Each year, around seder tables throughout the world, Jews and our guests end the haggadah with the phrase, "L'shanah haba'ah biyerushalayim -- Next Year in Jerusalem." Like the four children who appear earlier in the haggadah text as paradigms for the ways Jews approach the historical narrative, those who say or hear "Next Year in Jerusalem" do so with many different degrees of self-knowledge or awareness in relationship to the phrase.
The wise among us may say the phrase with great intentionality. The contrary person may in that moment put a psychological distance between him or herself and the reality or the dream of Jerusalem or Israel. The simple one may simply say the phrase perfunctorily, because it is there. The "one who does not know" may leave the phrase out of the seder altogether.
Wouldn't it be extraordinary if at sedarim all over the Jewish world, seder participants actually took some time to explore the meaning of the phrase "Next Year in Jerusalem" together as a community? To illustrate, let us play with the phrase linguistically, for the haggadah does not tell us what intonation to use, nor is there consistency in the punctuation. While the public collective recitation may sound declarative and firm, I think we ought to be curious and honest about how our family members, our peers, our teachers, our students, our fellow congregants, our far-off relatives and our fellow Jews would say this phrase in the most self-revealing way. This could be done by each participant emphasizing a specially chosen word in the phrase, as if that word held the key to meaning.
The one who says "NEXT year in Jerusalem!" would be addressing an issue of time. Perhaps she or he is postponing a long awaited dream to return or to make aliyah until NEXT year. Or, perhaps with a different intonation, is delighted to realize that the dream is soon approaching.
"Next YEAR in Jerusalem" might be said by a friend who is planning to take the time for a year to explore what it feels like to be in the Jewish homeland for the first time.
A colleague might say, "NEXT year in Jerusalem?" as a question, concerned that a sabbatical is approaching too quickly, or that it has to be postponed to the distant, perhaps tenuous future of the next academic year.
The child of a new acquaintance may say, "Next year in JERUSALEM?" as a question, either horrified or thrilled at the prospect of being in a new, unknown setting.
The one who is ill or whose life is unraveling for other reasons may have trouble getting beyond the first two words, "Next year..." knowing that even the next few months will be unpredictable.
Most of us who have been affiliated with the Jewish community in some way have grown up hearing phrases such as "the Jewish people," "we are one," or "All Israel is responsible for one another." In the same way that our tradition establishes the earthly Jerusalem (shel mata) and the heavenly or ideal Jerusalem (shel ma'ala), I believe it is important to say and hear these phrases of unity as the wishful, shel ma'ala, goal-oriented statements that they are. For whether we like it or not, those who make up our families, our communities, our congregations, our people, are not monolithic in our approach to Judaism, Jerusalem or Israel. It is also safe to say that humans have the distinct ability to change and evolve over time. So the way one says or means "Next Year in Jerusalem" can change and grow over a lifetime. I know it has for me.
I was born into a family active in the Jewish community in West Palm Beach, Florida, long before the empty sandlots along the ocean were filled with condominiums for retiring snowbirds. This south Florida Jewish community was much smaller then, more Southern in character than it is now, and without a particularly organized Zionist or Israel-oriented effort.
Somehow, the opportunity to join a new youth group in the area called Young Judaea crossed my path. As a fifth grader, I did not find it a profound experience, although I do remember practicing "Hatikva" in my bedroom so that I could participate with the handful of the others in the group. Years of high school intervened, dense with school activity and BBYO leadership roles. I had no particular Israel focus for many years, and then fate stepped in, and I was invited to accompany a friend to Israel to visit his family in the summer of 1970 between high school and college. Two years later I declared my major to be Jewish Studies instead of American Government and spent the summer of 1972 at the Hebrew University summer language program.
After college, I went to Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, left the program and stayed on in Israel to work and retain the Hebrew I had worked so hard to master. Making aliya, that passionate decision to leave American roots and family behind, became my next goal. Yet somewhere in the process, a certain pragmatism, as well as a fear of becoming an outsider in my family, took over and I returned to the states to earn an M.Ed. from Harvard. For two years, I lived in Boston, but my heart was in Eretz Yisrael, and though surrounded by very loving family, my reentry to the United States was quite hard, for I had postponed a dream.
Life choices brought me next to San Francisco. There, I enjoyed meaningful work in Jewish education for fourteen years and met the man who would become my husband. On our first date, Mike and I sat for a picnic at a beautiful concert site in the hills south of San Francisco. In the late afternoon sun, we looked around and said that if we didn't know better, we would have thought we were sitting atop a hill in the Galilee. The conversation that ensued, we now realize, was a negotiated verbal contract about how Israel would always be primary in our lives. Following our wedding, we spent a year living in Jerusalem, allowing us to meet one another's special folks in Israel.
