Monthly Archives: March 2015
That apartment in Beverly Hills was unusually quiet 11 years ago. My grandmother had made soup despite the heat of that March, and she, my cousin Amy and my Aunt Esther were eating quietly as they could. My body couldn’t even digest the silence as the nurse was in the bedroom with my grandfather. My beloved Papu was sleeping peacefully, the morphine coursing through his veins to diminish the pain of his oncoming death.
The sound of Joseph Amira’s shuffling feet was gone from the white carpet, the roughness of which would announce his arrival. I would hear it as I was drifting off to sleep in my grandparents’ spare bedroom whenever I would come over during college and take a nap there. I would then hear the door creak open just a little bit, just to check in, and then hear the sound diminishing as he would shuffle away.
The small round table in my grandparents’ kitchen seemed empty without Papu. At this hour, he would always drink his coffee with a splash of mocha mix from a mug with little blue flowers. Eating cereal for lunch because he was always told that it was the healthiest thing for him. His big smile would light up his face, topped with the whitened hair would be slightly slicked back in that 1930s style. It was the one that made my young grandmother try to bet her sister that if she spit on his head, the spit would come right off, long before they started dating.
For someone who was relatively so quiet and humble, he had unusual stories: My grandfather was one of the rare people in Brooklyn with a car, which made him a particular favorite for mafia members there so he could run errands and numbers for them. He was probably one of the only Jews under the employ of notorious anti-Semite Howard Hughes at TWA during the war, probably because the last name Amira sounded Italian and he had worked on cars. Then, after moving to Los Angeles and working three jobs to keep his family afloat, he found fortune as Joseph Amira and several of his co-workers invested in orange groves down in Orange County, California.
Yet this was the end of his life. I would never see him again after this day. I headed down the crisp white hall to the bedroom, the second of his three granddaughters, who was named after his beloved wife of 66 years. She sat in the kitchen, trying to pretend like she wasn’t about to become a widow. But we all knew deep down that we were in death’s house now.
As I walked into view of the bed where Papu laid sleeping on the bright orange comforter, I carried a much darker secret that he would never know: That two months previous to this, his 21-year-old granddaughter laid in a hospital bed dying. I almost died before his time to go. If age didn’t kill him, that knowledge probably would have. Somewhere in me, my ability to cheat death came with an odd sense of relief. He had a long enough life without any pain I carelessly brought in.
Watching him breathe ever so slightly, my eyes darted around the room. It was the place where three little girls once jumped on the bed and watched Batman and danced to Madonna on Friday nights after dinners together. He would probably call us from the bedside where he laid now to wish my sister and me “Shabbat Shalom” over the phone so that both he and my grandmother could talk to us at the same time.
My mind wanted to take him away from this place to the one where I liked him best, at the head of the dining room table, a yamulke on his head as browned hard-boiled eggs were passed around. He would sit upright, quietly joyous in his family surrounding him and content in where he was. In a family structure filled with women, he was the patriarch; the man who showed me, alongside my father, what a man should be in relation to the world and his family.
I couldn’t flash forward to the days to come: The men trying to honor him by volunteering to watch my grandfather’s body before the burial, a traditional Jewish practice. Standing next to my tiny grandmother in her black dress during services, her graying hair flat along her face and her eyes in shock. Sitting at the huevo, or reception afterwards, eating browned eggs and already feeling the missing piece in the wooden-paneled room. The people who would hug and kiss me at the Sephardic Temple, where he had been president of the temple, and tell me stories about “a good man.” They ranged from close friends telling me how he would try to pretend that they were actually blood related or how, when they first came to this country, the first stop after the synagogue was at Joseph Amira’s home, at a long dining room table with his family. In the years after, I didn’t realize how hard the days would when I wished he was by me, and how surprisingly shameful it would be when the days came where I was glad he wasn’t alive to see them.
All I knew in that moment was that head chair in the dining room table would be empty now, and no one would fill it the exact same way. My heart longed for the shuffling of shoes along the carpet, the sound of his voice. I would have even been happy to even hear another one of his diatribes against Howard Hughes (he was the only person I ever heard Papu get angry over, in the rare instances he came up). I wished I could ask him questions and hear him tell stories. But our time together in life was now over.
I decided to sit next to him on the other side of the bed, raising my head to G-d. I wasn’t going to tell Hashem not to take Joseph Amira, not when he had been given so much in his life that would leave him content. In this moment, my heart began to reach out in prayer for those of us left behind in his absence: my mother, father, grandmother and sister. I whispered in his ear all my love, without tears or pain, as he had never given me any. Just his love.
As I left the bed, about to walk out of the room, I heard something: His voice. It wasn’t words; he couldn’t speak anymore. He began to hiccup. It wasn’t just a bodily reaction. The struggle of his soul, lingering somewhere between heaven and earth, was coming back to try to find me one last time. I witnessed how the body can wither away, yet how love is stronger than death ever hopes to be.
I stood in the doorway of the bedroom, looking at him, thinking of my then three-year-old cousin Sam several days before, as he shouted his love so loud that “Uncle Joe” could hear him in the limbo where his mind residing now. And somewhere, deep in the corners of my mind, I heard my grandfather’s voice as if he could still speak with me, excitedly saying, “You know, Sammy came by the other day…”
Sam wouldn’t remember that moment of his life, but I would remember this one, even as now Papu was slipping away from me. All I could hope, as I walked away from my grandfather’s bedside, was that we would find strength from his love in the days to come.
