Don’t Be Sad It’s Over… Be Glad It Happened

A crumpled up map of the city of Jerusalem. Our route from the hotel to the Tachana Rishona (First Train Station) highlighted. We overshot the Windmill by about 40 steep stairs and two kilometers – and by we, I mean me – and ended up not at all very near the Train Station. Jerusalem is a complicated city to get to know, especially for a grid-lovin’ San Francisco girl like me! The night was young, and we followed our ears to the music and laughter wafting toward us on the dark, warm wind.

bag

A ticket from the Israel Museum. If you return within three months and present the ticket from your last visit, your entry is free. I’m keeping that ticket. You never know. And their exhibits are amazing. We climbed up, down, into, around, and on top of 10,000 bamboo poles (which look as fragile as a heap of twigs) held together by nothing more than 80,000 meters of climbing rope. Big Bambu. Bigger family bonding. Amazing.

bambu

A black and red card for my favorite falafel place in Jaffa. A guide to the tunnels under the Western Wall. A pinkly pale and gray shell I found on the beach in Herzliya. The smudged, damp and crinkled remnants of our adventures gently spill out of my new, turquoise made-in-Israel bag like the fine grains of Dead Sea salt that scattered on the bathroom floor from my bathing suit this evening.

It’s almost over. And I wish it wasn’t.

Don’t be sad it’s over, I tell myself as we traipse around the market, hug my brother goodbye, watch the video montage at my son’s bar mitzvah party. Be glad it happened.

We celebrated a bar mitzvah. At the Western Wall. With more family and friends than I knew we had in Israel. We watched our kids play and love and laugh with cousins they had never met. In Hebrew they had never spoken. We went north to the Kinneret, south to the Dead Sea, rode camels, picked onions, shopped like locals, and drove like them too (it’s all about who honks first)! We ate and drank with friends from today and long ago, reconnected with family on the beach, in restaurants, the Kibbutz, their homes. They opened their arms and their hearts so big and so wide, and held the six of us closer and tighter than ever.

And we heard sirens. And found ourselves in bomb shelters. At any time of the day or night, and anywhere. We pulled the car over but didn’t know to get out. We sheltered in restaurant kitchens, protected rooms, hotel ballrooms. We heard the frightening booms of Iron Dome interceptions and saw the smoke trails in the sky when we went back outside. My cousin found a piece of shrapnel near his house.

That too appears to be over. Sixty-four beautiful lives lost in battle, thousands of children in Israel and Gaza terrified, confused, injured and worse. Six hundred tunnels destroyed. Thank G-d. The war feels like it’s over, this cease-fire has held, but anything can happen tomorrow. Or next week. Or next year.

We were questioned and blessed and thanked and hugged for being here during a war. For celebrating a bar mitzvah here during a war. A wonderfully loud and bossy woman grabbed my son in the line at Mini Israel and kissed him forcefully on the cheeks when she heard our traveling story. My boy is not a kisser. He is not a hugger. He offers me the top of his head – not even his cheek – when he says goodnight. But he hugged this stranger right back. “That you will have many blessings,” she said over and over.

I don’t want to leave. I feel closer to Israel than ever. But it’s almost over, our vacation. I laugh with the kids as they delightedly smear mud on their bodies at the lowest point on earth, and I feel low. And sad. Be glad it happened, I whisper as my eyes well. But I can’t wipe them because my hands are full of mineral-rich mud.

I am glad it happened. Not the war, of course not the war. But everything else. My children are unfazed by rockets and screaming sirens. They understand more about their heritage and their people than I wanted them to learn right now or in this way.

My fingers feel the softened, torn tickets for the cable car up Masada. We met a Torah scribe at the top, who sits amongst the ancient ruins in an air-conditioned cave behind a glass door, and scripts the Torah. With a white-feathered quill. On the finest parchment. He wrote our Hebrew names with that quill, on a scrap of that parchment, in beautifully formed letters and then blessed our family. I almost forgot to breathe.

