The Journey


Six duffel bags lay waiting at the front door, most already zipped shut and sealed. Like six enthusiastic but well-behaved children, the slick gray canvas and blue trim of each shone quietly and excitedly, ready to go. One remained open, just in case. I spied a beloved stuffed animal squashed into a corner, and the sleeve of the raggedy t-shirt I told him not to pack peeked out from a pile of socks. That looked like way too many socks.

“Can I close this?” My husband was ready to go too. I knew he was anxious about transporting the six of us and all our luggage across the world. So was I. Not for the first time, I wondered if it was worth it.

The flight was long, 15 hours, and even though one of the best things to happen to the Bay Area is the now direct flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, it felt like we had embarked on an endless and strangely unknown journey. Suddenly I wasn’t at all sure we were doing the right thing.

We were en route to Israel to celebrate my son’s bar mitzvah. He had spent most Mondays over the past year preparing for this important day, learning how to sing his Torah portion and delving into its meaning with the rabbi. Like all bar mitzvah boys, he had worked hard at mastering the trop and understanding what it meant to reach this milestone, and I knew he was both excited and nervous.

As was I. From afar, we had planned what we hoped would be a special celebration at the Kotel in Jerusalem, but of course we had no idea if anything would work out as planned! What if we couldn’t find a Torah that morning? There are dozens of bar mitzvahs celebrated at the Kotel every Thursday, what if we couldn’t find a good spot? What if our friends and family couldn’t find us? And this winter was a particularly wet one in Israel – what if it rained?

As we dragged our bags along the wet sidewalk to the line of taxis at Ben Gurion Airport, I fleetingly wondered if perhaps we should’ve done this at home in California…

The sky that morning was bright and blue, and the absence of clouds meant that the air was cold and brisk. I shivered in my jacket and my cousin wrapped her scarf around my neck. We stood together and watched the bar mitzvah boy recite the blessing before reading the Torah. His father and grandfather stood proudly on either side of him, as if to guide him along this spiritual journey, and uncles, cousins and friends surrounded him in a circle of warmth and love. The fringes of his tallit (prayer shawl) waved gently in the wind, and behind him the Western Wall rose large and impressive, as it has for thousands of years – an enduring testament to our customs, traditions and beliefs.

I tore my eyes away from my boy for a few minutes, and watched the celebrations happening around us. I counted at least five bar mitzvahs near us, and a large group of young girls danced in a circle close to the wall. I spied a chuppah procession slowly making its way along the plaza above us. Tears, laughter, and jubilant cries of “Mazal tov” filled the cool air, and through the noise I heard my son’s now low voice singing the end of his Torah portion.

“Mazal tov!” we clapped and yelled as we showered him with candy and wishes of love and happiness. My mother and sister kissed me, aunts and cousins hugged me, and complete strangers joined our festivities and wished us and our man of honor well. Holding the Torah firmly in his arms, my son looked up at me, his brown eyes shining in the bright, winter sun. He stood there below the Kotel, handsome and proud, now a Jewish man part of a great, worldwide Jewish community.

The journey from the East Bay to Jerusalem and back again is a long one. As we trudged up the stairs to our front door, lugging bags filled with Wissotzky tea, Israeli za’atar and halva from the Carmel market, I remembered my apprehension at the beginning of our trip. How I had worried about the weather and the flight and what had we forgotten and what if everything didn’t go according to plan?

What I hadn’t planned was the tremendous connection we all felt as we stood at the Kotel on that cold, sunny Thursday: connection to each other, to our history, to the land of our people, and to all the hundreds and thousands of Jewish people celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, togetherness, not only at the Kotel on that day but every day around the world. More than worth it.

A version of this essay first appeared on J. The Jewish News 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 is “The places I belong are…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee and co-hosted by Hillary Savoie of

‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’

ElephantThe wide African sky is streaked pink and gold as the sun inches toward the horizon. Sunset happens early and quickly in winter. The trees stretch their bare arms upwards, as if reaching for those last few essential rays of light. Their dark silhouettes are a dramatic contrast to the gently glowing sun and pinky-orange sky.

We are all quiet in awe and wonder.

One lone elephant grazes in the twilight. Her trunk effortlessly tears entire branches off the tree. She drops the woody limbs with their few leaves into her waiting mouth. Her tail swishes behind her, and the grass rustles. For many moments, we are surrounded only by cracking branches, whispering leaves and the setting sun.

We are the only humans around for miles.

We journeyed many hours and great distances across continents, oceans and time zones to this tranquil place at the bottom of Africa. It was a Thursday when we left our busy home in California. By the time we arrived in Johannesburg, it was Saturday. In our exhaustion and excitement, none of us noticed that we traveled through an entire Shabbat.

Like many Bay Area Jews, we celebrate Shabbat and observe the laws and customs of our religion in our own traditional ways: we eat homemade challah and enjoy a family dinner every Friday evening; we keep a kosher home, and the no-pork-no-shellfish rule applies when we eat out; some years we do only one Passover seder, and Lag Ba’omer was a holiday that completely escaped us this year. I acknowledge to my husband and to myself that we are doing our best to teach our four children about Judaism and how to live a Jewish life … but sometimes I wonder if it’s enough.

And now here we are a few days after our arrival, watching the sun bid farewell to a quiet Friday afternoon on the African savannah. Our Shabbat candles and kosher home are far away, as we glimpse a giraffe gently loping though the trees. The elephant doesn’t seem to mind as she continues to munch the branches. A baboon runs across the road with a baby on its back, and now my own kids start to chatter and complain that they’re hungry.

The sun has set and it’s dark by the time we head back to our hotel just outside the magical game reserve. We cross the bridge over the shallow river as we make our way toward the main gate. “Do you think the hippos are still there, Mom?” my daughter whispers to me.

Nobody mentions candles, challah or Shabbat as we head to dinner. We are full of thoughts and conversation about the leopard we saw hiding in the tree, the pack of wild dogs we came across in the middle of the road (a rare sighting!) and the sinister vultures scavenging in the wild brush. It was a thrilling day, and we are all eager to recount our wildlife experiences over and over. The air smells of wood smoke and we take our seats around the table in the outdoor restaurant, close to the fire pit. I watch my kids argue about how many times they saw buffalo. The fire throws flickering shadows over their happy faces and I briefly remember that it’s Shabbat, but I say nothing.

Dinner is a buffet of exotic foods: a rich lamb curry, roast beef, kudu steaks and impala sausage. My daughter returns to the table with her standard bowl of plain pasta and my youngest son is happily tucking into a plate of salad. No unusual foods for these two! But my older boy taps my shoulder.

“Mom,” he says with a frown. His brown eyes are confused and a little worried. “Mom, is crocodile kosher?”

In the wild heart of South Africa, where the animals roam free and the air is pure and quiet, we are so far from our routines, from the customs and rituals of our regular life, and I mistakenly assumed that meant we were far from our Jewish lives, too.

But no matter where in the world we are, we are always connected to our Jewishness. And, just for the record, crocodile is not kosher.

This post originally appeared in my “In Real Life” column in J. the Jewish News Weekly of Northern California under the title “‘Mom, is crocodile kosher?’ A curious question in the wild heart of South Africa.”

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, “This summer…” Hosted by the wonderful Kristi of Finding Ninee.

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.