We spent the last weekend of Hanukah in the Upper Galilee hills. Our base of operation was the Old City of Tsfat and, on Shabbat, the whole Blum family took an introspective hike into the ancient cemetery that lies just below its narrow winding streets.
The cemetery rests on the hillside, and you wind down a steep hill, passing graves that seem be strewn in no particular order. Some are so old there is no indication of who might be buried there. Others have been painted blue which in Tsfat tradition helps ward off the evil eye.
At the center of the cemetery is the grave of the renowned 16th Century kabbalist, The Ari, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, and nearby is a mikve that bears his name. Jody, Merav and Aviv pooped out after the grave, but Amir and I continued on.
It’s been a long time since Amir and I had any quality time outdoors together. Sure, there have been errands and movies and Pizza Fridays. We make a point to have dinner in a restaurant every once and a while. But to be out and about in nature, just the two of us, was a real treat.
I remember when Amir was a year and a half and we were still living in Berkeley, Jody was sick with a cold and she kicked us out of the apartment. With a spirit of shared adventure, Amir and I headed for the big city: San Francisco.
For some reason, I decided we should go free and easy, unencumbered by such trivialities as diaper bags or bottles or sweaters. I wanted to feel the breeze through our t-shirts, to raise our hands in the air and say – we are men, we are free! We don’t need any material possessions to bring us happiness. All we need is each other.
I parked the car near the Embarcadero Center shopping center and we hopped on a cable car – Amir’s first (and I think also his last to date). He was still toddling, though he toddled pretty well. So off we went exploring.
We snuck into fancy hotels and poked around the gardens. I bought Amir an orange juice, which he promptly spilled on an elegant couch at the Fairmont. We looked in gutters and pushed the buttons at traffic signals and counted yellow cars. We window-shopped for shoes and stereos. We chased cats and birds and each other.
At one point, Amir decided he needed to use the bathroom. Except he didn’t tell me. Fortunately he was wearing a diaper. Unfortunately, as you may recall, we were deep into our Zen-inspired practice of unencumberance. I won’t go into the details, but I must admit I was right proud of my creative solution.
As we jumped another cable car and headed towards Union Square, the day was waning but Amir was still going strong. We paid a quick visit to the giant FAO Schwartz toy store, then rode a BART train one stop and we were back at the car.
As he climbed in, Amir spontaneously threw his arms around me. Maybe he just needed help getting into his car seat. But I took it as a silent understanding that we had just shared something special. That, even at a year and a half, he knew this was not just another afternoon of Barney. We reported back to Jody on a highly successful adventure.
Nine years later, we were wandering through a cemetery in Tsfat, once again unencumbered. No water bottle, no backpack with sandwiches and tissues, no sweaters from Imma “just in case.” But the bonding now was more as adults, as equals.
We talked and joked. We tried to figure out why most of the graves had rocks on them instead of flowers like in North American cemeteries. Would the dead be offended by living plants, Amir wondered?
We saw a brightly colored bunch of flowers in the distance. Too brightly colored. We moved closer: they were plastic. Was this halachically acceptable?
We peeked into the ancient mikve of the Ari. The mikve itself is just a small hole tucked into the hillside big enough for just a single person to dunk at a time. We dipped our hands in. The water was cold and the rocks around it slimy.
“If we put our fingers in, will all our wishes come true?” Amir wondered.
“Yes.” I answered. “Of course,” though I remember once learning that the magic of this mikve was geared more towards finding a spouse. Amir commented that his sleeves were wet.
The sun was bearing down and the sweat was beading up beneath our Shabbat shirts by the time we arrived back to Jody and reported on a highly successful adventure. Just the two of us. Free men again.
And Amir threw his arms around me.
This time I’m sure it was the exhaustion talking, his way of saying “hold me up, I can’t walk anymore.” No matter. Whether he was falling into me out of recognition of something that had passed beyond the two of us, or he was just falling, I felt the same shared silence that had once meant so much.
You know, when I look at Amir now, he seems so big to me. He has an adult body already, and formidable strength (four years of karate will do that). It’s hard to believe he was once a little pisher who did that and more in his diaper.
And too soon he will be a teenager, where this kind of quiet bonding will no longer be cool (though to his credit, he’s a very huggable 11 year old boy).
But I have no doubt that, someday, when he goes on his first man-to-man tiyul with his own son, he’ll connect with something that reminds him of our adventures together. Of cable cars and cemeteries. And memories still to come.
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