Home Is Where I Am


When my son comes home from anywhere he bursts through the back door with dusty sneakers, bits of his day caught in his dark brown hair and on his thick eyelashes, and always an exuberant: “I’m ho-ome!”

His voice is strong and the singsong words bounce off the kitchen walls and reverberate up the stairs. Often there is nobody around to hear them, nobody in his physical space to receive him, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t pause with his hand on the door or stop to listen for rustling in the kitchen or footsteps in the rooms above, before announcing himself. It is the house he is telling about his homecoming. “I’m home,” he says to the taupe-colored walls and wooden floors, the dusty windows and the dishes in the sink. “I’ve come back and I am happy to be here.” And the house, his home, beams at the sound of his voice, gathers itself around his tall, gangly body and welcomes him. Home.

It’s not always easy, to come home: a sibling could be spoiling for a fight, a nagging mom might kill his buzz (Don’t bring those dirty shoes into the house. And wash your hands. With soap!), maybe we’re all out of his favorite snack, or someone’s playing their music too loud or watching an annoying show or borrowed his earphones without asking.

Still. Home is home.

“I’m ho-ome!” I murmured to the passport control officer at Ben Gurion airport. I must have said it too quietly. He didn’t even blink. “I’m ho-ome!” I told the guy at the rental car counter. He continued reading off the insurance policy and pretended I hadn’t said a word. Maybe he doesn’t like to be interrupted. “I’m HO-OME!!” I yelled at the top of my furious lungs to the women who claimed my chairs for their own at the pool. “Go away, you’re annoying us,” they replied with a condescending flick of the wrist, as if I was an irritating little sister. Ouch.

And yet. Home is home.

The radio in the car is set to Galgalatz, and the catchy combination of popular Israeli and other music makes it the best station to listen to. In my opinion. Biglal hamusika (for the music) is the tagline and a sexy, gravelly male voice fills the car every 15 minutes. That might also be a reason to listen. I turn the volume up when the news comes on and sometimes I even understand three full sentences. Last night on our way home they played Abba’s “Super Trouper.” Biglal hamusika. Every home needs a memorable soundtrack.

The kids kick the ball to each other and bury their legs in the sand as the sun streaks orange and pink above an inky sea. Their play transcends all language, time and distance: catch, giggles and hugs mean the same in English and Hebrew and all of the adults look at each other in wonder. “Next year he’ll know some English,” someone says. It really doesn’t matter, we all think. The sunset is magical and so are the connections.

And then it is Friday and we’re out of milk and pita. Maybe I’ll get a challah and creamy white cheese and the small, crispy cucumbers the kids like to eat whole. And popsicles. But the line is so long and the scanner stops working and now the cashier needs change so off she ambles. I think she forgot to come back. It’s been more than five minutes and I can see rivulets of icy juice pooling in my basket. “Tsk” and “Dammit” I mutter to myself. The woman behind me catches my eye and shrugs toward the heavens. Ma la’asot? What to do? I hear her thoughts. I shrug back. She’s right but really this is ridiculous, the line is growing longer and restless. I pay for and pack my groceries in a determined, not-so-quiet hurry. “Shabbat Shalom!” the slow-going cashier calls out as I turn to leave. It’s hard to be frustrated with someone who wishes you Shabbat Shalom.

Not everyone cares that I’m home. They honk at me if I linger one second too long at a traffic light and flash their lights if I drive too slow in the fast lane. Maybe I’m annoying with my expectations and my terrible Hebrew and my children who won’t eat anything with sesame seeds. But there are ways this place gathers itself around me and my family, holds us close in its warm waters and bustling markets, tells us stories about where we’ve come from and how we got here and inspires ideas about where we might go next.

And so… ma la’asot, what to do? I am home.

Parts of this essay were written during an online writing group with the incredible Jena Schwartz. Todah ve’ahava, Jena.

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.

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.


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.

eXcuse Moi

Please excuse me. Here’s where I take enormous artistic license. Today is X in the A to Z Writing Challenge I’m participating in. Already a difficult letter to write on: according to OxfordDictionaries.com there are only 120 words in current English that start with the letter X. And there are no OPI nail polish colors named with an X-word. None. And the very creatively named OPI colors have been my inspiration for every piece I’ve written in this challenge, since A for Are We There Yet on April 1.

So now what? I’ve been dreading today. I’ve anxiously referred to it a couple times in previous posts – the lack of a color X. Stressed about it enough that my sister researched OPI X names (she didn’t come up with anything, but did offer creative suggestions). Even tried to palm today’s post off onto another writer. So not cool.

No X-named nail polish means no inspiration. Which means no writing. Means a day skipped. Means incomplete challenge. Means No. Fucking. Way.

