Finding strength in brokenness after a traumatic trip to Israel

Kathleen Rice-Guter
December 16, 2019
Dead Sea
All illustrations: Efrat Hakimi

THE REPLACEMENT GUIDE met us in our hotel lobby the morning we were scheduled to see Masada. 

“Samuel is an excellent guide,” Julie, our program leader, said matter-of-factly, by way of introduction.* “He’s lived here in Jerusalem for nearly 20 years.” 

Samuel’s grey hair peeked out from under a Hawaiian print bucket hat, and reading glasses dangled around his neck. A geek, I noted with considerable relief. I wondered how much she had told him about our predicament, why we’d suddenly found ourselves in need of a new guide.

The nine other travelers and I clapped politely in welcome, and Julie pivoted to outline the schedule for the day: a trip into the Judean Desert to Masada and the Dead Sea, followed by a Bedouin-style dinner and a bonfire under the stars. Samuel headed the line as we filed out of the hotel, weaving through the Jerusalem side streets to our minibus. 

On the hour-long journey, he spoke quietly into the microphone, narrating the view from our windows in his soft Long Island accent. To the left, luxury hotels were scattered along the waterfront. To the right was desert.

Our first guide, Yuval, had been loud, blunt: a Sabra who gave us sweeping overviews of his service in the Israeli Defense Force. He looked like a soldier still, his dark hair buzzed short, revealing a thick brow and the wrinkles of middle age. At each stop he ordered us all off the bus, men and women alike, with a gruff, “Yala, banot”—“Come on, girls.” 

Yuval had served as the guide of the annual trip, a leadership development program run by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, for several years running. In the months leading up to my journey, I’d learned snippets about him from previous participants. I’d heard that he’d led a rowdy, impromptu dance party on the tour bus one night while the group traveled between cities, that he knew where to find the best falafel in any market in the country. I’d heard stories of athletic men who’d agreed to go out running with him and wound up trailing behind him on a mountainous 10K at dawn. He was legendary, like an Israeli Chuck Norris. Everyone loved him.

Maybe that’s why I’d assured myself it was fine—a cultural difference, maybe—the way Yuval’s hand seemed to linger on my back that first night with the group, at a rooftop bar in Tel Aviv. How he insisted on provisioning alcohol for us in advance of our drive out to the kibbutz, which, he warned us, had no bars nearby. How he teased me about my jet lag, made me promise I’d stop going to bed so early. It seemed normal that Yuval was more than a guide—he was our ringleader.

Samuel, who stood at the front of the tour bus, placidly prattling on about the history of Masada in the 1st century CE, couldn’t have been more different. I scanned the rows of our bus to see how others were taking the change. I hoped their half-shut eyes and slumped postures spoke more to the accumulated exhaustion of the past week.

As we neared Masada, I finally bit into one of the bourekas I’d packed for myself that morning, too tense and nauseated to eat at the hotel. 

Although Julie had agreed to ride the tram along with anyone who lacked the stamina for the steep hike to the summit, I felt committed to ascending Masada the hard way. This will be good, I told myself, pushing aside concerns about a joint issue that had barely begun to heal. This is exactly what I need. I wanted to exhaust myself, burn off the agitated restlessness that had plagued me for days. And now, more than ever, I was committed to showing I was part of the group.

WHEN I FIRST LEARNED about the Federation’s Israel trip, I wasn’t sure whether I was eligible. The requirement that the applicant be “Jewish or in the process of conversion” worried me. I felt connected to the Jewish community through my husband, Lev, but I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever actually convert.

Lev loved teaching me about Judaism, and I loved learning. For years I followed his baritone voice during services, memorizing the notes and syllables of the Friday night prayers until they seemed to pump from my own heart. I relished Shabbat. And I had taken the Intro to Judaism class required of all potential converts. But, looking at the website for the trip, I became acutely aware that, in the absence of an official conversion, I was still technically the same person I had been when Lev and I first met: a woman with a Catholic father, a Presbyterian mother, and a Methodist upbringing.