Since arriving in Cleveland two and a half years ago, we have been back to Israel once. Periodically, we revisit the idea of aliya, reaching no definite conclusion, no absolute time line. Sometimes we are even willing to entertain the fact that we may never really truly live there forever. Still, there is tremendous comfort in knowing we understand the strength of each other's feelings, the depth of our wholeness individually and as a couple, when we are in Israel. We know the priority for our travel time and budget. We celebrate Israel's centrality in our lives.
What Can We Learn From Our Stories?
Many personal stories could have been shared with you here, for mine is not unique. Yet I ask you not to dismiss its power as being instructive to the interpretation of "Next year in Jerusalem" for the late 20th century American Jew. For the way I might have addressed the meaning of "Next Year in Jerusalem" at many junctures of my life has been quite different, exhibiting at least the same multiple dimensions of meaning as those implied by the seder participants mentioned earlier.
Sometimes my considerations or decisions were centered on the "time" in my life. Sometimes it was "place" that was the central issue that drove the decision-making process. Sometimes I was boldly sure, and at other times I was ambivalent. Sometimes my decisions have been made from the practical and at others from the emotional realm. But as I ponder my story, I realize that I have grown up with Israel. At almost every important transition point of my life, Israel was a central theme or factor in the ongoing process of self-definition.
I look at my story, and I see the stories of so many other colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and historical mentors, guides and prophets. Their voices and writings express so many ideas, feelings, longings, confusions, paradoxes and hopes that are familiar to me. It is a comfort to me personally and professionally to note the spectrum of the socio-economic, religious, and political backgrounds of my fellow wrestlers looking to refine, revise or expand their definitions of the Sacred Center.
This "Next Year in Jerusalem" issue is three-dimensional in a profound way -- through both time and space -- through the millennia of Jewish past and future, across the globe of Jewish diaspora and the modern State of Israel. Did you think that Israelis are exempt from this wrestling? The real questions of Jewish identity and Jewish "place" are not linear, they are a three-dimensional, dynamic spiral forming the real DNA, the continuity of the Jewish people. Are we willing to entertain that the dialogue is more important for continuity than are the specific answers?
As a Jewish educator, I am interested in what may be common elements in life stories. It is my job to help people feel attachment to a dynamic narrative that is still evolving. How do our community constructs-buildings, budgets, curricula, relationships, language, prayer, ladders of authority, and most importantly the way we use our time, foster or hinder the dialogue for individual Jews within the collective? How often and how deeply is the issue of "Next Year in Jerusalem" dealt with in our midst? All too rarely, in my opinion. And how do these constructs need to be adjusted to accommodate the styles and readiness of the four children? As an educator, I accept and even applaud that I cannot create memory for another. It is the most individual human element. Yet I must create the opportunity to have meaningful and authentic experiences, to be in relationship with Israel itself and to be in relationship with others who are wrestling with relationship with Israel. Let "Next Year in Jerusalem" become a primary way to search for meaning.
The tradition tells us that Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) ends in the plural ending of "-ayim" because there are two Jerusalems. Jerusalem shel ma'ala is the heavenly, celestial city, ideal and idealized. Jerusalem shel mata is the lower, earthly city, still beautiful, still bathed in light, but a more complicated place. These Jerusalems belong to one another, and the two allow each of us to be in Jerusalem in both body and spirit, in human frailty and error as well as in human wholeness.
In Jerusalem, we get to be our real selves, for she is ours. We need not be afraid of the "place" -- the physical and spiritual endeavor that is Ir Shalem (city of wholeness), the foundation peace, our Sacred Center.
Questions for discussion
What associations have you made (as a child? as an adult?) when this song concludes your Seder?
Trace your own relationship to Jerusalem by filling in the blanks in the sentences below:
"At first I ..." (your first memory or association with Jerusalem)
"And then I ..."
"And then I ..."
"And then I ..." (your chain of associations & experiences with Jerusalem)
- "And now I ..." (your present connection and challenge in relating to Jerusalem)
- "At first I ..." (your first memory or association with Jerusalem)
What kind of literal and/or mythic meaning do you find in centering Jewish life in Jerusalem? What's productive and counter-productive about such a centering?
- What adjectives might you imagine would capture Leslie Brenner (given the attitudes being shown in the article) teaching about Israel? What adjectives would you apply to your own teaching about Israel?
Article by Leslie Brenner, reprinted from Gesher VeKesher, May 1997.
Discussion questions written by Dr. Jeffrey Schein.