Your Bones Will Shake

1st Place Poetry/Essay Contest www.birthrightisrael.com

When you go on Birthright, you’re told to pack as lightly as possible – Being an African American Orthodox Jew on his first trip to Israel, my baggage was already sagging. If I believed the current campus hype which likens Israel to apartheid era South Africa I wouldn’t have gone. Despite the protests of friends and family, I journeyed to a place synonymous with spiritual peace but terrorized by physical violence. I didn’t pack the hype and I didn’t bring their fears.

After converting to Judaism two years ago, I needed kesher “connection” to my people, to my land, to my living potential as a Jew. Privileged to go on AlPAC’s inaugural Capital to Capital mission, I was weighed down by a multiplicity of expectations, the collected prayers of my Hebrew school students, and a list a hundred questions as formidable as any asked by an Israeli airport agent. Why is going now so important? Will I see myself in the people? and who am I taking? with me?

Each day in Israel answered my questions, met my expectations and gave me hope. All over country, the importance of our visit was palpable. Shopkeepers in the malls of Tel Aviv and the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem were thrilled to see us buying Israeli kippot and hamsahs and Hebrew greeting cards to take back to the United States. Schoolchildren on field trips gave us high-fives, Knesset members handshakes, and the delegation of Israeli students with us, hugs. During Friday night services, the rabbi welcomed us in his speech saying, Birthright students, one day may you make aliyah? From visits to Hebrew University to meeting with Natan Sharansky, the glow on the human face of Israel told us that we were home.

Our experience at the Kotel sealed that feeling for us. There we read a misquote from Isaiah scribbled onto the stone from millennia past: “You will see and you will understand and your bones will shake like the grass.” Within that hour, my bones shook from the sonorous afternoon prayers and the thunderous patriotic songs belted out by crowds of dancing Israeli youth groups. I was swept up in a moment I can only call identity. Everything I was, and would be, was welcome here, and my very humanity had been defined. I was here, in a dream fulfilled and fulfilling a dream.

All of my ancestors were there with me in Israel. My German Jewish ancestor prayed with me at the Kotel. My beloved grandmother waved from the river banks she once praised in song as chilly and wide, as I rafted down the Jordan. In that nexus, my prayer book met my grandmother’s spirituals, and staring at my reflection in those waters, my soul made sense. Wherever we went, that feeling of being reflected followed me. Whether walking through the Museum of the Diaspora; exploring the remains of Tzippori where sacred texts were born; placing memorial stones at Yad Vashem; meditating in the nutritious brilliance of sunset on the Kinneret; or smelling the prolific rosemary on the hills of Jerusalem, I felt myself melting into the soil. I am every shekel I spent, each manhole cover I traced, and every Hebrew letter spelled out in brilliant red graffiti.

To see Israel meant witnessing a personified survival. We saw the rusting tanks on the hills to Jerusalem reminding us of the struggle of the War of Independence. There the gates of the Old City, pock-marked with bullet wounds from the six-day war, conveyed to us Moshe Dayan’s return in tears and triumph. We visited Hebrew University where the students and faculty were still healing from an attack on the Frank Sinatra cafeteria, which has long since been re-built with a permanent memorial. And we dialogued with our guards, many younger than us, about what it meant to defend the nation and why they felt privileged to do so. From a reconstructed Mike’s Place on the beaches of Tel Aviv, to Masada in the desert, we bore witness to 2,000 years of resilience.

No matter where I go now, Israel is my location. When I’m challenged on campus I can bear witness to my own experience. In my classroom, I will tell my students why they should see Israel for themselves. And I will long recall the day at the Kotel, when Ethiopian Jews listening to hip-hop on their Walkmans, gave me high fives and hugs, exalting goodbye brother in Hebrew as I departed. Never before has hearing goodbye felt like such a welcome. After four and a half months of being back in America, my bones are still shaking.

‘My soul made sense’ Silver Spring man wins contest with essay on Birthright trip to Israel
by Paula Amann

When not teaching Hebrew school at Potomac’s Har Shalom Congregation and Rockville’s Temple Beth Ami, kippah-clad Michael Twitty may be found at Howard University pursuing his dream: to become a Jewish Henry Louis Gates. Meanwhile, the aspiring author and academic, 26, is relishing a small step on the road to his ambitions. His essay, “Your Bones Will Shake,” just won a literary contest sponsored by Birthright Israel, an organization that sends young adults on free two-week trips to Israel. An African American convert to Judaism, the Silver Spring man made his first pilgrimage to the Jewish state with Birthright in May and June.

In his prize-winning essay, Twitty cites a stirring encounter during a visit to the Western Wall. “And I will long recall the day at the Kotel, when Ethiopian Jews listening to hip-hop on their Walkmans, gave me high fives and hugs, exulting ‘goodbye brother’ in Hebrew as I departed,” he writes. “Never before has hearing goodbye felt like such a welcome.” A returning college student, majoring in Afro-American studies, Twitty expects to receive his degree next December.

Twitty’s journey to Jerusalem began at age 7 when his family moved from the District, where he was born, to Silver Spring. Surrounded by Jewish classmates there, he found himself gravitating to their religion. “Becoming Jewish wasn’t a matter of changing countries; it was a matter of crossing the street,” said Twitty in an interview last week. Choosing to be Jewish after a nominally Christian childhood felt to him like a natural transition. “It’s like breathing, it’s like a heartbeat, it’s like air — that’s Judaism to me,” Twitty said.

He began attending services at Rockville’s Magen David Sephardic Synagogue four years ago. This led to study that culminated in his January 2002 conversion by a beit din convened by the synagogue’s former spiritual leader, Rabbi Hayyim Kasorla. Calling himself “flamingly Jewish,” Twitty now identifies as modern Orthodox. “I’ve been wearing a kippah even before going to the mikvah” for his conversion, he said, adding, “I wanted to be as visible to people as a Jew as I am as an African American.” His commitment led him, in early 2003, to write three pro-Israel articles, two of which were published in Howard University’s Hilltop campus newspaper, rebutting another series critical of the Jewish state. His outspoken style and trademark kippah, Twitty says, have earned him some “props” — slang for respect — from other students on campus. Yet he also notes that some professors viewed his writing and Israel visit with skepticism.

Twitty’s activism figured in his participation in last spring’s Birthright trip, co-sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. For this Hebrew school teacher, that tour of the Jewish state proved as spiritually moving as it was politically fortifying. “It was a second rite of passage,” he said, recalling in particular one morning in Jerusalem when he woke early to daven with teftllin. “I was praying for the peace of Jerusalem. At that moment, a white dove lands next to me,” Twitty recalled. “It was a perfect moment, and I knew I was supposed to be there.” The young wordsmith also found that his trip to Israel helped knit his dual identities more firmly together. “My beloved grandmother waved from the river banks she once praised in song as ‘chilly and wide,’ as I rafted down the Jordan,” Twitty writes in his essay. “In that nexus, my prayer book met my grandmother’s spirituals, and staring at my reflection in those waters, my soul made sense.”

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