It’s complicated. I never doubted I would one day live in Israel again. I believed so strongly that I would raise my kids in that vital country. We would have Shabbat barbecues on the beach on Friday evenings, and make family tiyulim to rich and interesting locales – places laden with Jewish culture and history and connection and meaning. We would celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel’s Day of Independence – with the entire country, and feel that we would burst with pride at the perseverance and success of the small but mighty nation. Every holiday would be infused with meaning and festivity, not because we were doing anything extra-special to celebrate, simply because we were living in the Land of Milk and Honey… My children, and I, would feel Jewish because of the very earth we stood on every day, and we would understand what that meant and never take it for granted.
But… it’s complicated.
Friday nights we celebrate Shabbat in our dining room in Piedmont, California. My daughter and I light the candles, and my oldest son says the Kiddush. His brother makes the blessing on the wine, and then all four kids hastily chirp a cacophony of out-of-sync blessings on the challah. We have brisket or crock-pot chicken, rice and salad, and it’s very traditional and enjoyable – a lovely cohesive way for a big family to end a busy week of work, school and shlepping. In the spring and summer months, we often have Shabbat dinner on the deck, watching pink, yellow-gray and fire orange streaks paint the inky-blue sky as the sun sinks into the San Francisco Bay.
It’s not a barbecue on the beach in Herzliya.
Weekends are fun – most often we go to services on Saturday mornings, reinforcing our commitment to our religion. The kids have soccer games, or birthday parties – which have been on the calendar for at least a month or more – and sometimes we have a Family Fun Day in San Francisco, or at Stinson Beach. We are not lacking for a rich and varied life! We live in a breathtakingly beautiful place, surrounded by water and expansive bridges and green rolling hills. Daily shlepping presents exquisite views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and the fog from the Pacific hanging over Twin Peaks.
But always I am searching for meaning. In the times I spend with my kids, during precious nights out with my girlfriends, or a special dinner in San Francisco with my husband. “Am I happy?” I ask myself. How would I even know happiness? It’s something you recognize retrospectively, I know. I imagine that true happiness is not accompanied by a consistent feeling of emptiness, no matter how charmed and glamorous ones life may appear to be.
I was 13 years old when my family made Aliyah from South Africa. It was a heady time for me! I took flight in Israel – where from as young as five, children could live a life of relative freedom and independence, parents safe in the knowledge that their kids would not fail to return home at the end of a day of school and friends. I would ride the bus to the beach with my friends, or go to Shuk HaCarmel in Tel Aviv with my sister. We would do the grocery shopping for my mom, and pick up my baby brother from preschool. By stark contrast, South Africa in 1988 was not a place where a teenage girl could experience any kind of independence – it was hardly safe for us to walk around the block, much less to school. By dinnertime we’d spent more of the day in the car than anywhere else.
Along with the addictive, intoxicating freedom I was high on that year in Israel was also a deep, fulfilling connection to everything around me: the air, the earth, the people, the language. I could never have articulated it at the age of 13, but I felt it. Life was spontaneous. Social plans were never made a month in advance! My parents and their friends would decide that morning to get together for an evening on the beach. My friends invited me to their birthday parties two days before. We were too busy living today to make plans for tomorrow, or next week.
When my parents decided to return to South Africa, I vowed I would go back to Israel for the army – which was what all Israeli high school graduates did. As much a rite of passage as essential to the protection of the country.
Of course, it’s complicated. I didn’t go back. I went to university in South Africa, I met a wonderful guy, and carried on with my life as a Jewish South African – still clinging to the belief that one day I would go back. I would make Aliyah again.
One weekend afternoon, my boyfriend and I were having a conversation about our future. “When we live in Israel,” I started to say, but didn’t get to finish the sentence. “Israel?” he laughed. “What will I do in Israel? Pick oranges on a kibbutz?” I didn’t see what was so outlandish about that, but to an almost Law graduate I guess it’s a pretty preposterous option!
Now there was doubt. In the glorious image I had of us happily picking oranges on a kibbutz – I didn’t even want to live on a kibbutz! – was the realization that it wasn’t about when I returned to Israel, but if.
My love for him outweighed my love for Israel.
We have visited a few times together, and each time I am physically overwhelmed by how much I belong in that country. Of course, it is idealized when it’s a vacation. When you’re staring at the Mediterranean watching the sun sink into the water from the terrace of a four star hotel, would you want to be anywhere else? I understand that is not real life. But I can never shake the inherent sense that I am my best and most complete self in Israel. Fulfilled. Happy. Present in my happiness.
My husband loves Israel too. He loves the beach, and Jerusalem, and the pulse of Tel Aviv. He loves the food, and the markets and speaking Hebrew. He feels connected to it religiously and culturally. But he doesn’t want to live there. That is my dream.
I have to let it go. As I fly west towards California, feeling Israel painfully shrink behind me, I am acutely aware that this is my reality. I have to live in it, be present in it, and somehow sustain that spirit of happiness and fulfillment I feel as soon as I breathe in the Israeli air. As I move closer towards the great Pacific I now call home, I leave my dream for now to float above my beloved Mediterranean with the kiteboarders that mesmerized me on Herzliya beach. They catch the wind every afternoon, and glide towards the sun as it inches into the clear blue water. Full of hope, and color, and life. L’hitraot.