Scribe

I’m sad it’s over… but so happy it happened. We love Israel, all of us, in ways and more than I could ever have imagined.

No Cucumbers Today

My favorite Hebrew word is melafefon. It means cucumber. An exotic-sounding, complicated, delicious mouthful of a word for such a plain and greenly simple vegetable. I try to say it as often as I can when I’m in Israel – my kids love cucumbers, so that helps. Where are the melafefonim? at the supermarket. Do you have melafefonim? at the restaurant. And today, we were supposed to pick melafefonim at the fields near Rehovot.

source: leket.org.il

source: leket.org.il

But there are no bomb shelters in open fields. No protected rooms, or walls to crouch against. The best you can do is lie down flat and cover your head with your hands. That way if the shrapnel falls it’ll hurt your hands and not your head.

Too risky. So we didn’t go.

Actually, I’m not sure if it was cucumbers we were going to pick. Perhaps it was bright tomatoes. Or green peas. Or plumply purple eggplants. We were going to pick vegetables in the hot Israeli sun as part of my son’s bar mitzvah. To give back. To do a mitzvah. We wanted to be outside, together, kids and grown-ups, littles and bigs, and harvest x number of pounds of veggies to be distributed to families in need in Israel.

But I couldn’t do it.

And I’ve been doing it all: camel riding in the desert, kayaking on the Jordan, the markets in Jaffa and Jerusalem. Not knowing if the sirens would wail in Tel Aviv or further north. They are relentless in the south. Some mornings have found us in the bomb shelter in various states of dress (or undress), and some have been eerily quiet – or maybe we just don’t hear the sirens when we’re in the sea. A week has become 20 days and 43 fallen soldiers. Terrifying cries of anti-Semitism and the most blatant anti-Israel rhetoric I thought I’d never read or watch from countries I feel scared to call home.

I’ve seen the smoke trail from Iron Dome interceptions, heard the booms as rockets hit the ground, cried for the beautifully brave soldiers we’ve lost. I’ve dragged my children to the beach – where there are no shelters, and even when they’ve had enough sun and sand, because there are too many children stuck all day in bomb shelters in areas near Gaza, where the rockets fly too frequently and the risks are not just possible, they are likely.

I’ve learnt Hebrew words I didn’t even know existed: azakah (alert), mamad (protected room), Kipat Barzel (Iron Dome).

I’ve noticed a change – subtle but definite – in the very air around me. On the beach. In the restaurants. Walking outside. The usually noisy, argumentative, full-of-life-and-love Israelis are quiet, preoccupied. Their smiles are tense and their eyes are sad. But determined. They are resolute. Strong.

I’ve been hanging on to that strength. That resolve. So happy to be here – any time and with anyone, but especially now and with my children. I’ve been determined to show them the country I love, no matter what. Determined to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah mostly the way we imagined. I’ve been hugged in an aura of love and appreciation and even slight bewilderment by Israeli family and friends who can’t believe we’re still here, but are so delighted we are. As if we’d be anywhere else.

I’ve been determined that nothing will stop us. Life continues. This is how it is here. We will celebrate, and be together, and pick cucumbers.

But I couldn’t do it.

I couldn’t ask 23 people to meet us in an open field, with no shelter nearby. I couldn’t take my own four children into a situation so obviously unsafe, where the best they could do if they heard a siren would be to lie on the earth with their hands on their heads. And pray.

I couldn’t do it, and I felt worn down. Beaten. That tenacious determination slowly draining ounce by painful ounce out of my fingertips, my mouth, my heart as I canceled our field trip with a sigh of resignation, deep disappointment, sadness. This is how it is.

“What are we doing today, Mom?” they chirped in anticipation. Big eyes, bright voices, adventurous spirits.

I lifted my chin. Took a breath. Inflated my heart.

We did not go to the fields today – but I am determined, before we return to California in August, to pick melafefonim. With my children. In Israel.

