Our Hearts Are Full, And They Are Heavy

The baggage claim at Oakland Airport hums with quiet anticipation this seemingly uneventful morning. A small group of parents chats casually as they cross and uncross their arms. Every now and then we glance toward the escalator. We’re waiting.

Waiting for the flight to land. For the luggage to come out. For the kids to sail down the escalator, with backpacks and smiles and stories of new friends, loud songs and whose team won the color war. From the moment they left for Camp Ramah weeks before, we have looked forward to this day.

My heart beats a little faster. Nervous. I am not ready.

It’s been a wonderfully long, hot and adventurous summer and this day, which brings the kids and endless loads of laundry home from camp (will the socks ever be white again?), signals the almost-end. Emails bursting with back-to-school info already flood my inbox. She needs a new backpack, he has outgrown his shorts, and I wish we had all read more books.

I am not ready for school to start, I am not ready for summer to be over, and I am not ready for my daughter and two sons to come down that escalator. I am not ready to pierce their happy, anticipating balloon of home-at-last with my sharp and distressing news.

The hum at the foot of the escalator swells to applause and cheers. They’re home! My now sixth-grader leads the way, his feet barely touching the ground. He must have leapt over that short flight of moving steps, because suddenly he is in my arms, all bony elbows and shoulders, and I notice I don’t have to bend down to hug him.

“Hi Mom. I had a great time! What’s for dinner?”

I laugh and blink back tears of relief and delight, burying my news with its jagged edge under layers of bubbling chatter about his overnight trip and new Hebrew words and which day was the best day.

They have two big duffel bags each, and I wonder if they have come home with more than they left with.

Outside, I am distracted by a plane taking off loudly above us. When I look back down, everything has changed. The bags are scattered on the ground, lifeless and forgotten. Their tears and grief-stricken faces tell me everything.

“He was so old, guys,” I hear my husband say over and over, as he holds them close.

It’s been a week since our beloved dachshund, Pretzel, passed away. These three who were at camp have just heard the news. The air rushes out of their homecoming happiness with an audible pop.

He died an old and happy dog, but none of us were ready.

They are quiet on the drive home, each lost in memories of the silly little dog who was part of their whole lives. Their teen and tween imaginations did not allow for the possibility that their last goodbye was the last goodbye. They could not imagine he wouldn’t welcome them home with licks and a frantically wagging tail. That he wouldn’t sniff their dirty socks for clues of their adventures or curl himself into his signature pretzel right next to them on the couch.

I knew which one would feel this the most. He flew into my arms at the airport and now his mournful cries pull my heart apart, and I know his is in pieces, too. His eyes shine deep and brown with bewildered tears of hurt and confusion. He sobs on and off all day, caught between the happiness of home and the devastating finality of loss.

I want to help him hurt less. I haltingly assure him things I don’t know for sure: that Pretzel wasn’t in pain when he died, that his last thoughts were of his human brothers and sister, that he is so happy we are all together again at the end of this wandering summer. I want to believe these things myself.

But all I really know for sure is that we were not ready, and it is an unavoidable truth that hello and goodbye are always intertwined.

Pretzel: 3/16/2000 - 8/3/2001

Pretzel: 3/16/2000 – 8/3/2015

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in the J. the Jewish News Weekly 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 was, “What I’ll miss about summer…” Hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, and co-hosted by Lisa (this week’s sentence thinker-upper) of Flingo and Allie of The Latchkey Mom.

What I Never Imagined…


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!

Remembering Madiba

I couldn’t take my eyes off the blonde woman in the pink sweater, as she swayed to and fro with a tender smile on her face, singing to the cute little black girl she held in her arms. In the midst of a huge crowd, she was oblivious to the cameras as she sang, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela” in tribute to one of the greatest human beings our world has ever seen.

This was CNN’s coverage, live from Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday, December 5, minutes after the announcement that the beloved leader had passed. At 1am South Africa time, while my father-in-law drove to Mandela’s home and joined the crowds gathered to celebrate this exceptional man, I was watching from the floor of my bedroom, thousands of miles away in California.

And as I continued to watch CNN over the next few days, and read the tweets from media in the US, South Africa, Israel, as I refreshed my Facebook feed and liked friends’ status updates when they changed their profile pictures to smiling faces of Madiba, paid him their respects, shared their favorite Mandela quotes and tribute videos, I realized how far away from South Africa, from Mandela’s South Africa, I really was.

I think of myself as a small-town girl, from Pretoria. In truth, Pretoria is a big city. Thirty miles north of Johannesburg, it’s the national capital, home to the Union Buildings where presidents, including Mandela, are inaugurated and where most government business is conducted. A couple million people live in Pretoria. It has its own university – the University of Pretoria – and its own rugby team – the Blue Bulls. Theaters, schools, shopping centers, restaurants, green leafy suburbs, a bustling central business district, hospitals. There is nothing small-town about it.

Except in the way I grew up – white, Jewish, privileged, sheltered.