I was relieved, almost to the point of tears, when Julie confirmed that they would consider my application. In fact, she told me, another woman in my situation had done the trip a few years earlier and found the journey so moving that she converted upon return. I longed for that kind of clarity, the easy assertion of belonging. Some days I felt like I would never fit. In years of Shabbat services and seders, I never figured out how to respond to well-meaning conversation starters like, “What synagogue did you grow up in?” In the realm of Jewish geography, I felt like an uncharted isle. 

I knew I’d never have friendships that began at synagogue preschool or Jewish summer camp. I’d missed that chance. But this trip—the idea of transatlantic flights and late-night heart-to-hearts—gave me hope that I could still develop those kinds of deep connections. When I learned I was selected for one of the ten fully-funded slots reserved for “new leaders” in the St. Louis Jewish community, it felt like an official welcome into a world in which I’d struggled to find my place.

SAMUEL ANNOUNCED OUR ARRIVAL as the tour bus pulled up in front of Masada’s sandy cliffs, which rose steeply, improbably, from the surrounding land. I spread a cool layer of sunscreen across my pale arms and stepped off the bus just as Samuel returned from the check-in desk with a tram ticket for each of us. It turned out no one would be schvitzing their way up the Snake Path that day. It was barely past eight, but the September sun was already too powerful. To prevent heatstroke, the path to Masada’s summit had been closed. 

I sighed in disappointment with the others, but I felt relief, too, like a quiet prayer had been answered. I could stay with the group, no risk of injury. On the cable car, other tourists pressed in tight behind us as we moved closer and closer to its glass walls. “We’re like sardines in here!” Samuel said, laughing. “The only thing missing is the olive oil.” With a pang of concern, I noticed no one else laughed with him.

We arrived at the summit and walked through the fortress chambers, seeking shade whenever Samuel paused for a lecture: at the remains of the palace of King Herod, the ancient cisterns, the collection of artifacts from the Roman siege. In passing, Samuel pointed out the Masada mikvah, the oldest surviving mikvah in the world. I had never seen one before, though I had learned about them. I knew that mikvahs were vital to the family purity laws—and for the conversion ritual, a series of immersions punctuated by prayers. I knew a mikvah must be deep enough for a person to submerge completely. I tried to imagine what it might feel like to be remade by those waters, but the Masada mikvah, now dusty and dry, made that difficult. 

The tour ended at the 2,000-year-old ruins of the Masada synagogue, where Samuel read to us from a pocket-sized Tanakh, and I felt delight at the spiritual, reflective tone our tour was taking under his leadership. At the far side of the synagogue, where we posed for a group photo, we noticed the doorway to a small, dark chamber. Inside, to our great surprise, was a man seated at a desk, separated from us by a pane of glass. Though we had passed large tour groups from Asia and Latin America, this was the only person we’d seen settled among the ruins. 

A humidifier spread a fine mist over the parchment on which he was writing what we quickly realized were the words of the Torah. We packed into the room to watch as he formed the little serif edges on each character, focusing on the ink as it curved. Suddenly, he looked up from his work and began to speak. He addressed Samuel in a quick volley of Hebrew; Samuel replied, and then began translating. The scribe’s long and winding story, a midrash about Rachel and Leah, was lengthened still by Samuel’s dutiful, line-by-line interpretation.

When it ended, the scribe retrieved his quill and a few scraps of parchment, offering to write a note or two in his perfect script. I wanted to ask him to write my name, my Hebrew name, the name I’d use for a conversion if I ever converted. I had it on my tongue: Ivrit, the Hebrew word for the Hebrew language. To me, the word felt strong, upright. It evoked what the language had given me: new words for prayer, the chance to discover a spiritual vocabulary in adulthood. The word’s root refers to crossing over—the way Abraham left his birthplace, crossed over the Euphrates River, and stood alone on the other side as Avraham ha-Ivri, Abraham the Hebrew. 