What I Never Imagined…

BoysWall

We came to Israel this summer to celebrate.

And for many other reasons too: because our kids had never been and we wanted to show them the land of their people, because we love beach vacations and no matter where you are in Israel you’re seldom further than an hour from an incredible beach, because the food is amazing (never mind the shwarma and falafel, even frozen schnitzel and french fries are delicious here – especially if you eat them on the beach!), because you can kayak down the Jordan river and ride a wobbly camel in the Judaean desert, buy fragrant spices and the freshest challah at the bustling Middle Eastern market in Jerusalem and find the most exquisite shoes at the beautiful mall just steps away, because Israel grabs you by all five of your senses and never lets go…

But mainly we came to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. He’s been practicing his Torah portion for almost a year. I’ve heard him once or twice – he doesn’t falter, never hesitates. He has spent hours with our rabbi in Oakland learning, discussing, preparing his speech and his words of Torah.

I imagined it. South African grandparents, and aunts, uncles, cousins from Herzliya, London, Florida, Johannesburg, California, friends from Oakland and Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I imagined the praying and Mazal Tov! and brunch overlooking the Old City. Shabbat dinner and then a party in Jaffa, while the sun sets into the Mediterranean and we dance and laugh and celebrate.

I imagined us all together, a gigantic family barbecue on the beach, introducing my sister to my future sister-in-law, listening to all the brothers reconnect, meeting my friends at my favorite rooftop bar in Jerusalem. I imagined tears of pride and joy and relief, laughter and singing and so many hugs and kisses on both cheeks.

But I never imagined this.

Of course. I never imagined we would celebrate during a war. I never imagined I would take shelter from an air strike in a restaurant kitchen. Or in my cousin’s house, together with his neighbors and their kids because they don’t have a bomb shelter. I never imagined my kids would know what to do when they heard a siren – but they do, and they don’t falter, never hesitate. I never imagined it was possible to receive so many messages of worry and love from every corner of the earth, every day and through the night. I never imagined I maybe wouldn’t meet my friends to watch the sun sink over the Old City, because who in their right mind would fly into a country during a potential war?

And I never imagined I would almost forget we came to Israel to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah.

Relentless rockets have been fired into Israel for seven days. Sirens wail from north to south, east to west throughout the day and long into the night. Thank G-d for those sirens, alerting every living creature to take cover, find shelter, usually within 90 seconds but sometimes less. Turn off the car if you’re driving. Move away from it quickly. Find a wall facing north or lie flat on the ground. If there’s no bomb shelter in your building, stand under the stairwell. Listen for the boom, the interception, the all clear.

Finish the surgery on the dog. Continue the soccer game in the backyard. Pay for the sunglasses, and don’t forget the tomatoes. Dinner is almost ready. Life continues.

Who could’ve imagined this? Not I, dreaming my perfect party dreams in my house in California. Not my son, singing his Torah portion over and over with the rabbi at our Oakland synagogue in preparation for his big day at the Kotel. And not our family and friends living their lives in cities and towns all over Israel, planning the summer for their children, taking care of their elderly parents, scheduling appointments and meetings.

Life continues during a war. Or maybe it continues especially during a war.

I could never have imagined we would be in Israel this summer in the midst of an almost-war. But I cannot imagine being anywhere else. Israel grabbed hold of me and every single one of my senses while I was on a family vacation 30 years ago, and has never let me go. Being here while she is under siege, while so much of the world is turning its back on her and its people, only strengthens that grip. She has never let me go, and I will never let her go.

Life continues, especially during a war. And we are here to celebrate my oldest son’s bar mitzvah. Mazal Tov!

First Five Days, Top Five Moments

Our arrival in Israel five days ago was underwhelming. And I was disappointed. My kids were tired, hungry, irritable. I was emotional.

