(Ed. Note: This is the remarkable and illuminating story of our trip to Israel last year. Please feel free to comment, like, share and spread the word 🙂
We land on Friday afternoon in old Ben-Gurion. First time I’m here unorganized by someone else’s trip – and happily. The sun is warm and strong. We need it badly, frozen Yankees of a sort. We’re in a rush to make it for Shabbat. Netanya is our destination. Mamie Jacqueline, my wife’s grandmother, lives there since her aliyah from Nice.
The cabbie takes us in. We’re off. Our four month-old is curious. The palms, the greenery, the air – pretty much everything is different here, in Israel – except Jewish geography. Our cabbie is half Persian and half-Yemenite. He has an aunt in Brooklyn – big surprise. We speed through Tel-Aviv on Highway 1, then 2, past Azrieli towers and the rest. We’ll come back in a week to see our friends, who’ve moved back after years in the U.S. It’s anecdotal, surely, but the wave is coming. Before the massacres in Paris or an “awful deal,” these were Israelis coming home, Americans with Hebrew. It’s a sign.
Jerusalem Syndrome is always hanging in the background here. We’re not immune, but ready with excuses. Our student loans, no army unit buddies, rising cost of living, hard to find a job. The rah-rah optimists who’ve done it advocate the plunge. Reality is harsher. Time will tell.
We pull up to the building. Mamie’s waiting. She is a presence, elegant and beautiful despite her age. She makes one think of Jackie Kennedy, her namesake. She and her husband Gilbert – may he rest in peace – along with their three daughters left Tunisia for the shores of France in early ’70s. Indeed, my wife was born in Nice.
The low-slung Socialist construction resonates with Russian and the street, with French. The familiarity evokes an eye roll and a shrug. We’re both outsiders with an independent streak – perpetually annoyed New Yorkers. All told, Netanya fits well as replacement for Odessa and La Côte d’Azur. The Birds of Paradise and Passion Flowers planted at the front are easy on the eyes.
We quickly change our winter clothes and head back out in shorts. It’s good to breathe. We take the elevator down the cliff onto the beach. Aging Moroccan musclemen, blonde Russian girls and grandmas mill about. Tik-tak-tik-tak, the matkot paddleboards resound all over. Cats have their merry way about the rusting playground. This town reminds me of a convalescents’ village. Fleeing Frenchies will take over soon, it’s certain.
The women light their candles and I’m off to synagogue. The nearest one is Yekke (German), right next door. Aside from an American who greets me out of habit, I sense no regard.
Back home, there is a Tunisian table set – a hundred different salads, tuna, bread, harissa – what a spread! The living room is set with family photos – cousins, siblings, youth retold. The family is scattered between Paris, Casablanca; friends remain in Nice. It’s tough to start a new life in another country, in retirement, to find friends. Israel was her dream. One cannot blame a man for leaving all his friends and comforts to indulge his wife. A woman like Jacqueline, forget it.
There is a certain peace that settles in, in Israel, especially after a giant meal. The fruits and vegetables, meat are simply better, not just kosher. Yes, we’re still tourists, but with open eyes. Our daughter’s antsy, but we sleep quite well.
For morning services, we go to the Moroccan and Tunisian synagogue. In what often becomes a comic scene, the two proud groups cannot agree on tunes or cantillation – really, much of anything. It is a theme I’ve seen played out in Paris and in Casablanca, even in New York. Suspicious and intrigued, the men give a warm welcome. Word quickly spreads – it’s Madame G.’s grandson come from New York. I’m called up to the Torah and perform my Ashkenazi shtick.
At Kiddush, I am offered mahia, the Moroccan fig liqueur. Dadoun – Algerian, this fellow – is quite generous with alcohol. Immediately, he claims that the Algerian pastis is best, not mahia and not boukha – the Tunisian sort. Confirming his suspicion, yes, I’m Russian. We take a couple shots. The women are prepared to leave.
Before we head home for our lunch, we hang out in the square. Between cafes, bodegas, ice cream stores, there is a fountain and kids playing. Again, French everywhere and Russian, barely any Hebrew. Chabad kids run along ahead of Mom and Dad.
Friends greet each other, asking who, what and how long. Granddaughter and her husband and their baby are here from New York. Before too long, we’ve managed meeting half the “village.” This microcosm of Israel is distant from the Startup Nation and the settler enclave and the Temple Institute.
