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Jewish World Review
Nov. 28, 2006
/ 7 Kislev, 5767
By the Way
Spiritually rewarding travel
I love traveling.
No, I'm not such a masochist as to enjoy relocating the lower half of my body after a twelve hour flight spent
trying to figure out where to place my knees. And just in case any of those nearest and dearest to me read this
column, be assured that returning home is always the best part of the trip.
So what exactly is it that lures me abroad five or six times a year? Sightseeing sans one's better half exercises
little appeal. And, in any event, I'm rarely in one place long enough to see more than the airport and the shul in
which I'm speaking.
The highlight of nearly every trip is the remarkable people that one meets. I find it uncomfortable to stay in
someone's home without getting to know them. That getting-to-know-you process often takes longer than a first
date. One suddenly plunges into the life history of someone who only moments before was a complete
stranger, and often reveals things about oneself that one would never think of telling the guy who sits next to you
in shul. (synagogue).
On my first trip to Phoenix, my hosts turned out to be fellow Chicago natives of roughly the same vintage. Only
when the red glow of dawn revealed a surreal lunar landscape, filled with cacti and rock formations, through the
floor-to-ceiling glass panes that surrounded their entire living room, did I realize that we had spoken through the
Particularly in smaller Jewish communities, where a large percentage of the community is likely to be ba'alei
Teshuva (newly observant) or converts, one can count on hearing many fascinating life stories. On one recent trip, I spent a Shabbes (Sabbath) with a doctor in his mid-thirties and his family. My host never had the opportunity to have a formal Jewish education. Yet he has managed to complete at least one-cycle of daf Yomi, the folio-a-day Talmud cycle, and even gives a daily lecture, among several other scholarly undertakings.
And all this, while maintaining a full-time medical practice, and with a houseful of young children, who were not short-shifted for attention.
In the guest room, I even found a thick trilogy of fantasy novels that my host had written as a means of
inculcating Torah (religious) values. How one person could do all this in a day is beyond me.
My next host and I first met when he responded by Blackberry to something I had written, and it turned out that
he and his family were in Jerusalem for Passover. Our first meeting lasted no more than a half an hour. Now I
would be staying with him and his family for a week (a welcome contrast to the usual living out of a suitcase).
In the course of that week, we went from being virtual strangers to close friends. Driving to a 6:00 a.m. Kollel (institute for advanced Jewish studies) every morning, walking an hour each way to shul on the Sabbath, and breakfast and lunch gave us plenty of time to talk. In his early '30s, my host seemed to have it all: a happy marriage, three beautiful children, many friends, and a successful business career. His principle hobby at the time was Iron-Man competitions, involving swimming, running, and bicycling distances beyond my contemplation. (In one competition, on a very hot day, two of the competitors died of heat stroke.)
Yet he still had a gnawing feeling that something was missing. Despite lacking any Jewish religious training, he
started reading for hours every day any Torah literature in English he could get his hands on. From there he
moved to Talmud learning. For several years, his growing observance and study was largely a solitary pursuit.
Only when he was absolutely sure that a full religious life was what he wanted, did he guide his whole family, with
much patience, love, and wisdom, to follow him. In all my travels, I don't think I have come across another
example of anyone who took on a full observant life at his age, while maintaining the entire external structure of
his personal and business life.
OF LATE IT OCCURRED TO ME that it might not be necessary to travel far away to meet Jews who leave one
in awe. They are all around us. The difference is that we take those we see frequently for granted.
This morning at davening (prayers) I was distracted by a steady stream of low-pitched cries. The source, it turned out, was a deaf teenager. I have rarely seen him in recent years, but I remember how as a young child he often ran
into the street oblivious to traffic. Today he looks like any other rabbinical student, and prays with great fervor,
occasionally pointing to the siddur (prayer book) to ask where we are.
Watching him pray, I try to imagine how much did this young man have to go through to get to where he is today; how much energy did his parents and teachers have to devote to him.
A very idealistic young man on my street enlisted in the IDF a few years ago. While still in basic training, he injured his back. Since then, he has been in constant and intense pain, which makes it virtually impossible to sit, even after several major back operations. Yet he still makes it to almost every minyan (communal prayer service), now with the aid of a crutch, and delves into his religious studies standing up. More remarkable, he is never seen on the street without a smile on his face, and nary a word of complaint escapes from his lips. (His father tells me that even at home he always downplays his suffering.)
Our friends and neighbors too have stories, but too often we never bother to listen. We are all poorer for the failure to take note of the greatness right next door.
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JWR contributor Jonathan Rosenblum is founder of Jewish Media Resources and a widely-read columnist for the Jerusalem Post's domestic and international editions and for the Hebrew daily Maariv. He is also a respected commentator on Israeli politics, society, culture and the Israeli legal system, who speaks frequently on these topics in the United States, Europe, and Israel. His articles appear regularly in numerous Jewish periodicals in the United States and Israel. Rosenblum is the author of seven biographies of major modern Jewish figures. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago and Yale Law School. Rosenblum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and eight children.
© 2006, Jonathan Rosenblum