My world – and the world of most of the Jewish families living in Pretoria in the eighties – was limited both physically and socially to the suburbs surrounding our Jewish day school and synagogue, with weekend drives to nearby Johannesburg and the Vaal River. Pretty small-town.

Pretoria’s Jewish community was, and still is, largely comprised of anti-apartheid Jews, many of whom were the children and grandchildren of Holocaust and World War 2 survivors – if not survivors themselves – who had emigrated to South Africa from Lithuania, Russia, Germany, Poland. Well-versed in what it means to be discriminated against, oppressed, hated. They were not supportive of a government that perpetuated the same abhorrent schisms.

Fewer Jews settled in Pretoria than in Jo’burg, and the community I grew up in was tight-knit and protective. Seen through my young eyes, it was idyllic despite the apartheid happening around me.

Most white kids growing up in South Africa in the eighties understood apartheid – perhaps not in detail, but we all had a strong sense of the segregation, discrimination and oppression happening around us. It was a part of our lives: our housekeepers were mandated to carry identity passbooks with them wherever they went – if they were questioned by police and didn’t have their passbook they were arrested. There were green buses for white people and red buses for black people. Park benches and public toilets had signs bolted on: “Net Blanke – Only Whites” (in Afrikaans and English, not in any other language). The economic and social divide between blacks and whites was enormous, gaping, seemingly unbridgeable.

Some of us knew better than others who Nelson Mandela was, and why he had been in prison on Robben Island for over two decades. For me, a fifth grader in a small Jewish day school in Pretoria, Mandela represented all those millions of people who didn’t have what I had, who couldn’t do what I could. But to my sheltered, young self he was elusive, a name and a face standing for the struggle of the oppressed.

As I moved through high school, the more mature me began to properly understand the tension of the country we were living in. While I’d never known anything other than apartheid, I started to long for the injustice to end. F.W. De Klerk was now president and with the dawn of a new decade, Nelson Mandela was released.

My sheltered world opened up a little. Our high school drama club staged an award-winning play written by our English teacher called The Non-Musical Human Rights Take it or Leave it Children-of-the-Rainbow Part 2. It poignantly tackled themes of censorship, oppression, human rights and ultimately the creation of a “Rainbow Nation.” I was 15-years-old – I had never really thought about any of this before, even though it was what I grew up with.

The arts in South Africa vibrantly exploded when Mandela walked free. The Rainbow Nation he was creating found true expression in living color on stage, in writings, TV, paintings, comedy shows, music – all reflecting the euphoria we could feel in the land. It was a time of hope and possibility. Mandela’s smiling face was everywhere – he amazingly harbored no grudge, no blame, he was committed to moving forward, to replacing the hate and segregation with love and reconciliation. That gaping divide was already smaller.

I was in my final year of university when I voted in South Africa’s first democratic election. I stood in line with my sister outside the Great Hall at Rhodes University, together with all the men and women that cleaned and maintained those beautiful old buildings, that cooked for us and joked with us when they served our food, or swept out the lecture halls after class. I can’t even begin to imagine what they thought and felt about finally having basic human rights returned to them, but I was overwhelmed with gratitude that it was happening, and that I was there.



My most vivid memory of a unified, free South Africa is watching the Springboks win the rugby world cup in 1995. Nothing short of spectacular! For me, that victory epitomized what Madiba had achieved for the country – using a national sport historically played by white Afrikaners, loved by the very people who tried to keep him silent and locked away, to build a bridge across a gaping divide. Mandela wearing the Springbok colors of green and gold with that smile that lights up the world is a powerful reminder of his belief that if people can learn to hate “they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

I never really lived in Mandela’s South Africa. I left four years after that election. I was barely a part of the rainbow nation. I sit in my car outside the supermarket in Oakland, watching the Soweto Choir in Woolworths sing the sweetest, most moving tribute to their Tata Madiba, on YouTube, with tears in my eyes and a smile on my face, and I feel very, very far away.

My daughter takes the photograph of her father shaking Mandela’s hand up to her room, just to look at it for a little while. And even though I am far away, I am South African, and I am humbled by the magnitude of the legacy of this tremendous human being, and so grateful for his tireless struggle for a better, equal life for all South Africans and for humankind.

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” -Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk to Freedom

Innovation? Nah… Tradition

Split families are all the rage in Jewish Bay Area, California. It’s rare to meet anyone who is “born and bred” San Francisco/Oakland. Most of our friends grew up somewhere else in the United States: Cherry Hill, Los Angeles, Baltimore. We’re the token South Africans, but we feel at home because we’re all transplants. The Golden State tempted us all west with the lure of exciting opportunity, entrepreneurship and innovation. The white sailboats decorating the blue of the beautiful Bay, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, the enticing hilly streets of San Francisco are an exquisite added bonus for those of us who have chosen to make our home here – even with the swirling fog that forces us to wear fleece hoodies and Patagonia jackets in June and July.

