What I Never Imagined…

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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!

Life in a Bubble

JedMikhmoretThe sun glittered on the reckless Mediterranean. Not quite afternoon, not quite sunset. The golden time in between, when the beach shines almost white and the water is a liquid glow.

Not so gently, the sea knocked them over first from one side then the other, occasionally pausing its playful game so they could catch their breath and float in the warm water. With the sun making its slow descent, they were smiling faceless heads of all ages, talking, laughing, diving right into the crashing waves or holding the little ones up high.

The smoky barbecue drifted toward me as I helped my daughter and her cousin build sandcastles. No English for her and no Hebrew for her, they built a beautiful, sandy city together with nods and smiles, gestures and touches. Up ahead three horses carried their riders toward the dunes. The sun sank lower.

The boys played Frisbee. The girls built their castles. The grown-ups drank beer and sparkling red wine, and the dog lay in the cooling sand, watching and sleeping.

They were photo-perfect moments happening every second, and my cousin ran from group to group and captured each one. “Chayim babu’ah,” she said. Life in a bubble.

Because while we were celebrating birthdays and family and togetherness on my favorite beach in Mikhmoret, sirens were wailing in Herzliya and Holon, rockets from Gaza were hurtling toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and even with scarce cell reception on the beach we all knew.

I saw my aunt’s jaw tighten, almost imperceptibly, as she listened to her chatty granddaughter tell a story. One cousin sat quietly on a chair to the side, minding her own stressful business while she decided whether to cancel the 200-person event she’d planned down south the next day or to go ahead. Another calmly showed me a photo she’d just received of a rocket exploding above her house, a wry smile tugged at her mouth and the worry in her eyes was deep and real. Her feisty little girl toddled toward the sea.

The sun set, and the sky was orange and gray and crimson and the palest, whitest blue.

Life in a bubble.

We sang happy birthday, the kids played checkers and my uncle lit a cigar. I gathered up the half-eaten burgers and empty beer bottles, wiped the hummus with a crumpled napkin, and gave my son his fourth piece of chocolate cake. The music got softer. The sea was dark. “Can we stay till the end of the party, Mom?”

In my bag my cell phone silently rang itself into a frenzy. Dozens of missed calls and texts, emails and Facebook messages. “Are you guys ok?” “Where are you?” From South Africa, the U.S., England. And Israel. Family worried about us. Friends unable to get hold of us.

There’s no wi-fi on the beach in Mikhmoret and I forgot about my cell phone buried in my bag on the bench behind the barbecue.

Life in a bubble.

We didn’t hear the sirens on the beach, we didn’t see the Iron Dome intercept some rockets or hear the boom of the ones that fell. We were celebrating life and watching new friendships transcend language and running after toddlers lured by the playful sea. Because that’s what we planned to do that evening.

“We’re fine,” I texted back. “We were on the beach. Sorry I didn’t hear my phone. We’re okay.”

“Stay safe,” the messages came back, over and over. How do we do that, I wondered.

Life goes on here, as rockets are flying and strikes continue. My kids pet bunnies and ride horses bareback, but it’s impossible to keep them oblivious when we are shown where the bomb shelter is in our apartment building, and my husband explains how to pump the air once we’re sealed inside. We still haven’t heard a siren, thank G-d. But we may today, when we go up to the Kinneret or perhaps to the Dead Sea or maybe we’ll just stay put.

Ma la’asot?” our family on the Kibbutz say, when we visit them and watch the kids swim in the pool. We have schnitzel and salad and delicious ice cream for lunch. What to do? Life goes on.

My aunt calls to check on us. My husband’s family here is worried about us. Because we are visiting. And we’re not used to this. And it’s tense and complicated and scary.

But I’m not scared. We’re supposed to be here.

A bubble with a flimsy, transparent barrier. A bubble that is real and blissful but fleeting and temporary. Anything can happen at any time. And we pray that it won’t. We pray that there will be no more conflict. No more strikes and no more retaliations. No more children killed. We pray for each other, and for our land, and for peace.

It’s scary – but I’m not scared.

And in a fragile, clear bubble, life goes on.

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.

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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.