The Journey

ZakBM

Six duffel bags lay waiting at the front door, most already zipped shut and sealed. Like six enthusiastic but well-behaved children, the slick gray canvas and blue trim of each shone quietly and excitedly, ready to go. One remained open, just in case. I spied a beloved stuffed animal squashed into a corner, and the sleeve of the raggedy t-shirt I told him not to pack peeked out from a pile of socks. That looked like way too many socks.

“Can I close this?” My husband was ready to go too. I knew he was anxious about transporting the six of us and all our luggage across the world. So was I. Not for the first time, I wondered if it was worth it.

The flight was long, 15 hours, and even though one of the best things to happen to the Bay Area is the now direct flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, it felt like we had embarked on an endless and strangely unknown journey. Suddenly I wasn’t at all sure we were doing the right thing.

We were en route to Israel to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah. He had spent most Mondays over the past year preparing for this important day, learning how to sing his Torah portion and delving into its meaning with the rabbi. Like all bar mitzvah boys, he had worked hard at mastering the trop and understanding what it meant to reach this milestone, and I knew he was both excited and nervous.

As was I. From afar, we had planned what we hoped would be a special celebration at the Kotel in Jerusalem, but of course we had no idea if anything would work out as planned! What if we couldn’t find a Torah that morning? There are dozens of bar mitzvahs celebrated at the Kotel every Thursday, what if we couldn’t find a good spot? What if our friends and family couldn’t find us? And this winter was a particularly wet one in Israel – what if it rained?

As we dragged our bags along the wet sidewalk to the line of taxis at Ben Gurion Airport, I fleetingly wondered if perhaps we should’ve done this at home in California…

The sky that morning was bright and blue, and the absence of clouds meant that the air was cold and brisk. I shivered in my jacket and my cousin wrapped her scarf around my neck. We stood together and watched the bar mitzvah boy recite the blessing before reading the Torah. His father and grandfather stood proudly on either side of him, as if to guide him along this spiritual journey, and uncles, cousins and friends surrounded him in a circle of warmth and love. The fringes of his tallit (prayer shawl) waved gently in the wind, and behind him the Western Wall rose large and impressive, as it has for thousands of years – an enduring testament to our customs, traditions and beliefs.

I tore my eyes away from my boy for a few minutes, and watched the celebrations happening around us. I counted at least five bar mitzvahs near us, and a large group of young girls danced in a circle close to the wall. I spied a chuppah procession slowly making its way along the plaza above us. Tears, laughter, and jubilant cries of “Mazal tov” filled the cool air, and through the noise I heard my son’s now low voice singing the end of his Torah portion.

“Mazal tov!” we clapped and yelled as we showered him with candy and wishes of love and happiness. My mother and sister kissed me, aunts and cousins hugged me, and complete strangers joined our festivities and wished us and our man of honor well. Holding the Torah firmly in his arms, my son looked up at me, his brown eyes shining in the bright, winter sun. He stood there below the Kotel, handsome and proud, now a Jewish man part of a great, worldwide Jewish community.

The journey from the East Bay to Jerusalem and back again is a long one. As we trudged up the stairs to our front door, lugging bags filled with Wissotzky tea, Israeli za’atar and halva from the Carmel market, I remembered my apprehension at the beginning of our trip. How I had worried about the weather and the flight and what had we forgotten and what if everything didn’t go according to plan?

What I hadn’t planned was the tremendous connection we all felt as we stood at the Kotel on that cold, sunny Thursday: connection to each other, to our history, to the land of our people, and to all the hundreds and thousands of Jewish people celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, togetherness, not only at the Kotel on that day but every day around the world. More than worth it.

A version of this essay first appeared on J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt is “The places I belong are…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Hillary Savoie of http://hillarysavoie.com/

Number 31

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Alcatraz Swim for Sight, October 23 2016 image: http://www.sfgate.com

The helpful young woman wore a headlamp and a big smile as she wrote on the back of my hand in thick black permanent marker. 31. She wrote it on both of my hands. And then she handed me a goody bag containing a cap and ear plugs and waved me on into the early-morning darkness with a cheery and very heartfelt “good luck.” I stumbled over a rock and swallowed. I’d come this far.