But maintaining communiy without family is challenging for breakaway entrepreneurs. Extended generational families bring history, stability and tradition to Jewish life. Grandma makes challah every Shabbat, this uncle’s homemade chopped liver is at every holiday meal, the cousins always do a play on Channukah.

Growing up, my family would have Shabbat every week with my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Every week. For the first 24 years of my life, that’s where I would be on a Friday night. The location would rotate between my grandmother, mother and aunt. Sometimes friends would join, but the core remained the same – Family. My father would sing the Kiddush in his distinct gravelly voice, the melody as cozy to me as my favorite sweatshirt. Nobody else ever said Kiddush. My brother and cousin would say Hamotzi – sometimes engaging in an irreverent competition to either be in sync or see who could finish first. We would look forward to a different desert at my aunt’s house (marshmallow pudding or youngberry tart), or to my grandmother’s minestrone soup (we never had minestrone soup at home: my mother – ambassador of raw, firm vegetables – hates tomatoes stewed, souped or sauced).

We loved being together – talking, laughing, gossiping, arguing. It got better as I got older and could actively participate in conversation – when I went away to college that family Shabbat tradition of familiar togetherness was something I craved and longed for. And then I abandoned it completely when I moved to San Francisco, joining the many other transient Bay Area Jews who left their families and traditions behind.

We’ve become each other’s families in our community across the Bay – we spend Shabbat and holidays together, we shlep each other’s kids, picking up essentials for this one at the butcher and that one at Costco. And we are the innovators of new traditions.

My family has recreated the Shabbat from my life in South Africa – some weeks it’s just the six of us, but most often we have parts of our Bay Area Family over. And we always use our Kiddush Fountain. Made from plated silver, with intricate patterns of vines and grapes, it’s beautiful to look at. The Kiddush cup stands on an elevated piece in the center of a tray, and eight little cups form a perfect circle around it – a tight ring of tiny mouths waiting to swallow the blessed grape juice that is poured through. The best part is that you can see the eight little rivers of grape juice flowing through the silver riverbeds and into the waiting cups. It’s Shabbat entertainment. We feel a tiny thrill of pleasure as the rivers flow, and the guests murmur “oooh.”

In this new iteration of Shabbat tradition, my oldest son says the Kiddush. He doesn’t sing it like my father does, but he has his own unassuming rhythm that has made it as comfortingly familiar as my dad’s. He pours the grape juice into the Kiddush Fountain, making sure the cups are perfectly aligned under each riverbed, or else the dark purple juice will miss the cup and pool onto the tray.


The Fountain is made in Israel but doesn’t come to us from there. It’s from the Judaica store at the Jewish senior home in Pretoria, South Africa, and my parents gave it to us on one of their many visits to California – they always feel they need to bring more than themselves.

Because my biological family is scattered over the Earth – parents, brother and in-laws in South Africa, brothers-in-law in Miami and London – when the grandparents or uncles come to visit, it’s an event! It’s not for three days, or just for Rosh Hashana, or the last days of Sukkot. It’s to make up for all the time since we had Shabbat together a year ago, the last time my mother made her chicken soup and we heard my father sing the Kiddush. In addition to the Jelly Babies and Woolies pajamas, gifts include challah covers, handpainted matza boxes, the perfect white Shabbat tablecloth.

Of course, we use all of it every Shabbat and holiday – that’s why they shlep it. We think of them, and we miss them, and we wish we were celebrating all together with our historic traditions. And sometimes they are with us on Rosh Hashana or Pesach, and they see how seamlessly their gifts of Judaica have been incorporated into our lives and are part of our creative new traditions.

Shabbat in the East Bay two weeks ago was a family fiesta – three families plus ours. Nine adults, and millions of kids of all ages. It was loud and festive, there were tacos and chicken soup, beer and guacamole, lemonade spilled on the carpet, and we finished a gigantic bottle of gin. We didn’t know it at the time, but we lost one of the tiny cups from the Kiddush Fountain. I’m pretty sure it was inadvertently thrown into the recycling.

No more fountain from the Fountain. No more flowing rivers. If we pour the grape juice through it now, one river will pool onto the tray in an unsightly, dismal purple puddle. So this past Shabbat, Daniel individually poured the Kiddush juice into each tiny cup… he doesn’t have the steadiest hand. There were no rivers and no “ooohs.”

Yet, we had a wonderful dinner. Instead of chicken soup and tacos we had brisket and kale salad. It would be easy to let our traditional sentimentality puddle in a stagnant pool of frustration over the dysfunctional Kiddush Fountain. But I prefer to harness the opportunity – we will find another way to use it. Daniel’s hand will get steadier as he gets older, his brothers will start to say Kiddush. Maybe we’ll find a replacement eighth cup on eBay or even in the shuk in Jerusalem. It’s possible we’ll lose even more cups, and at some point the tightly-knit ring of waiting mouths will be completely mismatched. Opportunity, innovation… tradition.

Kiteboarders do come back

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.