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.

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.