On Sunday morning early, we jump in the car and go. We head north to Ein Hod, an artist colony I find on Google. As we drive up, we pass the Carmel Prison, which I’ve read is infamous for hardened criminals. That’s quite some neighbors there, for artists.
Ein Hod is situated on a hilltop overlooking a large valley. Artisan potters, painters, writers take their residence up here, plus the assorted workers and retirees. We step into a studio. On one end, there are paintings standing. A gentleman is working on a lithograph. We chat up all the artists – mostly older. One’s on sabbatical with husband from Ohio. Mr. Lithographer is from Australia, here on residency. Of course, I have to ask whether the village has some rooms for rent. One can imagine easily a masterpiece being born here, in these hills.
We eat lunch overlooking a tremendous view. A couple – Russian girl, Israeli guy – are flirting at the table next to us. The lemonade is fresh, the eggs have flavor. Life is good. We sit under a tree without a worry, in no rush. I could get used to this.
We pay, then enter a ceramics studio. The artisan’s Sephardic, with great taste. After she hears our story, she begins to push for us to move here for a year. As soon as right away. Who could say no… except Americans with student debt (that’s us). Regardless, we’ll be back here someday soon, my intuition tells me.
We carry on around the village, past all the blooming flowers on a terrace, stopping at a tiny house-bound vintage store. The girl inside – the owner – speaks good French and English; Dad’s Canadian. Although we fail to buy, she points us to her father’s antique store, just down the road. A farmer type who sees my kippah stops his car to ask if we are moving here. “We need a 10th for minyan. Now, it is barely once a month.” Would love to… We’re just visiting. “You’re welcome anytime.”
Such warm, surprising conversations are a hallmark of our stay. The antiques dealer chats us up in French. His wife is Jewish; he is not. They moved here 30 years ago and stayed. One day, us too…
Next stop, Caesarea. We head up north. The rich man’s paradise is out of view. We pass the large Crusader compound, then head to the aqueduct. There is the golf course and the fancy houses in the background. Before the beach, we grab fresh smoothies from a kiosk. Bliss.
Before the afternoon is out, we’re back to our home base. Grandma takes us to a Tunisian sandwich shop. We (kosherly) pig out. One point of strong agreement between Russians and Tunisians is the oily comfort food. The spicy-minded Ashkis in our midst prefer harissa and the egg and deep-fried dough. Now barely standing, we continue to the open market. Fresh fruits of every sort, including the kaki or Sharon fruit (persimmon) and pomelo, even cactus pears (Barbary figs, by us, at home). It’s not so easy to hold back from buying everything. The food just tastes much better here. Now, as we wander between stalls, we see exactly the same tchotchkes made in China that we see in every other place we visit lately – Spain, Morocco, Italy.
There is a Russian grocery toward one end. Inside, I find many familiar childhood treats. Mishka, the Clumsy Bear (in chocolate), salmon caviar and Borodinskiy bread. It’s only fair, I figure, that we find some Russian balance here. We buy some candies for the walk-around and go. I try in vain to bargain in my basic Hebrew for the fruits and veggies. FAIL. The Arab kid who’s helping is pretending not to get my Hebrew, so I wave and pay full price. I’ve fallen prey to the conversion between currencies. Everything’s cheap by New York standards, but expensive with a local salary. We’re on vacation, never mind.
We spend the evening catching up with family on FaceTime and beach-walking before bed. Next morning, we take off up North, to the Galil. Our first stop is Meron, the gravesite of the Rashbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. A brilliant morning sun reflecting off the courtyard limestones welcomes us.
Outside the gates, adherents of the Rabbi Nachman of Breslov have a booth. The women walk into one gate; I walk into the other. Inside a cavernous interior, men of all stripes are praying in their separate groups. Chassidic sidelocks, woven kippas, soldiers in their uniforms are seen, the motley symbols of the nation represented. The building rests atop the holy rabbi’s grave.
I join the prayer of the afternoon. One feels the sparkling energy inherent to a holy place. For a few shekels, I purchase a candle. A gentleman approaches, asking for some charity. It’s for the kollel, learning center for the married men. Please donate money for a dinner, he implores, in broken English. I pray for you and family. The blessing from the rabbi come to you [sic]. In certain situations, even cynical New Yorkers can’t say no. He blesses me and family and says to give the special kid inside the next room charity to light the candle. The boy has learning disabilities and cannot move or speak well, but he has a brilliant smile. He places my tea light inside the Aish Tamid, the holy man’s eternal fireplace. I can’t cognize the meaning then, but I am deeply touched. When back at home, I read about the parents’ sacrifice to bring him up a cheerful, loving kid, in spite of perilous finances, other kids and hosting pilgrims weekly.
