If a Place Can Make You Cry, by Daniel Gordis

If a Place Can Make you Cry: Dispatches from an Anxious State
By Daniel Gordis (Crown, 2002)

Reviewed by Rabbi Jason Miller

As my fellow Seminary students and I boarded buses outside Ben Gurion Airport in January, we were welcomed with blue and white carnations and a two-man band playing Hava Nagilla.  In those first few hours, we were thanked for our courage and devotion for visiting Israel at such a daunting time.  That was the type of welcome we received.  That is, until five minutes after we finished eating our first dinner in Israel later that evening.  Rabbi Daniel Gordis took to the podium and, in pulling no punches, told us that he disagreed with the type of welcome we received.  After all, he noted, his family and the millions of others living in Israel do not receive such a reception each morning when they wake up and start their days living amidst the bombs and the terror.  When Gordis told his children about our attitudes to Israel and the sense of courage possessed by many of my colleagues because they’d come for a visit, his son said out of the blue, “Thank you for bringing me here.  Thanks for saving me.”

In 1998, Gordis and his family came to Jerusalem to spend the year while he was on sabbatical from his position of dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.  Things were good and relatively calm in Israel during that post-peace process time, and the Gordis family fell in love with the daily life in Israel.  In fact, they commented to friends and family how their young children were actually safer on their own in Jerusalem than they would have been in L.A.  After that idyllic sabbatical year, Gordis decided “to make a go of it” and relocate permanently to Jerusalem, making aliyah with the family.  The entire time, Gordis documented this adventure in his regular e-mail missives to friends and family.  The talented writer’s correspondence took on a life of its own, circulated around the globe, published in the New York Times magazine, and now compiled into a book.

It was not until I completed Gordis’ book that I got the double meaning of his subtitle, for it is not merely the Jewish State that is anxiety-ridden during these trying times.  The book begins with Gordis’ reaction as a new Israeli to the devastation of September 11 and his feelings during a visit to Ground Zero.  However, the book is generally a story about children, and Gordis makes mention of this point.  He is a gifted storyteller who discusses his children’s maturation in this confusing place of daily turmoil.  He unabashedly reveals his children’s unanswerable questions and tries to explain their unimaginable ability to cope like so many other Israeli children living amidst the raging fear.

While so many others have been unsuccessful, Gordis seems to be able to put his finger on the pulse of the Jewish State, effectively explaining the love affair with Israel that makes up so many Jews’ lives.  In If a Place Can Make You Cry, he criticizes Israeli policies and documents his humanitarian work on behalf of the Palestinians, but makes clear his belief that one should be able to criticize a country while still loving it, and without demonizing it or negating its right to exist.  There are many chilling moments as Gordis recounts his children’s reactions to life in Israel, as when he is posed with the challenge by his son, “Why did you bring me here to die?”  Indeed, this in-depth account of one family’s aliyah adventure through the medium of an ongoing e-mail journal and insightful prose from a gifted writer sheds much light on the situation affecting our people.  To be a fly on the Gordis family’s walls of Jerusalem, one need only read this book.