An outcrop of rocks leads to the Sea of Galilee

Between Bavel and Yerushalyim: Behind the Poem

By Rabbi Stephanie Crawley

A number of years ago, I was sitting in a lecture with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute. On a large easel pad, he drew a tiny dot in the center. And around it, along the edges of the paper, he drew a large circle.

This small dot, he said, is Eretz, the land of Israel. One makes Aliyah – they ascend when they come to live here. And everything else beyond this small dot is Chutz La’aretz, outside of the land of Israel. And when you go outside Israel – it is Yeridah- a descent.”

He was advocating for dissolving that mindset, and instead thinking about how to expand a diaspora-Israel relationship. And still, the image is stuck in my mind. Especially when paired with the idea that there is no concept of “history” as conceived of in Western Thought in Judaism. There is tradition, eternality, and ahistorical events that are re-lived—not commemorated each year.

There is an idea that one stage of Jewish history ended after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Yes, for a millennium we prayed for a return to Israel, to our homeland. We sang of exile and hoped for it to end. But we lived, according to Jewish historian, Simon Dubnow, “As an unbroken thread.” From exile, we built a home. This home is Babylon, Chutz La’aretz.

In the words of philosopher Simon Rawidowicz, “The face of Israel has two profiles—Babylon and Jerusalem… He who denies either denies all, for Israel is not Jerusalem nor is it Babylon; it is Jerusalem-and-Babylon, Babylonand-Jerusalem. Every Jew worthy of the name is rooted in both…Jerusalem is the point of destination, the end of the journey; Babylon is transition, the journey itself.”

We belong to both Jerusalem and Babylon. We are reflected in both faces. The way forward for us Diaspora Jews is to cling to both—to know that a vibrant Judaism can only exist if there is a dynamic diaspora and a dynamic Israel, and that we are responsible for building both.

Between Bavel and Yerushalyim

If there is no word for history in Hebrew, then what have I lived?
Did my people’s history begin again with a partition plan and a war?
Did my family fall in and out of existence – dormant from 70 to 1948?
Did we exist before Ben Gurion declared the State to be?

What of my lineage?

What of the Yiddish and German and Polish and English we picked up on the way?
And if I can not sing my God’s song in this strange land
Then what do I make of these notes that float out of me?
Am I allowed to be at home in my exile?

For my exile is full of home,
and my home is full of exile

And am I allowed to feel at home in my homeland?

I reach for apples and peanut butter before palm dates and hummus
Is it mine? Is it home, too?
Can sea to shining sea mean both the Atlantic and the Galilee?
It must be – because it is.

I am from Babylon and I am from Jerusalem.
I am born from history that was but also is.

I am woven from the scholars of Bavel and the mystics of Tzfat.
I am sewn together with threads of Pushkin and Lazarus.

My veins flow with Baltic rivers and muddy Mississippi waters.
My heart has chambers in the West and East and in-between.

My mother tongue is stories and songs that travel seas and centuries.

I am away, and I am home.

I am of history and I am of eternity.

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of the Vine.

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