Once we have prayed and paid our dues, we exit to the parking lot. The Nachman guys approach me with infectious smiles. “Tzadik!” My philanthropic budget’s busted, but I have no heart for No. I am a sympathetic sucker. The charming leader with his honest eyes, Moshe, now takes my hand. His comrade, in his soldier’s garb, now takes the other and we dance and sing. Ahavat Israel – love for a fellow Jew – arrives in purest form this time.
He asks about my family and blesses each. We get a book and a protective charm for free. They sign us up for $26 a month. Now before every holiday, I get a WhatsApp ping in Hebrew, starting with “Tzadik!” Salt of the earth, Moshe, 5 kids and all, he welcomes us to visit them ASAP.
We get on with the day to Tzfat. We park and notice that the town is freezing, nestled on a mountaintop. Grandma walks off to see some clothing at the mini-mall. Agreeing to meet back at a shwarma stand, the three of us trudge on uphill, around the bend. An awful lot of English emanates from stores and sidewalks here. Post-high-school girls come to the holy city for their seminary year. Famished, we pop into a bakery for lunch. Mushroom and cheese burekas by the pound! Why don’t we have this in New York?
We gobble down the goods, plus sweeter pastries and keep walking. Crossing the street, we run into a wedding photo party… with two brides. An odd, but gorgeous scene unfolds below. Beyond the poor Chassidic neighborhoods, the valley. Trees are beginning now to flower. Our lack of discipline continues with fresh orange juice, squeezed right before our eyes. It may be freezing – for us tourists, under-dressed – but we are thrilled to pieces.
Back down the street, we’re waiting, waiting. Grandma’s back. It’s getting late, toward the evening. Time to go. And so our long descent begins. First down the mountain, then continuing down south. After our daughter, Grandma in the backseat and my wife dose off. Nightfall’s approaching quickly. Now on the highway, I continue through the mountain valleys. By fate or accident, I miss the turnoff toward Haifa, to the west. We keep on driving south. Something of Utah, Arizona’s here, a landscape I enjoy. A certain sharp-edged peace has.settled in my mind, pleased by sharp turns and sense of place. An hour passes, darkness sets. Another passes into dusk. Having no GPS save for my intuition, I now wonder where the hell we are.
Three women start to yell and cry, each in their way. Our daughter’s hangry and we’re out of snacks. We’re lost! We should have been back in Netanya now! Where did you bring us? We’re in danger! Before too long, we should in theory be approaching the West Bank. That is precisely the last thing we need. One wrong turn could mean lynching or being stoned to death by mob. Clenching my teeth, I steel myself. Anyway, I’m the only one who gets us home from here. Complaints continue flooding, bordering on insult. I persist. We reach Afula finally. We circle, stuck in traffic, until the correct road appears. Another hour and we’re home. I am exhausted by impressions and Tunisian temperaments. That’s life.
Up early the next day, I scramble for a day trip. The weather’s so-so, but we need to go. I’m taken by a whim to plan for Haifa. The last time I was there was 15 years before. I saw my father’s mother for the last time then.
We dilly-dally in Netanya until 10 AM. The market’s always calling when so close. Grandma stays home today. The three of us drive through the fog and drizzle up to the Carmel. Toward noon, we turn off toward the center. Seeing that the cemetery is nearby, I’m overtaken by a sense of duty, maybe guilt. My own grandmother’s buried here somewhere. How many times am I in Haifa? Have to go.
I turn off on another road, stopping at cemetery’s gate. Wait for me, I’ll be quick. I go into the office, hoping for directions on the quick. It’s lunchtime, everyone is famished. The rabbi sitting at the desk speaks English well. I ask him, tell me where my grandma’s buried, named Rosa Gurevich. Burial date? 2008, not sure exactly when. I wasn’t there.
He looks a while – nothing but paper records in the place. No, nothing. No Rosa Gurevich. Are you quite sure? Please look again. He looks, again a no. Please, one more time. Look in 2007, other months, other Gurevich names. A hit! He calls over a guy who’s clearly Russian or Ukrainian and works here. In Hebrew, he proceeds to tell him where she is. The guy conveys in Russian that she’s buried in another cemetery, northeast of the City, off the road to Kiryat Bialik. I pay him for the news and write down best I can exactly where to go.