But I hadn’t converted, hadn’t even asked my rabbi about the name, and so there was nothing about the word that made it mine. As I thought about it, wondered whether I could speak my request aloud, wondered how I’d explain it to the others, this not-yet name, a few of the men on the tour spoke up with their own requests. Before I knew it, Samuel was escorting us out of the darkness and back into the blinding desert sun.

As we walked back to the tram, Noam, our armed guard, asked us if we had understood the scribe’s Hebrew, what he’d first asked Samuel, before he put down his quill and agreed to speak with us.

“Are these my people?” the scribe had asked.

“Ken,” Samuel had replied effortlessly. Yes.

We descended on the cable car, loaded onto our bus, and took off down the road to a resort at the edge of the Dead Sea. After changing into our swimsuits, the ten of us scrambled across the hot sand, into the shallow water. We slathered the mineral-rich mud across our arms and squeezed it between our fingers. I leaned back, submerging my ponytail and ears, the waterline rippling along my cheekbones. My legs and feet popped up effortlessly. The sun warmed my belly. 

Julie rolled up her shorts and waded in to take a few group photos. In the pictures I’m smiling, bobbing alongside the others, holding my hands up out of the water to wave. Looking out to the lounge chairs on the beach, I felt so grateful to see Samuel hiding out under an umbrella, reading a book. Samuel, and not Yuval. I didn’t need to shuffle past him in a bathing suit, or to avoid meeting his eyes. I didn’t need to be on guard. For the moment, I turned myself over to the float, the sensation of being safely held.

THE LAST THREE DAYS of the trip proceeded without incident. Samuel led us in meditation and read us poetry about the desert. He taught us to sing “Am Yisrael Chai,” and we all held hands and danced. But the relief I’d felt when Samuel arrived, the sense I’d had that everything could return to normal, quickly dissipated. The day we visited the Israeli Parliament, I felt so weak that I couldn’t continue the tour. I waited alone in the lobby, my clammy hands gripping a cup of water.

On the final day of the trip, just before we left Jerusalem for the airport, our group went to see the work of an Israeli artist who represents Torah stories in colorful paper shapes. A facilitator read to us from the artist’s book, holding the pages open toward us like a school librarian. The white shape was Abraham, she told us; the red was Isaac. The towering white figure led the small red one up a mountain. On the next page, the red figure was bound and prepared for sacrifice. Halfway through the reading, I realized what our task would be: to tell the individual stories of our trip in this form. I crossed my arms, folding my cold hands into my elbows. 

When she finished reading, she asked us to pick a set of colors and assign them meanings, creating a shared visual vocabulary. My tripmates raised their hands, announcing the signifiers they thought they’d need. Red: Israeli people. Purple: our group. Light blue: ourselves. They chose gold for spirituality and yellow to represent the passage of time. “How about black, for conflict,” someone suggested, and the facilitator declared our palette complete.

I knew my story would start halfway through the trip, on Thursday, at the row of little cabins on the kibbutz. Without speaking to the others, I began cutting, intently, into a full sheet of light blue, turning it in my hand as it became smaller and smaller. I glued it to a larger square of red paper, the light blue wisp utterly surrounded by the red. Beyond that I pasted a thick width of black. 

At the end of the activity, we sat in a circle. I listened to the others narrate their tableaus: the inspiration of meeting Tel Aviv entrepreneurs, the spark of connection with children at an after-school program, the satisfaction of harvesting sweet potatoes for a farm-run food bank. I remembered those moments, but they felt distant. 

I don’t know what I said when it was my turn, how vague or specific I was. The artist’s assistant was videotaping me, and I insisted she stop.


