Protective Edge

Last year, we spent an unforgettable summer in Israel. Unforgettable because Israel is the place where my heart and my breath are one. Unforgettable because it was the first time we showed our kids the land, the history, the life of our people. Unforgettable because my children met aunts, uncles, cousins they had never met before, and the love and connection transcended all distance, time and language. Unforgettable because on a beautiful, hot summer morning we celebrated my oldest son’s bar mitzvah at the Kotel in Jerusalem in the midst of a war.

The summer of 2014 was the summer of Operation Protective Edge. It was the summer of intense conflict between Israel and Gaza. It was the summer my children and I learnt words in Hebrew we didn’t know existed, and some we’d never even heard in English: Iron Dome (Kipat Barzel),  alert/siren (azakah), protected room (mamad).

It was the summer my children learnt more about the country of my dreams and desires than I could ever have taught them.

My kids appeared unfazed by the relentless sirens and rocket attacks. We spent time in a bomb shelter somewhere almost every day, and they seemed to accept this as part of life in a complicated country.

Since we returned, I have wondered what they absorbed from that unforgettable summer. What they remembered, and would remember as time goes by. How the experience would color their imaginings, views, hopes of the world, that country, their own lives.

My fifth grade boy, Zak, wrote a memoir essay for school last week:

Unfair by Zak Gilbert, age 11

What does fair mean? Is it fair if you get two cookies and your sister gets one? Is it fair that your brother gets $20 for cleaning his room and you get $7 for doing the same? Is it fair to do an activity that your sibling really wants to do without them? Is it fair that there is a very nice, unfortunate old lady down the road?

Is it fair that in some places in the world there are children who are stuck in a bomb shelter for half their summer break?

We finished dinner and went to play at the park near the restaurant. Suddenly out of nowhere the siren went off! I heard that annoying loud sound that signals a near coming bomb.

Again? I thought. I tried to pick up my baby cousin. I grabbed her from behind but she felt like a crate of baseballs. I put the cute little crate of baseballs down and yelled to my big brother, “Take Stella!”

I ran but looked back to make sure Daniel had her. I continued running and soon jumped over the plants and dashed down the shelter stairs and looked around for my mom and aunt, who was sobbing. “Where’s Stella?!” she screamed. “STELLA!”

I knew where they were. I needed to get this information to this freaked out, 30-something-year-old, first time mom who was on a different continent in a bomb shelter without her three-year-old. “She’s fine. She’s with Daniel, don’t worry,” I said calmly.

“Are you sure, Zak?”

No, Mom. I thought sarcastically. I gave her to some random shop keeper. Out loud, I said, “Yeah.”

I looked around and thought, This is not fair. Maybe someone was about to propose, or maybe someone was going to meet their mom whom they haven’t seen, but are instead in this crowded shelter. It’s not fair that I’m in a bomb shelter in Israel when my dad is in California working at his office, safe from bombs. Or how I’m only here for 2 months, but people have to live here all the time.  My cousins who live here may not even start school until September, maybe even October because of the bombing, who knows. It’s not fair for my brother, who’s not even 13 years old yet, and he’s looking after three kids in a bomb shelter.

What I’ve come to realize is, whether I like it or not, life is sometimes not fair.

Eventually, the sirens stopped and we reunited with the others in the park. We took about several minutes to recount the recent events and catch everyone up.

Now I know. Now I can relate. Now I understand that sometimes life will be unfair. Sometimes you’ll get two cookies and your sister will get one and that isn’t fair but, hey, at least you got a cookie so in a way it is fair. If your parents only let you watch TV after you’ve done your chores, and then don’t let you watch TV then that’s not fair because they change the rules and that’s not fair. Life is unfair.

I don’t like that things are unfair, and before the bomb shelter experience, I knew life was unfair. But now I really know. Things will be unfair and sometimes you just have to accept life the way it is. 

Summer 2014. Zak & Stella on the beach in Israel This essay has been published with the permission of the author.

