A Walk in the City
Fri, 03/06/2009

The Lord appeared to him and said: “Do not go down to Egypt. Stay in the land that I shall say to you. Sojourn in this land so that I may be with you and bless you….”
— Genesis 26.2-3

Isaac is the only patriarch who does not leave the Land of Israel. Abraham and Jacob both go to Egypt, but when famine strikes in his lifetime, God says to stay put.

Rashi, quoting the midrash, attributes God’s instruction to the Akedah, the binding of Isaac: Isaac is an offering, an olah temimah, that may not leave the Holy Land. Even so, the geographic restriction seems of a piece with Isaac’s nature, as if having boundaries engendered a deep inwardness.
No one commanded me to settle where I was raised, but I have spent most of my life on the same swath of Manhattan, within sight of my parents’ tent. This fact combines a stunning lack of originality with good fortune, and I know it is my blessing to walk the same city blocks with my children that my parents walked with me.

I can measure out my life with city blocks. Recently, a spanking-new condominium replaced the bagel store where I used to take my toddler to fill long mornings, sipping coffee and milk. We would watch with excitement as grocery trucks unloaded our favorite foods and children hurried past on their way to school. I watch my son on that corner, now one of the hurrying children, backpack wagging behind like a puppy’s tail. “As usual in New York,” writes James Merrill, in a poem that begins with demolition of a building on his block, “everything is torn down before you have had time to care for it.” Well, yes and no.

Perhaps I like liturgy so much, particularly the cycle of Torah readings, because they are the blocks that measure out and build Jewish life. We walk through them over and over, happy to see familiar landmarks, pushed to find verses where we can linger with our coffee and milk.

There is evidence in Torah that Isaac was someone who liked to linger. The sages associate this quality with prayer. They credit him with originating the service of Mincha because he would go to the field toward evening to — choose your translation — walk, supplicate, meditate or stroll. No one word captures the combination of motion and stillness, restlessness and contemplation that the verse suggests to me.

One Shabbat morning in 2005, I lingered in Manhattan’s field, Central Park, as Christo unfurled The Gates. The frames of orange fabric formed a bright, pulsing chupah spreading out in all directions. The park was transformed, and also familiar: the world moving fast, and everything at peace. The paths we know still hold out frontiers, new gates to enter. Even if they are not in the Holy Land, we pass through them into glowing moments that feel holy.

Lizzie Leiman Kraiem is executive director of JFEW: Jewish Foundation for Education of Women.

PQ: No one commanded me to settle where I was raised, but I have spent most of my life on the same swath of Manhattan, within sight of my parents’ tent.