When Distance Makes the Heart Grow

TAsunsetThe little one wakes up at the same time every morning, give or take 15 minutes. Never mind that it’s the weekend. I long to sleep in, but my internal clock has adjusted to hers, which means I’m groggy but awake when she comes padding into my room.

“I miss daddy,” she says, leaning her face into mine. I run my tongue around the inside of my dry, sleepy mouth.

“I know. Me too,” I say. “Let’s FaceTime him.”

I pick up my phone from the bedside and press “Josh in Israel.” A shrill ring starts up immediately and within seconds we see him on the screen. Thousands of miles away, he sits at a beachfront café, the sun setting over the Mediterranean, his face warm and glowing, grinning. Here at home we are just waking up. My bed-head splayed across the propped up pillows, the sleep still heavy in my eyes, my cheeks not yet rosy. The morning sun comes through the window, weak after a night’s rain, gray tinged clouds hanging in the bluing sky. Continue reading “When Distance Makes the Heart Grow”

Hatred Will Not Hijack My Hope

Before I went to bed last night I noticed a single blip in my Facebook feed about a terrorist attack in Israel. The brief description was awful, unbelievable.

“Did you hear anything about a terrorist attack in Israel today?” I asked my almost-asleep husband.

“Hmm? No, nothing,” he replied, drifting off. I glanced down at my screen, but couldn’t bring myself to click on the link. I hoped it was a rumor, hearsay, a fantastical misunderstanding. I shut off my light and fell asleep. Continue reading “Hatred Will Not Hijack My Hope”

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.

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.

Is Going to Israel with My Kids During Conflict a Good Thing?

Parenting in IsraelIsrael. It’s where I feel most connected to my Jewishness. It’s where a cherished piece of my heart comes to life. Right now, it’s also where missiles are landing hour after hour, deep in to the country, sending people running for cover in shelters and staircases, at the base of palm trees along the open beaches, on the shoulder of the highway.

It’s where I am planning to go with my husband and three kids in less than two weeks to celebrate the bar mitzvah of a close friend’s son.

Or am I?

Every inch of my maternal self recoils at the thought of deliberately bringing my three children into what amounts to a war zone. Yet, that piece of my heart that belongs to Israel yearns to be there, to show her my love and unwavering support, to defiantly go about daily life in between running for cover as sirens wail.

For days now I’ve been playing out “if-then” scenarios in my head: if there is a ground war, then we won’t go. If Hamas accepts a cease-fire, then we will go. If I were planning to go on my own, then I would definitely still go. Finally, we told the older girls about the situation and the possibility that we might not go. The 12-year-old sat silently, head bowed, her dirty blonde hair falling like a curtain around her. She understands more than I give her credit for. The 9-year-old’s eyes filled with tears.

“Why would anyone want to bomb Israel?” she asked.

How do you answer that incredibly complicated question? That’s when I realized how much I haven’t taught my children about what it means to be Jewish. They live in a beautiful Jewish bubble where they go to Day School and Jewish summer camp, where we celebrate Shabbat every week. They wander through the house humming tunes from the morning tefillah followed by Iggy Azalea and Ariana Grande. For them, being Jewish means being part of a loving community with the freedoms, rights and protections of being American. How can I explain to my children that not everyone in the world likes Jews and, in fact, a good number of them would like to see us, and Israel, wiped from the face of the earth? The conflict is very real. Is taking my children to the center of it an acceptable learning lesson?

People act in unacceptable ways all the time. I’ve seen the photos on the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) blog of a mother gathering her infant and toddler to her, hunkered down on the highway between her car and the concrete dividers, cowering in fear and resignation as the sirens blare and missiles fly. I’ve seen footage of the rubble in Gaza and think of the Palestinian children left homeless or worse because their political leaders are gambling with their lives and are losing.

Deciding whether or not to travel to Israel right now is a wrenching decision for us to make. Part of me wishes we had left before the current conflict escalated so we wouldn’t have to decide: we’d be in it and we would’ve stayed. The piece of my heart that belongs to Israel is tugging at me with all its might. My mama heart is telling me to keep my girls out of the line of fire. I don’t want them to flinch, like my Israeli friend’s child does, every time a motorcycle whizzes by or a car guns its engine or a truck door slams. My three-year-old already claps her hands over her ears when she hears a dog bark close by or a dish clatters in to the sink. I don’t want my kids to look at me and say, “Mama, is that a rocket coming?”

I don’t want them to be scared. Maybe that’s naive of me. In some ways loving Israel is about being there when it is scary and standing fast. I want my kids to love Israel deeply with determination and ferocity, but without the fear. I don’t know if or when that will be possible, but I do know that I want Israel to own a piece of my children’s hearts forever. That’s something I’m not willing to compromise.

L is for Leaves of Grass

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Isn’t that how all good love stories begin? With celebration and singing, assumption and belonging?

I am still not sure if I fell in love with the boy because of himself or because of the already fiercely loved words tumbling out of his mouth. Or maybe I never loved him at all, at least not without the words, not without the land.

It is summer – hot, hot summer in northern Israel. I am there on an archeological dig through Duke University, but really I am there to find myself. I am on a journey. I grew up in a reform Jewish home, didn’t have a bat mitzvah and, at 19, I crave identity the same way a small child craves chocolate for the first time: I’m not sure what it tastes like but I know it’s going to be good.

Still, finding myself will not be as easy as eating chocolate. I am earning credit for this program, which means being on the tel before dawn, pickaxe in hand, ready to haul gufas (buckets) of dirt out of the earth. It is quiet on the site before the sun arrives. Just our heavy boots shuffling along the dirt pathway up the hill, hushed whispers traveling among us.

Some days the hard labor comes with the sweet reward of unearthing a shard of pottery painted with ancient Hebrew or a hand crafted tessera that hints of a mosaic treasure somewhere further down. My hands callous and my thighs grow strong while my eyes grow keen, catching covered coins and petrified camel bones crevices and shallow cracks.

Muscles aching, hair caked with dirt, we are done for the day at noon when the sun become relentless and cruel. We head back to our host village for showers and lunch and afternoons washing and cataloging the day’s finds. We have “free time” after our last lesson, before dinner. Kids play basketball. We buy Drumsticks from the makolet. It is like camp.

8240-green-grass-leavesMoshav Nahalal is a beautiful place, in the heart of the northern Galilee. The village is laid out in a concentric circular pattern, like ripples on the water. It is in the middle of the middle where I find him. He is stretched out fully, stomach flat to the ground, propped up on his elbows. Reading. I grip my own slim burgundy volume in my hand. I am almost right in front of him when he looks up. He smiles.

“What are you reading?” he asks, his English near perfect.

“It’s Leaves of Grass.”

He pushes himself up and reaches for the book. I sit down across from him. The grass is prickly on my calves. I notice his Nietzsche.

I’ve seen him on the dig site working a few squares away from mine. He is a local, home from university, helping out for the summer. He is tall and thin with dirty-blonde hair shaved on the sides and a flop hanging across his forehead. His eyes are dark blue. It is 1989. We are 19 and 20. We are all Say Anything and Dead Poets Society.

He opens my book, then his mouth. The words come tumbling out, sweet like chocolate. Walt Whitman in the northern Galilee. My heart sings in celebration. Finally, I belong.

I’m participating in the 2014 A to Z Challenge during the month of April using the very broad theme of LOVE to carry me through the alphabet. Check out writing by other bloggers taking on the #atozchallenge at @AprilA2Z.