THE NIGHT I HEARD the staccato knock on the door of my cabin at 2 am, I knew instantly who it was, understood that Yuval’s somewhat benign boundary-pushing had escalated. After letting a long minute elapse, hoping he might leave, I cracked the door open, slipped out onto the front porch, and closed the door behind me. My intent was to say something neutral and aloof, like, “Do you need something?” Maybe I did succeed in asking, trying to flatten my voice to a tone of annoyance, instead of letting it waver with fear. But when I looked at Yuval’s face—when I saw the way he was seeing me—it became clear what he wanted, and unclear if he would leave. 

I had never before felt the sensation of being prey, a lone animal stalked by something stronger. I don’t remember what we said; it wasn’t the point. What he meant, I could see, was, You are mine, and what I meant was a frantic, I’m not, I’m not. What I remember is the stiff darkness, the nearby pine trees, the amber porch light casting shadows. What I remember is the bloated moon setting in the distance. I stood frozen.

Once Yuval left—after he mumbled, “You should get some sleep,” and I swept back inside and locked the door—I realized I couldn’t name what had taken place. I knew that nothing happened, exactly, but why was I so afraid? I noticed for the first time how sheer the curtains of my cabin were, how they barely covered the windows in the living room or bathroom. I closed myself in the bedroom. Had Yuval gone back to his own cabin, or was he pacing somewhere outside? 

I pulled out my phone, and that’s when I saw them—the messages Yuval had sent me, piling up in my Facebook inbox over the course of the night.

12:46   You are young and smart and pretty and i have a weakness here…
12:48   And you wear glasses and talk dirty
12:49   Another weakness of mine…
12:52   2 options: 1. You stay here last…? 2. I come to you later…?
1:35   Me or you coming?

My face went red, then pale. I was humiliated to think of myself, in my enthusiasm for each day’s excursions, always beside him at the front of the group, asking questions. I searched my mind, trying to discern what I said that could possibly be construed as dirty. Was it my fault I didn’t see the messages? But also, why didn’t Yuval care that I never answered? Why had he taken himself up on his own invitation?

I called Lev. Eight time zones away, he had just left work for the evening; the cheer in his voice faded when he heard the strain in mine. I tried to explain my fear, tried to relay the conversation.

“How long were you out there?” Lev asked.

“I have no idea. Forty seconds? Five minutes?”

“What did he say?”

“I don’t know—I can’t remember.”

I told Lev how we’d all spent the evening in the center of the kibbutz, hanging out around the patio. Yuval was there, and the guard Noam, and even Danny the bus driver. I was so pleased to have finally adjusted to the time change enough to stay out with everyone. When the night’s revelry wound down, Yuval walked me and two other women back to our cabins. We were the last ones up, and the kibbutz was so desolate—it was nice to have a man with us in the dark. So when Yuval grabbed my ass as we neared the cabins, squeezing my flesh through my dress, the gesture was so unexpected, so incongruous with his pretense of chivalry, I didn’t know what to think. I just kept walking.

I explained to Lev the awkward interaction at the end of the walk, when Yuval hugged each of us goodnight. “That’s not a real hug,” he’d said, critiquing the way I angled my body away from him. “Do it again,” he directed, and I laughed along. This time Yuval pulled me in close, whispering, “In a real hug, you have to really feel the other person’s body.” And with that, he’d headed off into the darkness.

The two other women—Danielle and Chaia—stayed in the courtyard with me, chatting. “Yuval just like grabbed my butt,” I told them, and they laughed. Maybe I was being weird about it, I thought; maybe it was funny. I’d had just enough wine to make bumming a cigarette seem appealing, a light buzz. One of the women redirected the conversation, and soon we were all laughing. It was the moment I’d dreamed of: standing out in the moonlight with new friends, sharing little secrets and truths. Twenty minutes must have passed that way. As I recounted the story to Lev, I realized that Yuval must have stayed close, watching me and the other women. He had waited until I was alone.

“This is not normal,” Lev told me. “What time is it there—is anyone else awake? Is there anywhere else you can stay tonight?”