We get back on the road. Our daughter’s cranky. There’s no water. Fog is very thick. My wife is getting anxious and annoyed. The guilt is pressing on all sides. I didn’t see my Grandma since that trip in 1999.
You see, I never was so close with my step-family, is why. I barely knew her, since my parents got divorced at five. Everyone – even Mom – says that she was a lovely lady. My father took good care of her until he died. She moved to Israel with my step-mother and her daughters after that.
By hook, by crook, traveling blind, half-sure, uneasy, we press on. The road leads through a tunnel down the hill, away from Haifa. We turn onto another highway and I realize we’re off. I turn around next to an Arab village and turn off again at a kibbutz. The gate is open, but no help arrives. Inside a plant store on the road, I walk in for directions to the cemetery. Everyone has a different view of how to get there fastest. I chance it and we’re there in twenty minutes.
Nobody’s present in the office. Could it be an off-day? We drive along some more around the grounds and fence. I get out at a random section and traverse the graveyard, up and down. Gurevich, Rosa. One row, another, Russians, Georgians and Bukharians. Where is my Grandma Rosa?! I can’t see her name here anywhere. Be quick, we can’t just wait for you forever, rings inside my ears.
I quickly scan the tombstones – in the wall, as well. Another terrace and another. Where is she? She MUST be here somewhere.
I’m getting desperate. I dial my father’s cousins in Detroit. It’s 5 AM by them. I have to ask, perhaps they know. Perhaps they’ll call my step-mother and ask and call me back. They pick up after many rings. Half-asleep, my third aunt asks why not call my half-sister. I haven’t talked to her in years. I have no number. This is tearing me apart.
I’m in a cemetery, shrouded like a hedgehog in the fog, without a clue of where to find her, what to say or think. I am a ghost here, lost and lonely and confused. Why am I here now? Why this torture, just to come in vain?
She calls me back after some minutes of an awful wait. No news, she cannot reach them. No clue where she is. Call them next time, before you visit! Right, of course.
Worse, now my wife just loses it. Our daughter’s desperately hungry. I’ve brought us on a wild goose chase to hell knows where. A shitty father, husband and an even worse grandson. Don’t wish this on my worst of enemies.
We crawl back toward Haifa, poisoned by our misery and hunger. We stop off at an Arab deli at the bottom of the mountain. I buy some junk food, water and some milk. Too hungry now to eat ourselves, we let our daughter drink.
Inside the city, we climb up the hill. The place feels dingy, cheap and uninviting. Maybe the mood is unrepairable. The Chinese tchotchkes everywhere, the trashy-looking Russians roaming the other charms – something is off. We park and look for stores to buy kippot, a tallit bag, Havdala set. After a couple misses, we succeed.
No Baha’i Gardens on this visit. Let’s just go, get out of here. A shame, there’s much here that we’re missing. The pall is slowly lifting with the stubborn fog.
We stop off at a mall around rush hour for a bite to eat. One after next, the restaurants and stands are treif. What is the matter here? It’s worse than Tel-Aviv, the center of the un-observant. At last, we find a kosher shawarma stand. We scarf the food without much joy. Again, our little one is cranky. I walk around the mall to get her sleepy. And… no dice.
Some days are built of disappointment, brick by brick. We let it go and leave the place. For the next hour, we are stuck in traffic. A wasted day, an empty feeling. Happens.
By morning, we’ve decided on a trip to Tel-Aviv. I get up early and run over to the Francophone Chabad. Found on the second floor of some hotel, quite shabby, half-abandoned, it’s a host of characters – like all Chabads. Some are still bokhers (students), others older; I’m the tourist. I’m used to open arms inside Chabad, wherever in the world I land. Here, no one bats an eye. No friendly inquisition, where I’m from, my shul, my rabbi, nothing. It’s refreshing. In and out. Most everyone’s Moroccan here, a couple Ashkis, just pro forma.
Downstairs, a group of older ladies sadly jockeys for my charity. Each day I’m here, a different one gets it.
The rental car is resting for the day. We take a minibus (shirut) to Tel-Aviv. Here, we are overjoyed to meet a dear old friend, David, outside the old bus station in South Tel-Aviv. This is the friend who hosted me for 5 months on his couch without a word, a brother without ceremony. He took the day off just to see us.
A product manager and top-notch chef, he is a former officer – Intelligence. We’ve thrown around tech company ideas for years and prep advice and far too many crazy stories, testaments and meals. It’s been almost a year since he moved back to Israel from Boston, much too long.
