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:
- “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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.