Of the two women who I’d been up with that night, I decided to try Danielle. She’d taken a maternal tone with me on the trip, once even sending me back to my room to change into sturdier shoes. I texted her to ask if she was up, then sprinted down the path to her cabin. When I arrived and told her what happened, she smirked. I sat on her couch, my arms and legs shaking, as she told me lightly that this was Yuval’s job—to help people have a good time. I was young, she said; I just hadn’t been married long enough to appreciate the offer. But she let me stay in the living room of her cabin, and she gave me her extra blanket. 

When she turned off the light, I hid under the blanket and typed out an email to Julie on my phone. It was important to make a written record, Lev had told me. I spent an hour trying to word it correctly. I wanted Julie to know I was scared, but I didn’t want her to think I was crazy. (We’re all adults, right? He had left, right?) I attached screenshots of the messages Yuval sent me. When I finally sent the email, it still didn’t seem like enough. The last thing I did was open the heart rate monitor app on my phone. I wanted a measurement, a statistic, some proof of the havoc this had wreaked in my body: that after lying down for an hour in the dark, my heart was still pounding.

“YOU SHOULD HAVE WOKEN ME UP,” Julie said to me the next morning, when we met at her cabin before breakfast. “I can’t believe he propositioned you. That’s absolutely not okay.” She worried aloud that this made her look bad. She had hired him and recommended him to other groups. “I’m going to take care of it,” she assured me.

Not more than an hour later, we all crowded back onto the same small bus and departed for Jerusalem. Yuval stood at the front like usual, but he seemed deflated, even as he lectured the ten of us about the boundaries of Israel, territorial entitlement, and “strategic topographical superiority.” “I wonder if he’s sick,” I heard someone murmur with concern. I stared out the window as verdant fields transitioned back to desert. Yuval’s charcoal voice barraged me from the speakers overhead.

I walked past him when we disembarked outside the United Hatzalah headquarters, feeling visible, vulnerable, in my rumpled shorts. While posing for a group photo, walking up the stairs, choosing a seat in the Hatzalah lecture hall, I tried to detect any undue attention. I had failed to notice him noticing me until it was too late, and now I responded with vigilance. When Julie and I met that morning, she had suggested that if I felt uncomfortable, I could sit out of any events led by Yuval. But as the afternoon wore on, I realized the obvious: he led everything. He was our guide.

I spoke to her about it after we toured the Machane Yehuda market, and she tried to reassure me. “I yelled at him,” she said. “He’ll leave you alone now. He won’t eat meals with us, he won’t hang out with us. He’ll just be our guide.” But this only amplified my anxiety. When he wasn’t with us, I was on guard for his return. During a group cooking lesson that afternoon, while the ten of us minced parsley, pounded chicken, and pried the seeds out of pomegranates, I kept turning toward the kitchen door, afraid Yuval would reappear without me realizing.

“Are you okay?” my friend Michael asked. “What’s going on?” he pressed when I didn’t reply.

When I confided in him that Yuval had showed up at my cabin, Michael shook his head, sighed deeply. “You should talk to Ruth about this,” he whispered back, referring to another woman on the trip. “She hasn’t seemed like herself. I’ve been wondering if something happened.”

So there were two of us. 

I spoke with Ruth, urged her to talk to Julie. I went with her to Julie’s room when we arrived back at the hotel. “Well, Yuval walks around shirtless a lot,” Julie told us, as if that explained why he’d turned up at Ruth’s Tel Aviv hotel room one night, half-undressed. 

“Shouldn’t we let the other women know?” I asked. “Or warn them?” 

I could see the wheels turning in Julie’s mind as she considered the other four women in our group. “I just don’t want the whole trip to become about this,” Julie said. She sent us back to our rooms to get ready for the evening.

SHABBAT WAS ALWAYS INTENDED to be the emotional highlight of the trip: the exultant entrance to Jerusalem, candles and prayers, the Western Wall. We were asked to dress modestly; I gladly complied. In my room, I drew the dark curtains closed and covered myself from head to toe—full-length dress, black cardigan, turquoise head scarf. I studied my face in the bathroom mirror as I put in a pair of contacts, then tried hiding my fatigue under a smear of concealer.