The reputation of this neighborhood as dangerous and blighted is deserved. At least we’re here in daylight. We board a bus together to old Yafo (Jaffa). Slowly, it crawls through city streets towards the sea. We get off at Jaffa Clock Tower and walk south. It is impossible to pass Said el Abu Lafia and Sons without at least burekas and a piece of zahtar bread. The taste alone, aromas from the place affirmatively strengthen my convictions. Yes, I want to live here.
We take to go. David looks good. Israel suits him well – better than Boston or New York, for sure. The sun alone, a proper kitchen and being close to parents all help. We head uphill toward the park with gorgeous views, called HaPisga. Our daughter’s sleeping soundly as we reach the top. The view is stunning up the coast here, whole of Tel-Aviv. After tough times for all of us, it’s good to see a friend who’s doing well. Through different jobs and moves and heartache, disappointment, we have seen each other.
Down through the alleyways of Yafo, we continue over cobblestones. The many artisans and artists here are hawking pricy wares in their boutiques. We ship around the world! Briskly, the wind reminds us it’s still winter, even here.
Before too long, it’s lunchtime. Dave has in mind to take us to a very special place for hummus and fresh fixin’s. Around the bend and up the hill, we trek with stroller, stopping at Abu Hasan/Ali Karavan. It’s clear the place is somewhat of a hummus temple with a crowd of locals bursting out the door. Looking around, I notice a profusion of Israeli men, completely bald. Dave’s head is shaved, as well. I’m overtaken by an urge to call each of them Yossi.
The hummus comes insanely fresh, perfectly spiced, directly from the kitchen right behind us. It’s a gourmand’s dream. The simplest pleasures are the best. I chuckle at the thought of seeing the picture of a strongman fueled by hummus (or falafel, was it?) in a restaurant called Murray’s, in East Village. When done right, this stuff hits the spot. Relaxed, we venture out and breathe. Life’s good, thank G-d.
Back down the hill, we end up in Jaffo Port Market for a beer. The place is full of hipster fare – craft beers and chocolates, coffee and the like. We catch up at a farmer’s table on the latest with our families and jobs. Life isn’t easy here, he says, not by a long shot. Rents are as high – some even higher than Manhattan’s; salaries, much lower. The protests here by middle class the year before expose the rift between the wealthy and all others. It is a glaring shame. Dave says it’s just like the U.S. here with the concentrated wealth; the lack of opportunity can stifle, never mind the economic growth. After the Soviet Union, I’m no Socialist, but some things can’t be justified. When close to half the Holocaust survivors and a fourth of children live in poverty, something is very wrong. It is a bitter brew to down, enjoying sun and sea.
And yet, one doesn’t move here with a mind to wealth, but to simplicity and peace of mind. Children can walk alone from school without much worry; others will watch out. There is a sense of unity despite the stubborn fringes on both sides. When you’ve got neighbors on your borders out to kill you constantly, you stick among your own.
Another friend joins us belatedly, Tamar. As we catch up, we make our way toward the large flea market, Shuk Hapishpishim. Between old copper pots and Persian tiles and carpets, the brass vessels, sheets of fabric, comic books in Hebrew, old Judaica and knick-knacks – antiques, a global staple of all hipsterdom – we see a smattering of galleries and restaurants and bars, catching the sun once more.
Inside one gallery, an artist, Yemenite-Israeli, with his hair done up in Rasta style, discusses influences from Kabbalah. One painting jumps out at us – a floating book written in gold dust coming from above – the Purim Megillah. Based on a photo, we will have a copy from my Mom-in-law, who paints. Just as back home, one visits places like this for ideas and inspiration, not to pawn a kidney for a souvenir.
Late afternoon, we part ways with Tamar and Dave. She takes a class at TAU. Dave heads to work, despite being off. Taking a bus, we get to Azrieli towers and get on a train back home. The tired commuters smile, make faces at our baby. She’s a hit. We zoom north, quickly passing Herzliya. The countryside is lush and green. Without much thought, we somehow end up in Hadera, past our stop. Why was Netanya advertised? We’re pissed.
We wait, our daughter awful cranky, hungry and unchanged. New parents, we’re still learning as we go. At four months, she’s already managed traveling to France, Morocco and now Israel. Our only recourse is to wait for the next train back south. Everyone’s helpful even if our Hebrew’s lacking. There’s always someone who speaks English or alternatively, Russian. Teenagers who are soldiers head back home in uniform with M-16s. Commuters with their laptop bags, kibbutzniks with their woven kippas and tzitzit (prayer shawl fringes), kids in college coming back from class. This is another Israel once more, suburban, central, with its worries of the middle class.