Who’s Your Favorite?

4Kids

The road we’re driving on is twisty and quiet. It’s early Saturday morning and we pass a few energetic cyclists bravely making their way up. The still-winter but feels-like-summer sun glints off the faint dust on the windscreen, obscuring my vision every now and then. I pay close attention to the road and my distance from the cyclists, almost completely oblivious to the conversation behind me. When I realize Maroon 5 is playing on the radio, I quickly change it. He’s still cute, but Adam Levine’s whiny singing voice is not welcome at this tranquil hour. Or any hour.

“You’re the favorite,” I hear on the periphery of a sharp hairpin bend. I don’t know who says it. And I don’t know whom they’re saying it to. The details aren’t important to me. It’s an ongoing conversation in our house that I don’t engage in: who’s the favorite. My favorite, they mean. They share their thoughts on this delicate subject openly with each other, all with pretty accurate reasons why they must be right. According to them, my favorite is never the one leading the discussion.

The Urban Dictionary definition of favorite is “most wanted or desired.”

Yes. You’re right. You are my favorite. And, in order of oldest to youngest because that’s the order each of you claimed my whole heart four times over, here’s why:

Daniel, you are my favorite because you got my heart first. Because you are easy-going and independent and responsible. Because you love steak but hate chocolate, and ask every Friday night if the challah is homemade. Because you take school seriously, and have a dry, witty sense of humor, and you don’t mind when your little brother plays with your ears. Because your denim blue eyes are usually calm and steady, but this one time when Dad and I yelled at each other from opposite sides of a cold, hard London street they burned bright with tears and confusion. They looked straight into mine and your broken teenage voice poked holes of relief in my anger. “When you guys walk off in different directions, away from us, we don’t know who to follow.” You spoke for all four of you.

Zak, you’re my favorite. You are the most like me: passionate, sensitive, social and too-easily frustrated. You stomp your feet hard enough for both of us when we don’t get our own way. And you’re you: the heart of our family. One time, you tumbled into the car with difficult bits of the school day stuck to your backpack and your cheeks. With angry sadness swimming in your liquid brown eyes, the first question you asked was how my day was. You are compassion and honesty and fun and courage every time you butt-board down the street, do your Math with a pencil that is difficult to grasp, or use your parkour moves to navigate the wet grass wearing only socks.

Sage, you’re my favorite because I got to name you Sage, a name I have loved forever. And you are wise and fresh and calm and helpful, with your sage-colored eyes and glittering of freckles that twinkle when you laugh. You are my favorite because you love to read and write and make up stories, just like I do, and you also run wild with your brothers. One time, a girl you thought was your friend called you a “demon” and your green eyes deepened to gray as you tried to understand why. You’re my favorite because even though I don’t believe in Valentine’s Day, you do and you helped your little brother do this:

SageValentine

Jed, you were the last to hold my whole heart and you will always be my favorite because you will always be my baby. Even when you’re a dad! Because you are strong and fearless and love to hug me, and you drink tea every day. This one time, we went for a hike and you grabbed a stick and led the way. “For freedom,” you yelled as we all followed in a line behind you, your little body barely visible in its white T-shirt as you charged forward along the trail. You are my favorite because you spray deodorant all over your five-year-old self every morning, and then ask me to tie your shoes.

The drive is over and I pull into a spot. I kill the engine and half turn in my seat to look at them. Echoes of “favorite” bounce in the space between us, like a buoyant balloon expected to pop any second.

“You’re all my favorite,” I say. Jed smiles, happy to hear the answer.

“Sure Mom, you always say that,” says Zak.

“Yeah, Mom, that’s the right thing to say,” noticeable, good-natured sarcasm in Daniel’s voice.

I look at Sage. She nods solemnly.

Yep. I do always say that. It is the right thing to say. Because it’s true.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday Post, inspired by the prompt, “This one time…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Jennifer from Dancing in the Rain.

About Last Night’s Leftovers

thankful

The silence wakes me.