I will never know a Jerusalem that bears no trace of Yuval. He was the one who steered us through the Old City, pointing out the golden hue of the stones at sunset. He was the one who led us toward the Kotel, stopped us 20 yards from the lookout point, and instructed us to close our eyes, hold hands with one another, and shuffle blindly around the bend. He was the one who watched us, who told us when we could open our eyes.

All day Friday, from the kibbutz to the Kotel, I kept repeating inspirational quotes to myself: “It’s better to be kind than to be right” and “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I hoped if I just summoned the right mindset, a generosity of spirit, I would be able to relax. In the plaza, packed with worshippers, our group split in half: the men went with Yuval, and the women followed Julie to the entrance of the women’s section. We approached the wall, jostled by the crowd, until we each found a place to press our hands against the stones. When I felt the coolness, the smooth glaze of weathered rock under my palm, I couldn’t summon a single word of prayer. 

From my pocket, I withdrew a small scrap of paper on which I’d written, with all earnestness, Love & Kindness. That was what I wanted to feel for Julie, for Danielle, for Yuval; I wanted to be forgiving, understanding, chill. I wanted to be more like Ruth, who seemed determined not to let this ruin her trip. I snuck the prayer into a gap between the stones, hoping the act would quiet me. I was lucky to even be invited on the trip, I told myself. I shouldn’t be causing trouble.

What a naive and foolish prayer it was. By Saturday morning, I was back in Julie’s hotel room, crying, asking her to fire Yuval. 

“I know you’re in a hard situation—” I began.

“I’m in an impossible situation,” she said. 

She understood my experience had probably already been ruined, she told me, but this was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime for everyone. She’d hired Yuval directly, and there was no travel agency to intervene; if we sent him away, he’d be the one to select his own replacement. “He could pick someone who’s really the bottom of the barrel,” she told me, her voice getting low and apologetic. Exhausted, I couldn’t find it in me to say, Tell me more about how you define “bottom of the barrel.” 

Julie mentioned she had a contact in Jerusalem who was licensed as a guide, but she wasn’t hopeful. People book their guides a year in advance, and we’d be asking him with no notice—and on Shabbat, no less. “Even if he can’t do it, he might know someone,” I prodded. She looked at me sternly and asked if I thought I just needed to fly home. 

WHEN YUVAL LEFT that afternoon, returning to his home in East Jerusalem for his daughter’s birthday, none of us realized we wouldn’t see him again. It wasn’t until after Havdalah, after the sun set and three stars emerged, that Julie pulled me aside and told me a replacement guide would start in the morning. It turned out her own brother-in-law, Samuel, was a tour guide based in Jerusalem, and he agreed to take the job.

The relief was instant. She broke the news to the group a few minutes later. “We all know Yuval is friendly, but he’s been a little too friendly,” she told us solemnly, using words I’d helped to script. “He’s not going to be guiding us anymore.” 

Even hearing it for the second time, I was almost as shocked as everyone else. The announcement quieted, at least temporarily, the thought that had hounded me all day: Why had she suggested I leave the trip, instead of him?

Dead Sea 2

ON THE FLIGHT HOME, I was assigned a seat next to the two women who’d stayed out so late with me on Thursday night, laughing in the moonlight. Takeoff had been easy; the seats reclined; I was so relieved to be going home. When the flight attendant came by with coffee, I took off my eye mask.

He spoke to me first, though I was in the middle seat.  “You look like you want coffee.”

“No, I’m fine,” I said. 

“You can’t sleep the whole time—it’s a very long flight.” His Israeli lilt added extra emphasis to very. “When you want to stretch, come to the back. I’ll show you around.”

He turned his attention to Danielle on the aisle, then Chaia at the window. Neither wanted coffee. “And you said no, right?” he said, returning to me.

