Mercaz means center, in both Hebrew and Arabic. Four years or an eternity ago, I delighted in my one college semester of Arabic granting me access to a third alphabet while on Birthright. My fellow Arabic-taking-friend Alyssa and I pronounced the words that appeared on signs phonetically, slowly: mmmmerrr-caaaaz. Fifteen weeks of vocabulary was more than nothing. Medd-eeee-na. (City.)
At Kibbutz Ketura, our Mercaz is a building, located in between the basketball court and the dining hall. It holds two small rooms, a larger main room and an ark containing the scrolls of the Torah. Depending on what holiday it is, how much sunlight is in the sky and which people fill its space, the Mercaz reinvents itself to fit a designated meaning.
Every time I step through the doors of the Mercaz, I walk into something new. Wednesdays are the days I TA for the Climate Change class, assessing the composition of gases in the atmosphere. During those mornings, we arrange the black chairs horizontally behind tables to mimic a classroom. On Tuesday afternoons, twisted, difficult questions about the Conflict float in my chest: it is our Peace Building and Leadership Seminar. Is Judaism dying in the world or in Israel? Who has the right to be more angry or afraid or nationalistic? What does Zionism mean to me now? The fifty of us at the Arava Institute create a circle with our bodies, the desks pushed against the wall to make room for all those chairs, and we face each other.
A gaggle of high schoolers in music camp came to Ketura for two weeks. They practiced just beyond the paper-thin walls of my office, interspersing my hours of journal articles with twenty-minute interruptions of orchestral noise. All that sound culminated into a concert in the Mercaz when the camp was done, the noise transforming into something pure. I watched a 16-year-old boy hold a saxophone like it was the answer to some of the questions I was holding. Then, I left the room and forgot my dizzy feeling, the saxophonist’s face or any of the solutions inside of his jazz.
At its core, this way of small living rests on the need to retrace steps. To return again and again to the very same spot and experience it anew. There is only so much space here. Only so many ways for people to interact with one another.
Ofer, my friend fluent in Hebrew, gifted me with more interpretations. He described his years in an urban kibbutz, a kibbutz ironi. Small groups of people live together in an apartment and share resources collectively, modeling the initial idea of the kibbutz without the rural component. When I asked who ultimately makes the decisions about finances and the direction of the group, he brought up the word mercaz again.
“A person becomes a center, a core. Whoever is most interested in leading things or is the most charismatic is the mercaz. This is beautiful because it is equal. You do not have to be the wealthiest or the best looking or the smartest. You just have to care the most. People will follow. You will become, in time, the eye of the storm.”
Learning about the urban kibbutz lifestyle was admittedly difficult for me. I could not understand how a life centered around a small community could provide a person with enough joy or enough fulfillment. Sometimes, living on Kibbutz Ketura, I struggle with the concept as it relates to my daily life. So, Ofer handed me another definition, another expanded meaning. The Hebrew word, meushar, which is linguistically related to kosher, is a synonym for happy. On his kibbutz ironi there was not just a sense of happiness in a basic sense, but also a deeper way of living that conveyed justice and peace. Meushar.
In truth, I always thought the definition of joy and fulfillment could not possibly converge. There are the times in my life when I feel the most relaxed and the most conventionally happy. They usually exist in the summer, during the long lazy days filledwith pages of fiction and circling conversations. The feeling of idleness is pleasant but not always satisfying. On the other hand, I draw out sources of significance from my professional life, my extracurriculars and my academics. I see my personal pursuit of happiness not as meushar, that elusive mix of joy and fulfillment, but a delicate balancing act between opposites, like summer and winter, peanut butter and jelly, day and night,.
These last few weeks, I kept searching for new dictionary entries to the same words because I believe that they will lead me to something. The other weekend, I visited Jerusalem for the third time. Jerusalem was, is and will be a Mercaz in innumerable ways. While there, I stayed with the brilliant people in the Achvat Amim program.
In Jerusalem, I saw three stages of my life: visiting the city at the end of my time in Jewish Day School, the beginning of college and this. Here. I slept outside to commemorate Sukkot but could not bring myself to go up to the Western Wall again, so I stared at it and a corner of the golden dome through iron grates, from a safe spiritual distance.
Multiple meanings could mean that paragraphs and places and journeys get lost in translation. Yet I like to think that these constant elements of my life, as they enunciate a third, fourth and fifth definition are merely gaining broader shape, encompassing more clarity instead of confusion.