Exhausted, we get in by nightfall in a cab. Tomorrow we head south into another world entirely – Jerusalem.
We sleep like logs and get into the car quite early in the morning. Grandma is with us too. We’re meeting my own family – my uncle and then aunt inside Mamilla Mall. Before too long, we’re stuck in traffic north of Tel-Aviv. We check in with a friend whose wedding was supposed to happen on this trip, but was put off. It’s rough on her, but she’ll be fine. Much better now than later, to divorce.
Already late an hour, we excuse ourselves by phone. There is a chance to speed up through the shortcut – route 443. I think twice, then three times. It is too dangerous. The last few months have seen an uptick in the terror on this road. Last thing we need is to be hit with stones at highway speed by those that want us dead. We take the road most traveled by, arriving at the David Citadel Hotel.
Six years before, I stayed here on a trip sponsored by UJA, called the Shapiro Family Fellowship. I still remember the amazing breakfast served on the rooftop. We met the wife of Robert Kraft that time. It was a carefree time away from summer internships and law school loans, responsibilities. Free trip!
Tremendous changes have occurred since then for all of us. I’ve gotten married, had a kid. I haven’t seen my cousins since that time. One of them married, had two kids; the other got engaged. My uncle Moshe had a heart attack. I haven’t seen him since our wedding. I’m also thrilled for them to meet my wife and daughter and her Grandma. It’s a family union.
My aunt and uncle find us parked. It’s cold outside, still winter in Judean Hills. My aunt and wife immediately hit it off. It is ambitious, bringing Russians, French, Tunisians and Americans together. I hug my uncle Moshe for a while and look him up and down. He looks much thinner, younger than the last time, in New York. The most important thing is, he looks well.
We park and go for lunch inside the mall. My aunt runs back to work nearby; we’ll see her later in the evening. My wife tries Hebrew with my uncle and does very well. For the most part, Mamie communicates in French. I fill the gaps in Russian and in English. We make it work. The burgers arrive dry and overpriced; I hardly care. I’m happy just to see my uncle.
Although they moved in ’91 to Israel and we, in ‘92 to the Midwest, I am in many ways my uncle’s version 2.0. Mom helped to raise him and then me, with insights, just as my sister did for me and then her kids. In fact, we have exactly the same difference in age. We’re also similar in personality, to some degree. He is an engineer and polymath, with an eternal curiosity and passion paired with old-world sense. All this is tempered by a periodic “eeeh” and charming smile and beard.
Although it’s been an often difficult 24 years in Israel, it’s fitting that Grandfather’s son, whom he refused to name officially a less “offensive” name in Russia (Misha), due to family tradition, ended up residing in Jerusalem. Like many Russian Jews our parents’ age, he went through hell first as a Jew in Russia (simply barred from med school, with a name like Moshe), then as a Russian in the Jewish nation (glut of Soviet engineers).
We wander through the mall and out toward the Jaffa Gate. Americans stream out toward us. Things feel rushed. How can it feel tourist-mundane to pass through the Old City, like another tour bus stop? There is a fast-food chain and crowding in a square. Tourists from Poland, Russia stream about. Their parents and grandparents cursed us and oppressed us, if not worse. Now, they are visiting the Jewish state like any other for the sights and weather, for vacation. Times have changed.
The women right behind us, I and Moshe size each other up. Considering his heart attack, he’s looking slim and fit. Only half-jokingly, he says he’s sprouted hairs. We know each other’s characters too well, or so we think. There isn’t much to say. Skype sessions twice a year and Mom’s updates each week suffice.
But then, how well does one approximate another’s daily life from far across the ocean over all these years? Quite well. Even with filters, people that are close can see right to the pain or happiness inside, changes in voice inflection, hair and patience – with a kid, especially. New lines develop implicating common moods. And then a smile, expression of the eyes reminds you, that’s my uncle, that’s my older “twin.”
Our souls were picked from the same cluster, so it seems. Even the women that we married are alike and see each other’s merits easily. No accidents in life.
We make it finally down to the Western Wall, the Kotel. Agreeing to meet in half an hour, we turn left for the men’s side. My wife and Grandma and our daughter take the other side. It is our little one’s first time, we hope of many more that she can’t count.
