Israel, One Year Later
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.