I couldn’t even explain the sunrise that morning. After not sleeping for the past 24 hours, fueled on caffeine-laced Mexican cokes and the pure adrenaline of anticipation, the words were escaping me. Wisps of dark clouds and the fading night were joined with the fire of the morning sun, the shades blending together next to the plane.
Everyone I knew was asleep as I was standing by the window in my long skirt, leather jacket and TED hose. Munching on coconut chips and sipping on my water bottle, all I could think was, “Almost 15 years later, and it has come to this.”
The wounding of my past was crouching nearby, knowing that I had the weapon to finally vanquish it. In those years far gone, I had accepted its presence and given up any hope of returning to Israel. But after watching all my friends travel there like it was right around the corner and leaving me behind nursing my jealousy, it was finally my turn.
As I settled into my uncomfortable seat, I plugged in my headphones and began listening to the Birds of Tokyo’s “Lanterns”:
In darkness I leave
For a place I’ve never been
It’s been calling out to me
That it’s where I should be…
I had been there, though. It’s the place that first taught me about true heartbreak and betrayal. When I returned home, it gave me lessons in pure longing and how to hold on to the torches that we keep alight in the hopes that we will get back the things we love the most in the world. And sometimes, in the small miracles of the universe, we do.
In boarding that plane, I didn’t know what to expect. There were certain pieces of baggage that were coming with me beyond the giant pink suitcase: The gravity of my mother’s illness, the uncertainty of my future, even ghosts of my past who haunted me, to the people who I wished I could call to be there with me in this sliver of my life. But I let them slip away in all the calls I was able to make to those who celebrated this moment with me.
As the plane touched down in Tel Aviv, I was sucked into a two-week journey that seemed to change parts of my DNA. Standing on a rooftop in Jerusalem after I woke up on my first Israeli morning, I sent the anger of my former Israel experience into the wind, blending into the church bells of the new hour, the songs of the Kotel and a call to prayer from the mosque that echoed across the stones. And as I became liberated, my heart began to open to all the new experiences, both on my own and as a part of Na’amat, the women’s organization that brought me there in the first place. I saw sunrises and sunsets, beautiful place after beautiful place. Every step I took further drilled into me the kind of person I am, the past steps that were taken and the future ones that I hope to accomplish.
The experiences I’ve written about over and over, the words spoken and woven into their own forms of tapestries. As I returned home, I decorated my life with the photos and the memories of those two weeks, ranging from kissing a boy on the shores of the Mediterranean to watching children run in the courtyards and along the streets of the Old City on Shabbat. My life back in the United States, which was filled with illness, pain and heartbreak seemed like a stark contrast to the one I could be living in Israel.
In Israel, people who wanted to take me in rather than find every excuse to push me away surrounded me. There, if a guy was interested in me, instead of skulking in a corner or dancing around his words in order for me to say something, he would ask me out. If I had sex with him, it wouldn’t be an excuse not to call me again. And while there was a work ethic that could be cutthroat (especially if you ever met a taxi driver or a shopkeeper), there was also a human ethic that I can’t even begin to describe that made me feel invested in that world, which was looking to help one another rather than to hurt.
In a place where I was living every man for himself, Israel was where everyone was seeking to connect to each other. It was more community based where if your neighbor struggled, so did you. Sure, there were the people who were looking at their phones, but there were also days where those phones were given up and we talked, we reached out to each other, we embraced. I signed, “I love you” with my fingers with deaf Arab women in Nazareth and laughed as I wore a fez and bow tie on Purim and a rabbi handed me a shot of vodka, a bag of candy and directions to my hotel in Tel Aviv. I was spoiled rotten by my old friends and linked arms with new ones. I was shooed out of stores when I didn’t have enough shekels to pay for something and invited into strangers’ homes for plates and plates of food. It was a different mode of life, and coming back to the one I left behind, where my mother laid in hospital beds and I remained financially stagnant, was tricky.
There was nothing more that I wanted to do in the days after my return than to get back on the plane and come back to Israel. I wanted to hide in the crevices of the Old City I came to know and put my fate with all the people I had met, from wandering Shabbats while wearing white dresses to Muslim, Christian and Jewish children who danced together in a daycare center in Jaffa. But I thought to myself, “Give it six months. Six months, and then you’ll figure it out.”
Now it’s been a year, and I don’t know if I’m any closer. My life is here, as are my friends and my family. I love them, but a part of me wonders if there could be a life over there for me that is better than the one I invested in here. It would be a simpler life and I’m not sure if it would be one to drive me crazy in the end. Sometimes I wonder if the fates of the world gave me Israel to give me serenity to make room for the turmoil to come, as I knew very little peace before or since then.
Today, a year after I arrived in Israel, I watched my mom wander through the house, her eyes tired and touching her side, wincing. I sent her bed and tucked her in as the tears rushed to her eyes. As I held her tight and began to silently cry alongside her, I thought of the candles I lit each Shabbat I was over in Israel. I always lit five for each of the people who I loved and wanted to protect with my prayers in the holy land: my mother, father, sister, cousin and myself. In Israel, I carried the people that I loved with me, even though they weren’t there. And here, I carry the land of my people that I have grown to love with me, even though I am gone.
Israel is the name that was given to the patriarch Jacob, which means, “To wrestle with G-d.” I wrestle with the love that the holy land has given me and the love of the world of the people who I love and who love me back. I may always wrestle, but with it comes the strength to face the world. And sometimes, you can’t ask for more.