“I said no,” I repeated, a little too insistently, caught in a newly familiar panic. “I said no.” As he continued down the aisle with his cart, I turned to Danielle, distressed. “Do I have something on my forehead that says, ‘I’m up for anything’?”

“No,” she cooed, “It’s that you don’t. You’re so innocent. It’s irresistible.”

Irresistible, she said, and I believed it. Was there something in me that attracted this? By the time I arrived home, nothing felt clear. What could I wear to avoid attention? How little could I speak? In the weeks and months that followed, I became less and less myself. I stopped cooking; I had trouble eating. I’d wake up in the middle of the night from dreams where I called out for help, and it was useless: sound waves echoing in a void.

The trip was all I could think about. I felt I was drowning in metaphor. 

What did it mean that, on a sunny afternoon at the kibbutz pool—12 hours before Yuval showed up at my door—he swam between my legs, wrapped his hands around my calf, and dragged me under without warning?

What did it mean that I sat by myself in a Jerusalem synagogue on Shabbat morning, fresh from my tearful conversation with Julie, and heard the reading of parshat Ki Teitzei: “If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them—the man and the woman with whom he lay—shall die”? 

Back in St. Louis, at Jewish events around town, people asked about my time in Israel. “Wasn’t it just incredible?” they’d say. “Was it everything you were hoping for?”

“It was a lot,” I often replied, pasting on a smile. “I’m still exhausted.” 

One evening I crossed paths with a friend, who told me she was rushing off somewhere but wanted to hear about the trip. “Give me the essence for now,” she said. “High point, low point.”

“High point: Masada,” I said wryly. “Low point: Dead Sea.” We both laughed. I was pleased with my improvisation, the ease with which I obscured my lingering anguish. 

Had the low point even arrived yet? Things seemed to get lower and lower each day. 

THREE YEARS HAVE PASSED since I returned from Israel. I am still Kathleen—Katie—and I am also now Ivrit. 

As I prepared for my conversion last spring, I was nervous that my rabbi might tell me that “Ivrit” is a noun, not really a name, and that she’d nudge me to keep looking. I emailed her about it a few months before my conversion date, too embarrassed to bring it up in person.

“In so many ways, it’s a perfect name for you,” she wrote back. “But it has some other meanings you should know about.” She explained that the root of the word, ayin-vav-resh, conveys the idea of crossing over, yes, but also of transgressing, crossing boundaries. 

I thought of the ways I had recently “transgressed,” pushing past the silence expected of me. Acknowledging the mismanagement of my trip. Reporting Yuval’s actions to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism (a complaint that led only to light probationary measures). Speaking about what happened to me and other women—at least three of us, I’d come to find out.

“The same root also means ‘the past,’” the rabbi’s email continued, “forever linking you to what and who came before, even as you move forward.” 

Her explanation made the name even more precious to me.

Since returning from Israel, I had been trying to reject the past, to fight its hold on my emotions. At Rosh Hashanah that first year, just a few weeks after I came home, I was determined to mark a new start; at Yom Kippur, I’d urged myself to forgive. As months stretched into years, I interrogated myself, impatient: Why had I let this one incident harm me so deeply? Why couldn’t I let it go? But here, within my chosen name, was an invitation to surrender: of course the past is always with us. 

As I read the rabbi’s words, I couldn’t help but remember our group’s final visit to the Kotel, shortly before we left Israel. It was a weekday afternoon; the evening crowds were gone. Samuel gave us several minutes to say our own quiet prayers. I felt the wall under my fingertips—at once broken and strong.

I’d brought another note with me that day. Thank you, it said. I’d intended it as an expression of unmitigated gratitude, a sign I was putting the trouble behind me. When I withdrew the curl of paper from my pocket, it blew out of my hand before I could wedge it between the stones.

* Most names have been changed.

Kathleen Rice-Guter is an MFA candidate at Washington University in St. Louis.