.
Religious books are filled with parables. Stories to illustrate how to live, what to eat, and how to treat people. What I take away from this trip the most, it the lessons we’ve been taught early. Love yourself, love your family, and cherish each moment. It took a long walk to figure that out. My pledge was fulfilled. I Love and miss you, Jacob. Thanks for guiding my journey.
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