My Favorite Dutch Bicycle

My Fave Dutch BikeThere are 600,000 bicycles in Amsterdam. This one is my favorite.

Lost and Found Among the Van Goghs

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.

IMG_3531We 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.

After Visiting the Anne Frank House

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My daughter, Ruby, sharing her thoughts after walking through the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Startling, sobering, hopeful, inspiring. “All of her would-haves are our opportunities.” Never forget.

Safe In a Tuscan Storm

We can’t stop watching CNN. This happens when we travel. We hardly watch the news on TV at home in the States, but when we are abroad, CNN feels like our only link to the world outside our vacation bubble. Usually, we watch for a few minutes, catching up on the mundane, then shut it off and go to the beach or tour the sites or shuffle off to bed. This time, though, it’s a horror show that we can’t stop watching. Right now, it seems as if the world is exploding.

IMG_3038We take in the view of the Tuscan hills after a ferocious night storm. Juniper trees glisten, the ground is muddy and rough with tumbled rocks crunching underfoot. In the Middle East, soldiers are shot down, rockets fly, children die and we are grateful the road down the hill and into town hasn’t washed away entirely. We are only slightly stranded on the hill, waiting for the Italians to clear the way. There is enough food for a week and the water tanks are full. By late afternoon, the skies clear, glasses of sparkling wine sweat in the glittering in the sun. In the Netherlands, they bury loved ones in bits and pieces and I imagine teeth and wedding bands, blasted hands, strands of hair and intact backpacks scattered across a Ukranian field. My three-year-old wheels her mini Hello Kitty suitcase around the uneven stone floors of the villa. She transports books, her blankie, three lovies and a hand towel. I hear her coming from rooms away.

Heavy white clouds hang in the balance between clear skies and another storm. The sky is an impossibly bright blue, a Renaissance blue, a master’s blue. In Piza my oldest daughter poses with her hands in midair as if she’s pushing against a heavy object so I can take a picture that will look as though she’s holding up the Leaning Tower. Tourists everywhere stand like frozen mimes while cameras click. On patrol, a soldier takes a wrong turn through the streets of a terrorist stronghold. The stutter of a gun and he is gone. Suddenly the weather snaps and we run for the narrow awning of a food cart. A curtain of rain drives towards us. We watch, laughing and gasping, trapped under cover as the wind whips the rain into our eyes, drenching us. Sirens sound signaling an incoming rocket. Mothers clutch their children. A boom. Silence. Saved. I yank the three-year-old away from the curb as a speedy orange scooter beeps and whizzes by. My heart thumps through my ribcage, adrenaline surges. I hold Lilah by the hand, guiding her through the crowds. The uneven stones of the ancient road catch the front of my flip-flop, send me stumbling against the woman just in front of me shopping for frutta e vedure at the small corner market. “Scuzi,” I mumble. Sorry. She smiles faintly, carries on.

Back at the villa, the girls leap into the pool, laughing, playing Marco Polo with their cousins. We mix gin and tonics. Texts fly between countries – Italy, France, Israel – checking in, updating, worrying. After dinner al fresco, we turn back to CNN. The world’s death toll flickers endlessly across the screen: 298, 27, 45, 630. My blood is thick with stress, my head pounds. Decisions need to be made. Thunder claps later that night send my little one running, hands over her ears. Hearts break when we cancel our flight to Tel Aviv. There is nothing right about this decision. We are left stumbling around a digital map of Europe, discussing alternatives when really there is no alternative to Israel; just a different route, a biding of time until we wend our way home. We settle on Rome then Amsterdam. We are returning to California a few days earlier than expected. It is not the vacation we’d planned.

“This is not our normal weather in the summer,” says the taxi driver. “We do to mother nature and now she do to us.” Still, the Italians are impressive after a storm. Men in long shorts and orange rubber rain boots quickly clear away the sludge and debris. They dig ditches to drain away the floodwaters and slice enormous fallen trees into neat, manageable logs. We take the winding road slowly. Beyond the barrier, the asphalt has washed away finding its own path down the hillside, carving the dark red earth, crossing our path again at the end as we turn onto the paved road to Lucca. Half-heartedly we plan our stays in Rome and Amsterdam, scramble to find accommodations, hire a tour guide for the Coliseum. We want to salvage the trip for the kids, smother them with ancient history, pasta al dente, clogs, windmills, tulips and cheese.

The garden at the villa is fragrant. Lavender, thyme and sage glisten in the sun, waiting to be plucked for dinner. Large bees buzz lazily in and out of dusty yellow blooms, the hills roll, the sky breaks, hummingbirds beat their tiny wings in the olive trees. There is a war in Israel. There are body parts strewn across a field in the Ukraine. Glass shatters and buildings burn in France. Towers lean, soldiers fall, children scamper on a beach, planes explode in midair, mobs rise, bells chime the hour. Time for prayer, time for a cocktail, time for bed. I am terrified and hysterically happy all at once. The world is crumbling and here I am in the relative calm of Tuscany, wine chilling, focaccia warming, rosemary between my fingers, my family within arms reach. This is where we are right now, somehow still while the world spins out of control.