Not a whisper. Not a murmur. No ever-growing feet pounding down the stairs. No 7am yells of “jerk, that’s mine.” No muffled electronic music from the Nintendo DS. What is it they play? Smash-something?

Just quiet.

The TV sits black and silent. The remote untouched since yesterday. Neat and aligned on the kitchen counter, right where I placed it before I went to bed last night. It’s not often I get to see it, let alone set it somewhere. It’s the hottest item in the house, the “merote.” Whoever holds it possesses those invincible powers of channel control. Powers not to be taken lightly. The fun teen mishaps on the Disney channel can ruin ones day if it’s the darkness of “Gotham” they desire.

So they hang on to that remote because really their happiness depends on it. Or they hide it amongst the stale chip crumbs and candy wrappers under the bouncy cushions of the sofa. And then pretend they don’t know where it is. So we’re stuck with Cartoon Network. Ninjago forever. There’s yelling. And wrestling. And my bedroom is directly above the playroom, so it’s not only Sensei Wu’s creepy Lego voice coloring my serene Saturday morning dreams, it’s also relentless cries of “Give it” punctured with an occasional “Ow” (is there anything more ear-shattering than the low foghorn of a newly-deepened teenage boy voice?). All before 7.09am. Most Saturdays.

But this morning all was still. The remote benignly in plain sight, powerless as it should be.

And I am up before 7.09am.

Even though there’s no yelling. No fighting. No noise. No extra-loud “Good morning, Mom” to retrieve the iPad in stealth. And definitely no wet kiss on my sleepy cheek.

We are half this week. One dad, two bigs away doing adventurous boy things: planes, trains, rugby and rain. One mom, two littles at home doing not that much: cousins, beach, classic movies like “Annie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

The quiet is welcome. The kitchen stays clean. The laundry basket is barely full and there is no room for yesterday’s leftover pizza in the suddenly too full fridge. We never have leftovers. Nobody nags for a friend to come over or to go to Target or leaves wet towels on the carpet. Instead of no I say yes: to ice cream, to staying up late, to overpriced magnets at Fisherman’s Wharf. “You’re the best mommy ever,” they chirp with their arms around each other.

But we are half. And what I am is some kind of half-mommy. While less of them should mean more of me, we are incomplete. And so am I.

It is calm and neat and the washing machine is at rest. But the quiet is strange. Uncomfortable. This is not who we are, half of ourselves. Half the conversations, half the laughter, 50 per cent less awkward hugs and sloppy kisses, way less muddy clothes sweaty from intense hide-and-seek in the backyard. Too many leftovers.

I talk and write about my family chaos a lot. How I long for it to be a little quieter. Not so hectic. How I wish there were less groceries, less shoes, less dentist appointments and haircuts. More room, more time for thoughts and words and yes instead of no.

But that would make us not us.

The weak early morning sunrays reflect off the dull silver of the remote. It waits, untouched. When I open the fridge the pizza box slides out from its precarious spot, squeezed above the unopened gallons of milk. It lands on the floor with a loud thwack that echoes around the empty kitchen.

Only one more night of leftovers.

Everyone’s Included in Monkey in the Middle and What Kind of Bat Mitzvah Will She Have

A boisterous game of “Monkey in the Middle” overtook our family room after Shabbat dinner last week. Astonishingly, nothing was broken and nobody got hurt. Laughter, happy yelling, and lots of good-natured teasing kept the blue-and-white beach ball airborne and away from the “monkey,” who in this game, was my daughter.

My only little girl is a feisty 8-year-old. She holds her own with big green-gray eyes, a smattering of freckles, a knowing smile, and a steely grip amid the three brothers who love nothing more than to give her a hard time about, well, everything: that she mispronounces “bird,” that she’s something of a busybody, that she prefers to keep her room testosterone-free, and yells “out” as soon as a male body, canine or human, places a smelly toe over the threshold.

Read more here.

monkey

This post first appeared on Kveller.

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.