So, merci Artistic License, described by Wikipedia as a “colloquial term used to denote the alteration of the conventions of grammar or language…” To complete this challenge and feel like a [lame, geeky] rockstar for doing so, I am going with the phonetic spelling of X – e x – as an acceptable substitute for X. Excuse moi s’il vous plait.

source: tripadvisor.co.uk

source: tripadvisor.co.uk

My French is very limited. The few words I’ve written so far are nearing the grand total of my vocabulary à la Francaise (does that even make sense?). Which is a shame because I love Paris and French things, and I adore listening to spoken French. I did take one year of preliminary French at university. I learned enough to haltingly decode the written version, and to say, “C’est tous? Oui. Voilà!” with a flourish in both my hands and my voice. (Meaning: “That’s all? Yes. There you go!” A common exchange to elegantly close a transaction in French stores).

When my father’s parents arrived in South Africa from Lithuania, some time in the 1930s, they knew no English. Only Yiddish. Spoken mainly by the Jews of Eastern Europe, Yiddish is a uniquely expressive hybrid of Hebrew and German, and many of its wonderful words have become part of everyday language in some communities – words like oy vey, chutzpah, mensch and schlep. 

My grandparents eventually learned heavily-accented English, but to each other they still spoke only Yiddish. A marvel of the young human brain is its ability to absorb other languages, especially with regular exposure, and my father and his brothers quickly learned Yiddish too. All my memories of the interactions between my father and his mother are in that exotic, elusive language.

poem by Yiddish poet Edith Kaplan Bregman source: yiddishbookcenter.org

poem by Yiddish poet Edith Kaplan Bregman source: yiddishbookcenter.org

No doubt my grandparents took pride in their sons’ proficiency at their mother tongue, while they raised them in a land so geographically, linguistically and emotionally far away from their own. But perhaps at times they wished they had a way to communicate with each other privately, a way to discuss grown-up matters beyond their boys’ comprehension.

I imagine they felt this way, because I do.

My dismal French aside, Hebrew and Afrikaans are the two additional languages I can understand, read, write and speak with fluency. Neither are particularly useful in my daily life in California, but I have secret multi-lingual aspirations and love knowing other languages.

My children are learning Hebrew, and already understand a fair amount. They are learning it because they will all be having a bar or bat mitzvah and need to know how to read and write the language of our religion, and also because my husband and I have strong cultural and emotional ties to the land of Israel and want our children to be able to speak and understand the language of the country. If not fluently, at least the American/South African/Anglo version: crappy grammar, mixed-up tenses, and big pride at being understood in an ancient language rich in history and culture and spirituality. And fun slang.

But the language I keep secret from my children is Afrikaans. I will never teach it to them.

source: washingtonpost.com

source: washingtonpost.com

Not like the South African foods I’ve fed them since they were babies: boerewors and biltong and jelly babies and rooibos tea. Not like the songs I’ve taught them over the years: Shosholoza and Ag Pleez Deddy. Not like the Springbok rugby jerseys I dress them in, or the very South African way they say “ja ma” (yes mom) when I call them, just like I answer my own mother.

I love to impart these small, significant, South African pieces of me to them and watch how they absorb and own them, because I too am raising my children in a land very far away from the one I was born into. While the cultural, linguistic and emotional barriers in 21st century San Francisco are nothing compared to what my grandparents encountered in the 30s, I am South African. And my children are not.

But Afrikaans I keep for myself. And for my husband. And for anyone else who can understand and speak that language besides my children.

It’s essential for me to have a way to talk to Ryan in a language the kids don’t understand – comes in handy when planning birthday surprises, or discussing progress at school, or any other sensitive topic. But also because my children have too much access to me. They read my email over my shoulder until I shoo them away. When they sense a conversation is quiet, they cluster around, strain harder to hear each precious word. The car’s bluetooth broadcasts phone conversations loud and clear to the very back of the minivan.

We are not trying to hide it from them. But there are issues, problems, family and world affairs that are not necessary for them to hear. That they do not have the ability to process even if they do hear. And so I like to keep it private, when I can.

Afrikaans is not a language I grew up speaking. It’s not my language, the way English is. I learned it at school from first grade, heard it on TV, read it in magazines. I live in a town 10,500 miles away from where I learned Afrikaans: I don’t hear it anymore, I hardly ever speak it, and its fluency is slowly fading from my brain. More often a Hebrew word will surface when I’m looking for an Afrikaans one. But the longer I am away from South Africa, the tighter I hold on to it. My linguistic license.

Verskoon my kinders, this conversation is private. Excuse moi!

Excuse Moi by OPI

Excuse Moi by OPI

This post was written as part of the April A to Z Challenge. To read more of my A to Z posts click here.