It was my last day in Israel, and I was surrounded by dozens of strangers in a sprawling home in Netanya, a seaside town two hours outside of Jerusalem. Stacks of dirty plates covered the long dinner table, and children scampered up and down a spiral staircase that led to the top floor. I was on an eleven-day religion reporting trip in Israel, and I’d taken a bus from Jerusalem up the coast to interview a source, Mali Aharon, for a story I was working on about a controversial anti-abortion nonprofit in Israel. But ten minutes into the interview, she revealed that she had more festive plans—a Purim feast with her enormous, religious family.
“My father has some good stories,” Mali said over the din of conversation and the noise of flares going off in celebration outside of her sister’s home. “He wants me to translate a couple for you after dinner.” She put her hand on her father’s knee and smiled, no sign of the panic that had flooded her face an hour ago on our way to her sister’s house. I was just getting to know Mali, just making small talk on the ride from her apartment, when she got the call—the doctor’s suspicions were right. The tumor in her father’s stomach was cancer, and it had already metastasized.
“Tell me,” she’d said earlier as we came to a stop out front of her sister’s house. “How do I put on a poker face?” She looked over at me, the concealer under her brown eyes highlighting the beginning of wrinkles, like paint on an uneven wall. She was 35 and fierce, her strong, square jaw framed by wild, dark hair that glinted red in the sun. I’d known her for less than hour, but already I could see that Mali was as raw as an open wound, a woman with almost no boundary between herself and the rest of the world. I had met sources like her before; they always made me feel a bit ill at ease, how eager they were to bring me into the chaos of their lives, to make me a player in their drama. And yet there was also something about them I envied—their reckless lack of fear. Their inability to stay comfortably within the lines.
“He will take one look at me, and he will know the news is bad,” she’d said, putting her head in her hands, rocking back and forth as though she were dovening in prayer.
Mali’s father closed his eyes and winced in pain as he rested his head against the armchair the family had dragged up to the dinner table for him. Around me, a chaos of ritual I couldn’t decode was going on: Mali’s mother rapidly recited some kind prayer, barely audible as she rocked back and forth, her eyes closed. One of Mali’s brothers kissed a tiny Torah he held, while another mouthed words he was reading from his own copy. Every family has its own language, of course, its own nuances and quiet mechanics. But that language is almost impossible to read in a culture whose customs and rituals you don’t know. Just the sheer size of Mali’s family—which exemplified a religious value long handed down in Jewish tradition—was difficult to take in. Gathered there were seven brothers and sisters, several nieces and nephews, and Mali’s own two children. All of them were praying to themselves yet together, and I was lost—I had been ever since I’d arrived in Israel.
I grew up without religion, and my parents never talked about God. At ten years old, the first time I accompanied a friend to Mass, I reached out to grab a wafer from the tray being passed around, and my friend pulled my hand away, shaking her head. I felt shamed and embarrassed, like a foreigner dropped into a new country, expected to understand a new language. But though I didn’t understand this world, I could feel just enough of it to want to know it—that yearning for meaning, that hush of the sacred. During high school, I made a habit of stopping in the local California Mission on my walks home from school. I felt most comfortable when it was empty, when I could shuffle through the space and look up at the stained glass, the blue ceiling dotted with stars, unworried about whether I’d make a false move, whether someone would call me out for the imposter I was. But as soon as a worshipper walked in and anointed herself with holy water, lit a candle, or knelt and began to pray, the spell was broken. The church doors opened, light came streaming in from outside, and I was exposed, no better than a trespasser caught in the act.
I wondered, growing up, if faith is like a rudder, and the faithless spend their lives lost without it. The notion terrified me. I comforted myself with nature, the coast of California where I hiked and ran through groves of Redwoods, trees that create a silence even more deafening than that of a church or monastery. Those trees and that silence made me feel small, and in my smallness, I was free. A few years later, when I was on the cusp of 20, a close friend asked me if I believed in God, any god. It was a question I had never fully answered, for myself or anyone else.
“I guess if you held a loaded gun to my head and asked for a straight yes-or-no-answer, I’d probably tell you no,” I’d said, a little stunned by my response.
She’d looked at me with a pity that stung. “That’s so sad,” she said.
