We did not go to Israel. We went to Rome. Instead of playing on the beach in Tel Aviv, we circled the Coliseum, spectators among the ruins. We did not go to Israel. We traveled on to Amsterdam. Instead of resting our heads in reflection against the warm stone at the Kotel in Jerusalem, we toured the canals, took in the windmills.
After making the decision not to go to Israel from Florence as planned, we tried to make the best of our muddled vacation. Like us, at first the kids were sad and confused at this change of plans. The endless gelato in Italy followed by Dutch chocolate and pancakes for dinner seemed a respectable and happy-making substitute for them.
I, on the other, felt as though I were walking around in a fog. Yes, Rome and Amsterdam are wonderful cities, with so much to see, do, eat and drink. None of it filled the hollowness in my heart, that nagging feeling of missing something you’re not sure you can ever replace. I know canceling our trip to Israel during a war was the right decision for our family, but that doesn’t mean it felt good.
We are in the Van Gogh Museum stepping off the elevator into the lobby. I am pushing a cranky three-year-old in her stroller; the big girls straggle behind me as we make our way to the museum shop. A mom and her young daughter are walking and talking just in front of us. That’s when I hear it: Hebrew. At first I think my ears are playing tricks on me because Dutch is guttural, like Hebrew and who would be speaking Hebrew in Holland? Then I realize, no, it really is Hebrew. I can’t help myself:
“Are you Israeil?” I blurt out. The moment I ask, I realize this might be a question that makes them wary: a stranger asking if they’re Israeli? In Europe where anti-semitism is rearing its ugly head once again, who knows what the asker’s intentions might be? But the woman doesn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” she answers, smiling lightly. I feel as though the world has stopped spinning and that if I don’t hold tight to this woman, I might just float away. I put my hand on her arm and start gushing about how we were supposed to be in Israel right now for a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah but we changed our plans because of the rockets coming from Gaza and the ground operation and we’re so sad not to be there, so heartbroken. I can feel the flush in my cheeks as tears well in my eyes. She covers my hand with hers.
“It’s not the time to bring your family,” she says in her accented English. “We are here taking a break from it.” “It” being the stress and trauma of living in a war zone with sirens going off throughout the day and night and rockets arcing overheard and young soldiers putting their lives on the line to ferret out terrorists while the casualties mount.
In her eyes I see pure sympathy and understanding. I feel the tension of the last 10 days melt away and then I feel something amazing: connection. I’d been wandering around Europe feeling isolated, not just from Israel, but from my Jewish self. I shushed the kids whenever they used a Hebrew word or sang a Hebrew song or wondered out loud if a certain food was kosher (no, bacon salami is definitely not kosher). I’d been nervous to visit the Jewish quarter in Rome, not wanting to broadcast that we were Jews, worried we’d end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered if there’d be extra security at the Anne Frank House. My fear and anxiety about the world made me feel small and dark, on edge and alone.
Talking to this Israeli mom while my girls shoved each other impatiently and the little one demanded a snack, I felt my heart surge. She was like a lightening rod to home – my Jewish home. I’d been feeling as though I’d somehow forsaken Israel by not going, but there, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam I knew my love for Israel was more passionate than ever. I knew we would do everything we could to be there soon.
I never could have imagined my summer would turn out the way it did. I didn’t swim at the beach in Tel Aviv or watch my friend’s son become a bar mitzvah at the Kotel. I didn’t shop for dried fruit and spices at Machane Yehuda or hang out with my BFF in Neve Tzedek. I didn’t get to taste the sweet, gooey rugelach at Marzipan or have a drink with my friends at the rooftop bar at the Mamilla hotel in Jerusalem.
No, I didn’t go to Israel this summer, but my connection to the aretz is stronger and fiercer than ever before. No matter where I am in the world.