Up at the Wall, I focus on the very prayers I once made under the marriage canopy. The third time at the Wall does not quite chime with the intensity of seeing it for the first time, coming home. Still, it is powerful enough to energize and set a course. I do the prayer of the afternoon below the wall where sacrifices, offerings were given at this time of day, among a group of 20 men, give charity, give thanks and leave. It is a special ritual I’d love to make a habit.
All of us exit and we walk back down the hill. We drop by uncle Moshe’s place in Pisgat Ze’ev for tea. My aunt and cousin greet us with a warmth and a good up-and-down. My, how he’s grown, I joke. My “little” cousin, meanwhile, is now 24, an officer (reserve) in the Israeli army. She lives at home and is engaged. Her fiancée is Russian, also born here, just like her. Great “kids,” with three years in the army, per the standard. Her older brother was a trainer in the army and now codes.
On the bookshelves, the same books I remember on grandparents’ shelves, plus familiar photos. Although I was in this apartment only once before, it’s cozy, just like home. Except the view is better here and they are close to Beit Hanina, an adjacent Arab village. They are vigilant.
As it gets dark, we rush to drive back to Netanya. Before we leave, a plan is made to have them at Mamie’s. We pull out on the way to Tel-Aviv. The highway is unblocked before our eyes. We barely missed Haredi protests in Jerusalem against the army draft.
The journey downward to the coastal Tel-Aviv is bittersweet. It isn’t the exact term, but one feels the yerida (descent), connoted by the literal and figurative lowering of oneself, as one drives off from dear Jerusalem. It’s much too short a visit, many things unsaid, the market (Mahane Yehuda) not experienced, no Marzipan for sweets, no wandering the alleys randomly in all the quarters. To get lost would be dangerous, but thrilling, even more than Venice. Unpacking the impressions will take time.
Next morning, we hop down to visit my older cousin and his family in Petah Tikva. They’ve got two little ones – a 3 year-old and one our daughter’s age. They live in a new neighborhood which seems an interesting spectrum, from our first impressions. His wife’s at home. The older one has bouncy curls just like her Papa did. These days, he shaves his head.
After my cousin’s home, we take his car – just two of us – to get their son from daycare. On the way there, I tell him that we want to move one day. He warns me of the high – and rising – costs of living. Both of them are programmers in high-tech, with decent salaries, and yet, are paying through the nose for just a basic car and their apartment. This town is still considered part of Central Israel, although it takes a while to get to Tel-Aviv. Apartment prices are insane. Hence, all the protests by the middle class the past few months. Who can afford to live here, anymore, on what? There is no mention of the underclass, the poorer and less educated. Israel, sadly, has the biggest gap between the rich and poor among developed nations. It’s a blight.
My cousin’s right. Making a move here is a real commitment. The old joke goes, in order to become a millionaire in Israel, you have to immigrate, a billionaire. Idealism can’t trump so easily the cost of living, plus of paying student debt. At least the schools are free for kids and one can live quite simply here and well. Therein may lie the key for making aliyah – to swallow the mundane concerns and jump, then learn to fly.
He points outside his balcony to show the field where he goes riding every morning on his bike. Sometimes, he says, he even rides to work, an hour each way. He’s always been like this, a kid on springs since childhood. Who could forget, when he took playdoh, making a computer out of it, complete with tiny keyboard keys! That was at 3. Look at him now!
Three of us cousins – one in Staten Island – used to get together at Grandparents’ in late 80s. The three of us were born a year after the next. I am the middle one, the Staten Island cousin, youngest. I still remember the small play room with bookcases where we sat with toys. When we were older, we would scale the fence to our grandparents’ orchard and go nuts. We climbed the roof and ogled neighbor girls. We picked amazing raspberries and cherries, plums, tomatoes, all in season. Grandma’s green thumb was glorious. Everything grew there. It was Eden. Scattered by fate since then, yet here we are.
This is the essence of the Jewish people. We do not make “sense.” Dispersed by wars and pogroms, genocide, oppression – not to mention opportunity – we’ve more than managed to survive and thrive – and now return.
It’s again freezing out and time to go. They will be over also to Netanya after sundown, Saturday.
We spend a low-key Friday in the city, taking photos in the morning a sunlit window facing out. I snag my daughter in a pose that makes me think of an explorer painting at the Met – Magellan or Vespucci or Columbus, was it?, visionary looking out of frame and up, arm curled (no map, albeit). She is discovering uncharted land, indeed.
One moment, I can see my Grandma’s innocence in her; another, Mom’s intensity. A Papa’s girl? Who knows? Her eyes have my expression, but consensus has it, she is Mama’s copy.
