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.

Thank You For Your Service

IMG_0414We are not a family of troops. Other than a great-uncle who served in the Navy during WWII and my uncle who served as a Marine right before the Vietnam War began, we do not have any close relatives who were or are in the military. I suppose you could say we’re lucky this way, but more than that, we are lucky there are so many men and women who have and do bravely defend our country, freedoms and way of life. To them, I am extremely grateful and give my thanks to members of the armed forces in person whenever I see them. This usually happens at the airport. Last November, however, it happened at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC while I was with my kids.

Memorial sites are strange and evocative places. They are there to remind us of history, battles won and lost and events that changed the world. More importantly, they keep the lives of those who have died in our memories and hearts, even though we may never have known them ourselves. The space is sacred and you can feel it, as if the souls of those lost flutter in and out coming to visit us as much as we are there to visit them.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is particularly moving for me. It brings on a full rush of emotion, a combination of sorrow and gratitude and a million whys. It is a quiet place, a non-assuming structure, yet so very powerful. When we visited, there were small flags and six-packs of beer propped up against the walls along with flowers, packs of Marlboros, a lighter, folded notes, photographs. I lost myself for a few minutes, running my fingers across the etched names, reading them to myself, honoring them.

IMG_0467Then my big girls started asking me questions: How many Americans died in the war? (More than 58,000) Were women soldiers? (They did not serve in combat but were military nurses). Did any women die? (Yes, 67 civilians and eight military — their names are on The Wall). How are the names listed? (They are in chronological order by date of death rather than alphabetical order). Suddenly, instead of being simply a visitor, I became a teacher. When I didn’t have an answer, one of the veterans volunteering there for just this purpose, did.

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In this time, in this country, my children are so blessed and they don’t even know it. They go to school, have a loving family, a roof, food, clothes, all kinds of electronics. They do not live under fear of attack. They don’t live with the anxiety of wondering if a parent or sibling is going to make it home from a tour of duty. It’s not that my children are particularly spoiled or take their safety or liberties for granted, it’s just that they don’t know any other way of life. For that I am grateful. For that, I am honored to teach them about the sacrifice and commitment of the men and women who do defend our country, keeping us safe, guarding our freedoms.

Before we walked away from The Wall towards the Lincoln Memorial, I stopped to speak briefly to the veteran who had answered our questions earlier, the girls standing behind me.

“Thank you for your service,” I said, trying hard not to cry. He smiled and reached for my hand.

“You’re welcome.”

Simple words that mean so much and teach so much. Thank our veterans, not just on Memorial Day or Flag Day or Veterans Day, but everyday.