In less than two days we had departed the foggy coast of the Pacific, crossed the Atlantic, flown over the Baltic and Black Seas, and landed on the too-sunny shores of the glittering Mediterranean. We had been awake since 3am Swedish time, which feels like bright midday all the way there up north where the sun barely sets, and were too many confused time zones away to figure out if it was dinner or breakfast or just a glass of apple juice we wanted. Or all of those. Or really just the bathroom.

But we had landed in Israel! Rally children, rally! Be excited! The place your mother calls home. Where she longs to live with you and your dad and Pretzel the dachshund, to speak Hebrew, and eat spongy pita with real hummus and those vanilla “Dani” puddings that only taste good here. Where the scent of the orange blossoms in the hot, middle-eastern air envelopes me in a nostalgic hug of sunny memories, and even the impatient bus driver who almost ran you all over with his hands in the air and not on the wheel makes me smile fondly.

But their initial response to the homeland of my dreams was muted.

It was hot. They were tired.

I wiped the tears of too-much-to-explain from my beaming cheeks, quietly listened to the song in my heart, and gently herded them through the bustle of Ben Gurion airport – only to be faced with an unmoving wall of humanity at passport control. Apparently every flight from Europe lands in Tel Aviv at the same time. Balagan. Chaos.

My wily, street-smart second boy deduced the only way to get us through this mass was to start a line of his own. And so began a series of unforgettable, and definitely unmuted, moments… and it’s only day five:

  1. “Who needs Google translate when we have Mom,” remarked same, streetwise son as I negotiated our way through the parking lot on our jetlagged, 11.30pm supermarket run that first day. My children had never heard me speak Hebrew, complete with pseudo-Israeli accent, and I think they were (mildly) impressed. That moment is up there with the time they discovered I could water-ski.
  2. My five-year-old handful of a boy, who announces every time his beach-loving family is within half a mile of an ocean that he hates the beach, cannot get enough of the Mediterranean waters and languishes in the sand on its shores. Maybe because it’s warm. Or maybe because it’s not an ocean, it’s a sea. Or maybe because it’s Israel.
  3. “Did you say thank you?” I nag at my shy daughter, as the waitress places her drink in front of her. There is no excuse for bad manners in my book. I don’t care how shy or tongue-tied they are – please and thank you always, no matter what. She looks straight at me, such sincerity in her big, green-gray eyes. “I did Mom, I said todah.” Oh. Not just “thank you.” Thank you in Hebrew. That shut me up fast.
  4. More Hebrew from my oldest who has started calling me Ima (Mom), greets us with a cheery boker tov (good morning), and orders mitz anavim (grape juice) for himself and his brother. My kids go to a public school in the U.S. and do not learn Hebrew on a daily basis like my husband and I did growing up, so to hear them use this important language of their heritage makes my heart sing with pride, joy and relief. They get it.
  5. Israelis are friendly – they want to know where we’re from, why we’re here, what we are doing. And when we tell them we’re celebrating the big one’s bar mitzvah, their delight is palpable. Whether on the beach, at the Western Wall or the spice stand in the market, they are full of good wishes for the bar mitzvah boy. Mazal Tov they yell, high-five him and shake his hand. It’s awesome. He is glowing. And growing – I think he is now taller than his mom, just in time for his bar mitzvah.

Our arrival may have been muted and underwhelming. But it didn’t take long before we were living each day in this hot, energetic, frustrating, wonderful place in full color, complete with noisy language and hand gestures. And it’s only day five.

There is family to meet (“You have too many cousins, Mom,” they grumble good-naturedly as they try to keep the branches of the family tree stick-straight in their minds), history to learn, and their entire religious and cultural heritage behind and before them.

For 13 years I have dreamed of showing my kids this place that I call home.

They each tear a page out of my notebook, and write notes of prayer and wish to place in the cracks between the gigantically smooth stones of the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem.

sageWall

I watch my daughter and sons look up at those enormous stones. I wonder what they are praying for, what they are dreaming.

I am overwhelmed. And it’s only day five.