At night, we take the Shabbat elevator down and stroll. We fly on Sunday, but that’s out of sight and mind for now. Inside the square, there is the same collection of French speakers, Russians, elderly with Filipina nurses, tourists. All is calm and pleasant.
There is a special energy one feels on Friday night. Shabbat, a birth right, is a blessing all too often disregarded. No planes, trains or automobiles, just blissful rest, reflection on the week just past, on timeless lessons from our forebears – and, just simply, time with family and friends to eat and joke, catch up. In the Diaspora, one feels a tension through the rest. Here, it is absent and one really rests.
Toward sundown, my aunt and uncle, “little” cousin and her beau arrive with cake. Soon after, cousin Alex and his family appear. Kids are at home with babysitter and they’re out and happy.
I look around the table and I’m quietly delighted. Despite the hardships here, they manage to enjoy their life, my uncle Moshe and his wife. The kids – it’s hard for me to call myself and cousins real adults, no matter what I do – the “kids” are all grown up. Not long ago, the thought of reuniting with them, introducing to my wife – of “wife,” in principle, or being a father – would have been surreal. Five years have flown. So many things have changed, it’s staggering.
But most importantly, it’s normal. We’re in our homeland, sitting and exchanging stories in four languages. Grandparents would have loved each other’s company, no matter just how far apart they’d lived and thought and saw the world. Grandma Faina – Moshe’s mother – was a fervent Zionist, like Grandpa Isaak. Neither did make it, sadly, here to Israel. He died from cancer, doting on his Fanyechka until the end. Grandma’s heart problems and the rest caught up to her.
Grandparents have a way of seeing beyond the petty slights of life, humiliations and anxieties, toward the silver lining. How else does one survive to an old age, when grudges kill and all that matters is the safety of routine, of seeing your kids and grandkids thriving and exploring, seeking out their piece of sun.
We raise a toast, a second and a third to family, to future gatherings and moving here. We drink Israeli wine and boukha with Tunisian meatballs, salads and harissa. I shake my head in pleasant disbelief, wide-eyed. My wife speaks an amazing Hebrew, better with the wine. Grandma converses with my uncle in a simple Hebrew, but they get each other. A couple jokes and idioms translate miraculously from the Russian into French. My cousins speak a truly awesome English, picked up from an English lady, an old neighbor. My French is good enough to translate right to Russian (thank you, boukha!).
Because we cannot vouch for others without seeing them regularly, even family, there is a sort of expectation of a lag in speech or uptake based on culture and mentality. Because of Skype and Facebook and our constant messaging across the globe – or maybe just because of our genetic similarities – we actually catch on by instant. The Old World taught us once to treasure our identity through Western culture. We ran with it, so far that we learned English, Russian, French, whatever better than the locals. But in the end, our essence called far louder than the yoke of learned behavior.
The world has changed – and not in gest alone. Maybe it really is that simple to pack up and come. What matters more than family and friends together with good food and sun, loving the land you live in and enjoying it, even if neighbours want to kill you? Who needs amenities, square footage, all the trappings of a gilded cage? Anyway, life is short. Tachlis, no bullshit. Yallah. Giddy-up.
We have the cake and eat it, too. Blebess (You’re Missed, in the Moroccan Arabic), our parents, brothers, sisters and our other cousins. Before we bid goodbye, we want to spend more time – much more – together. This is crazy fun. Alina and her fiancée are coming to New York to visit at some point, to learn about a couple business programs where to study. We have to make it back, another holiday, a week. Nobody knows exactly when or how, but it will happen.
After our hug, my uncle Moshe and I press our eyelids, both, then nod and lift our eyebrows, understanding all. The other’s changed and stayed the same, at once. The little boy is Big Man with the same big eyes – and family. Big Uncle is just Moshe, with that blessed smile and beard.
Nobody’s checking versions or for updates anymore. It’s just a treat to see each other. The silly-willy nicknames thrown around in-family– nonsense in any language, save our own – are just as lovable and crazy as in childhood.
These are the things traversing time and circumstances, keeping us afloat. We have that other person half across the world – we need them always, but don’t have them – to keep us anchored and unchanged by others who would eat our lunch.
With her spectacular inheritance of monikers – both Papa’s and from Mama, our little one’s well-cured already. She laughs at them, jutting her charming girly face up with her narrowed eyes. Coquine.
My wife and I exchange a parents’ glance. She fits well in our nation full of presidents.
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