I stared down at the numbers inked onto my hands. I doubted my own ability to withstand the next couple hours, so my confidence in the staying power of a few black marks on my skin was tenuous. Even if it was a Sharpie. I have bony hands, and skinny fingers. My grandmother’s hands. The contours of the “3” hugged the veins, which seemed to pulse with nervousness even in the dark dawn. How will they know it’s me when they pull me out, if those inky numbers are gone from my hands? My heart was playing tricks on me. I took a breath of cool morning air, and noticed the sky already light. I turned east, toward the rising sun and looked out across the Bay. There it was.

Alcatraz.

It didn’t look so far away. Now my eyes were playing tricks on me too. Because it was. Far away. It was a whole two miles far away.

I’d never swum that far before. Suddenly I couldn’t wait for it to be over, one way or another.

***

The water was cold, some might say freezing although I know it doesn’t get below 55 these days. My toes and arms, the parts of me not swathed in neoprene, tingled and then went numb. Sometimes not feeling is the only way to get through it. I turned my head to breathe and caught a glimpse of the numbers on my hand. Here we go, 31.

The water was rough, and the waves were real. They were big and powerful and nothing like the swells I had been swimming through while training. It took me a few minutes and several mouthfuls of salty Bay water to realize I had to turn more than just my head to take an unobstructed breath. How is it no matter how long and how hard we train, no matter how many protein shakes we drink, no matter how much we think about it and talk about it and reassure ourselves there are no sharks in the Bay this year and the odds of being attacked by one are practically zero, no matter how prepared we think we are, we really aren’t? Because there are forces and wild elements much bigger than we can imagine out there, and when you’re floating somewhere between the world’s most famous prison and an elusive, misty shoreline the only thing to do is go with the current and keep. moving. forward.

Admittedly I wasn’t that prepared. I didn’t train as much as I should have, and I didn’t drink a protein shake after every swim. Often I opted for the pool instead of a session in the Bay, and sometimes I did neither. But, I told myself, I had swum from Alcatraz before and I knew what to expect and if nothing else, I had a wetsuit to keep me buoyant and goggles that didn’t leak and a strong freestyle stroke. And it wasn’t a race. It was a fundraiser for a cause I care deeply about, and it was a test of endurance and a chance to push myself into an uncomfortable place.

Kick, stroke, breathe. Kick, stroke, breathe.

There was nobody in the Bay but us. No early morning sailboats, no ferries full of tourists heading to Sausalito and no fishermen anticipating a good catch. There were no cruise or cargo ships gliding toward the San Francisco shore after a journey across the great Pacific. There was only us, one hundred swimmers in bright green caps with numbers on our hands. Kicking, breathing, pulling ourselves toward the shore. Picture-perfect San Francisco gleamed gently in the still-early light. Our beacon, the Palace of Fine Arts, stately and beautiful and still so far away. The sky was clear, and on my right the Golden Gate Bridge loomed large and distinctly red. International Orange, they call it.

I stopped kicking. Stopped swimming. Let my wetsuit hold me afloat in the middle of the famous Bay. Mermaid Bay, my daughter says. And it was magical.

My hands hit the shallow shore first. I planted my feet in the wet sand and moved forward almost on all fours before I unfurled from the water, hands in the air and every muscle in my face and body exhausted. “Don’t let me do this again,” I gasped to my husband as he wrapped his warm arms around my already shivering body. He smiled.

It took many hot showers and more than a few days for number 31 to fade from my hands. And my unique perspective of the Bay will stay with me forever.

‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, where writers and bloggers gather together to share their versions of a completed sentence. This week’s prompt was, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

Made In America

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Summertime temperatures rise above 100 degrees in some parts, but not in June in San Francisco. In San Francisco the thick fog swirls up and down the windy streets, gray mist clings to early-morning eyelashes and to painted doors of old Victorians. The cable cars clang their way up the steep inclines above Fisherman’s Wharf, and if we listen closely we can hear the cruise ships sail into the Bay underneath the Golden Gate, their foghorns blaring through the cool morning air.

Our first summer in San Francisco.

Eighteen years ago.

We arrived on a typically foggy day in June – June 9 – although perhaps by the time we cleared customs and claimed our luggage the California sun had already chased away the fog, except for a few wispy clouds clinging stubbornly to the San Bruno hills. How amazing to know the great Pacific thrashed wildly, just beyond those hills. Half a world from where we had come. An L1/L2 visa, one suitcase and a backpack each. We always travel light. Even for this trip that would last the rest of our lives.