“But I believe in beauty,” I said, defensively. “I believe in this,” I said, motioning towards the Pacific Ocean we looked out on from a wooden bench. She nodded slowly, not entirely convinced. And I didn’t blame her. I wasn’t entirely convinced myself.
I went to Israel on a grant-funded trip with a class I took on religion reporting in grad school. I didn’t think the trip would answer the agnostic’s question for good, but I thought maybe it could point me in the right direction. I was, essentially, a tourist of religion. Our professor and grant-givers didn’t put it that way, but that’s what we all were, tourists in a rambling bus, schlepping ourselves from one sacred place to the next—the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of Olives, the room of the Last Supper. For most of my classmates, who were largely Christian, Jewish, or Muslim, these places actually meant something to them. But for me, none of it quite computed. I watched as women wept at the Western Wall, as worshippers leaned down and kissed, with painstaking delicacy, the stone on which Jesus’ body was cleaned after his crucifixion. And I was, to a certain extent, moved. But I always felt myself to be standing, in some way, on the edge of those moments, envious and perplexed, lost and alone among people that seemed to be rooted in something ancient, tethered, like Mali, to something larger that wasn’t mine to understand.
The theologian Karl Barth said a pastor should write a sermon with the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. This is meant to serve as a reminder that the Bible on its own isn’t meaning enough, that it should correspond to the moving, fleeting world. But I’ve always seen the other side of that saying: this changing world has something unchanging at the core of it, and without belief in it, we are only half-living, amounting to little more than ashes and dust.
Just after Mali’s mother finished her near-silent prayer at the table, one of Mali’s brothers gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then left. I looked to Mali for explanation.
“He has no appetite now,” she said. “I told him.”
I wondered if Mali’s father could sense his children’s sadness, but I had little time or space to think about this. People whose names I could not recall were shoving five kinds of pasta, seven kinds of hummus, and every beverage imaginable in my direction. I hesitantly picked up a latke off a platter with my fork.
“Please do not be shy,” Mali said. “My father says you are like family now, too.”
I knew this wasn’t true, but still, I was touched, moved in this secular space in a way I hadn’t been in any of the places I’d visited. When Mali had picked me up at the bus stop, she’d smiled and squeezed me hard as though I were an old friend she’d been waiting ages to see. I was rigid in her grasp, unsure of how to ease into this unexpected warmth. But halfway through dinner, I felt myself, finally, beginning to relax. I barely knew the words for “thank you” in Hebrew, but their generosity forced me to participate in any way I knew how, to draw on a language I’ve used wherever I’ve gone—the gestures of human kindness. In this alien setting, I smiled to Mali’s father, and he smiled back, still wincing through the pain.
After dinner, Mali and I retreated to the roof for coffee. The sky was as heavy and grey as steel, the salty ocean air whipping our hair across our faces. I was intent on finally starting the interview that had been interrupted by the celebratory meal, but she was still shaken, and she seemed incapable of following a single train of thought for very long, flitting from stories about her daughter, to her time in America, to her on again, off again flame with whom she was trying to make another go of it. It wasn’t an easy topic we were discussing to begin with—Efrat, the controversial non-profit I was reporting on, had convinced Mali not to abort her first pregnancy, an act she says she knew would’ve been wrong. The highs and lows of these topics blurred and bled into each other, and at some point, I gave up and stopped taking notes, leaving my tape recorder on but resigning myself to following the maze of her mind.
When she got back to the topic of her father again, she paused her quick-moving speech for a minute and took a sip of coffee. I thought she must be freezing in her short grey dress and little patent leather clogs, but she didn’t show it. Mali was, without question, the wild one in her family. She was observant, but she didn’t wear her devotion on her sleeve as her family did, quite literally. Her mother covered her hair, her nephew wore a tall, black hat, and her younger sister wore long, drab skirts down to her ankles.
“I keep making deals with God in my head,” she said, leaning back in the plastic chair. “I keep telling Him I’ll do anything to save him.”
I nodded. That I could understand. I’d certainly made deals in my head with someone before.
“But God doesn’t make deals,” she said.
“What does He do in situations like this?” I asked, thinking, naively, that she might actually have an answer to this question.
“I don’t know,” Mali said, looking out at the ocean, her eyes glazed and far away, as though the sea was too much to take in, an overwhelming and unknowable expanse that anyone could get lost in, whether they’ve got a God to make deals with or not.