The details of that first day in our new home, exactly 18 years ago, are shrouded in a faint fog of lapsed memory, overwhelming emotions, and the self-absorbed obliviousness of the very young. I was 24 years and three weeks on that first day of the rest of our lives, and besides my almost-as-young husband (he was 25… at least one of us could rent a car!), I brought with me from South Africa no awareness whatsoever of real life in the United States. Everything I knew about America I learned from “Dallas.” Now it was 1998. It had been a long time since anyone cared who shot JR.

I don’t remember much of that first day, those first weeks, because I was too young to know to remember. Too young to pay attention to the details, to note the immigration officer who checked my visa and stamped my passport, to clearly remember what we ate, what we spoke about, how we felt. What I remember are sounds, images, smells that roll across my brain like the opening scenes on the big screen: the impressive San Francisco skyline, which now looks nothing like it did then; the afternoon wind that blew the fog back over the hilly city that day (my first indication that I would always need an extra layer no matter what); the clang of the cable cars as we maneuvered our way through the city to our shingled apartment building on Post Street. Every great adventure should have a memorable soundtrack.

Eighteen years is a long time. It’s a lifecycle. The time it takes for a human to grow, develop and hopefully mature into what is considered a legal adult in most countries. Still too young to drink or rent a car in the U.S., American 18-year-olds can vote, join the army and are responsible for all their own decisions.

It is no coincidence then that during the last 18 years away from the country of my birth, I have grown, matured and learned to pay way more attention, in the country that has become my home:

In Gap jeans and a T-shirt, it’s easy to pass as an American, but what has always defined me as other is my accent. I hang on to it with pride and tenacity – along with my mother’s hot water bottle and my grandmother’s recipe for fish balls, it’s one of the few things I have left of my heritage. But early on I realized not everyone could understand my not-Australian-not-British-not-New-Zealand accent, and since mutual communication is key to forming new relationships, I learned to soften my t’s, roll my r’s, change my inflections and even my vocabulary. As any creature in nature knows, adaption is essential to survival.

While it took only a few days to say trunk instead of boot and to use miles instead of kilometers, American sports eluded me for years. Where I come from we play cricket not baseball, rugby is our national sport, and there is no NBA, NHL, or NFL. It took at least a decade and my own sports-playing kids for me to appreciate and understand the nation’s total obsession with real American sports (Go Warriors!). It’s my oldest who plays that most essentially American game, football, and from him I have learnt the value of participation, commitment, competition, and risk. He shows up for practice every weekday because that is what the team expects, and what he has come to expect of himself. On game days, he pads up, with mouth guard and helmet, and jogs onto the field where there is even greater expectation, and the risk of being hurt or worse. Every time he does that my heart stills in my chest and I hold my breath until his playtime is up, and then the air rushes back into my lungs. And every time he does that he teaches me what it means to put yourself out there, to take a chance with something unfamiliar, to be brave. It means you grow.

And of course it is here, in the U.S. of A. that I stumbled upon my first pair of red boots, and so began my deep love of country music and my exploration of the art of storytelling right here on RedBoots – because what is a country song if not a beautifully descriptive and very dramatic way of telling a story? All the elements of high drama complete with melody: small town, big truck, complicated relationship, whiskey, stolen kisses. American country music and my red cowboy boots helped me find my way to my own stories, and to a home for those stories. If there’s one accent I would trade my own for, it’s that deep Southern drawl!

Eighteen years. Indeed a lifecycle. In this time and in this country, I have become a wife, a mom four times over, a daughter who lives far away, a Warriors fan, a country music lover, a swimmer, a writer. Mostly though I have become someone I was always supposed to be: myself.

With tremendous gratitude to Linda Schreyer and her beautifully evocative prompts on “Home,” and to my dear friends Joanne Hartman and Annelies Zijderveld for helping me find a way in.

My Childhood Home

Our smiles are as broad as the streets we amble down this sunny morning. They aren’t streets really. They are wide walkways, closed to traffic, and paved in perfectly uneven brick. Cobbled, except easier on the legs.

The spring sun warms our bare arms, and the tall palm trees that line every street in Los Angeles sway almost imperceptibly. It’s only when we stop moving that I feel a faint chill, so quiet under that happy yellow air I almost don’t notice it.

The bright busy stores beckon on the right, and on the left the farmer’s market lures us closer, promising fresh, tasty, fragrant… I am distracted by an exquisite array of tiny succulents, and gaze with pleasure at the rows of miniature gardens, green and orange and pink perfectly contained in glass spheres of every size. Safe and happy.

“I don’t know where he is? Wasn’t he with you?”

The words come to me slowly, muted, muffled even at first. They take a long time to reach me as I stand in the sun, and even longer to register in my brain, and finally my heart.

“Where is he?” Raised voices. Something like panic. I am anxious, and confused. Who are they talking about?

“Nicki. Nicki! Where’s Jed?”

“Jed? What? Why?” He was right… there. No, no… there. I know I saw him, newly seven and so curious, just a minute ago. Before the succulents. Long before. Many, many minutes before. Shit.

The chill is no longer faint. It is absolutely unavoidable. The blood freezes in my veins, and even as I spin around in actual circles convinced I will spot him any second, I wonder what will happen to our family without him in it. Who will we be? How will we be? WHERE IS HE?

Lost. He is lost.

There. Behind the palm tree. Doing ninja moves, or following a bug.

“He’s there he’s there. Jed. Jed!”

“Mom, I’m hungry. Look what I found. Is this a spider? And look, look Mom. I can jump from all the way up here. Look.”

My frozen heart resumes beating. The fine hairs on my arms relax. I hold his little hand in mine and turn my face up to the sun. I see the palm trees sway a little. We walk, all of us close together, down the cobbled street. Safe and happy.

***

Coastal Seascape With Red And White Lighthouse

Umhlanga Rocks, South Africa. photo: http://www.decharmoy.co.za

The Indian Ocean has always been my favorite. The waves are big and the water is warm, and it’s where I first learned how to swim in an ocean. My dad taught me: if the wave has already broken, hold your breath and go under. But for the ultimate thrill, jump up to meet it, before it breaks, and ride the swell. I stayed in for hours. Often I miscalculated and was dumped in a froth of saltwater and sand. Once I lost my swimsuit. I love swimming in the ocean.

It’s been a long time since I’ve swum in that ocean.

So many summers were spent on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The long eight-hour drive from our landlocked town, usually through the night so that we wouldn’t waste our first day of vacation, was generously rewarded with the first dazzling glimpse of the sea as we drove down the hill, so blue it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the water started. And the lighthouse. White and red and ever-present on the jagged rocks.

My mom made sandwiches with cold cuts and soft white rolls, and my dad developed asthma from running in the humid coastal air. Our striped umbrella was mostly easy to find in the throng, and we knew to find a landmark or two so that we could head in the right direction when the rough waves eventually tired us out. We used the lighthouse to gauge how far we were from where we should be . Often we vacationed with friends from home, and my sister was with me always.

We were young, barely eight-years-old, and while my blissful childhood memories are of hours of unsupervised ocean swimming and play, my rational parent brain knows that can’t be true. Eighties life was safer and simpler, and even more so during the hot South African summer at the beach, but there must have been a vigilance cast toward us that we were happily unaware of as we frolicked in the waves and munched our sandwiches on towels laid carefully on the sand.

My friend taught me to jump over the little waves as they broke at the shoreline. We held hands and shrieked as the water nipped at our ankles and we teased the frothy water as it crept back and forth back and forth. She dropped my hand, and headed back to the striped umbrella. Maybe she yelled over her shoulder that she was tired and was going back.

Maybe not.

Suddenly I was alone with the whole of the wild Indian Ocean before me, and it was no longer fun to jump over the waves. I was scared. I walked toward the striped umbrella but it was gone. Or maybe it was somewhere else. The colorful, busy beach I loved turned cold and unfamiliar. I walked and walked and wondered if anyone knew what I knew: I was lost.

What if I never found them? Who would I be? How would I be?

The waves continued to nip at my ankles and I think I was lost for a very long time. But perhaps it was only a few minutes. Someone found me wandering on the beach, and I was reunited with my parents and my sister.

Safe again. And happy.

Inspired by the prompt “My Childhood Home” by Linda Schreyer.