Israel: A Girl, A Mother, A Jew
What I remember most vividly from that trip was stepping off the plane and having an enveloping feeling of being welcome in Israel.
Why am I going to school today?” I asked. “We’re Jewish.”
“No one needs to know that,” my mother
said, taking a drag on a Kent, and kissing me on the cheek at the bus stop.
It was Yom Kippur, 1975. I was 12. I didn’t know much about religion, but even I knew this holiday was a big one. We had moved to Connecticut from New York City the year before. Living in Manhattan, I don’t remember ever thinking about being Jewish, but suddenly it had become some kind of “if they don’t ask, don’t tell,” situation. I wasn’t going to burst my mother’s bubble that Fall morning, but it was a little late to hide my Jewishness under a bush. I had already been chased around the school and called “kike,” a word I had to ask the other Jewish kid in the class to define for me.
It wasn’t just the no-one-needs-to-know aspect of who I was that made me feel less than compelling as a young girl. It was also being hyper-aware that my mother spent hours thumbing through the pages of Vogue and Gourmet magazines, neither of which ever featured girls who looked like me, girls with olive skin and curly dark hair. Once a week at night, the whole world stopped for my father when Angie Dickinson, with her tousled blonde hair, came on screen as “Police Woman.” From there he moved on to Melanie Griffith. I grew up understanding what men found attractive, and that was not me.
Despite our underground Jewish status during those years, I did eventually make my way to Israel in the summer of 1978, when I was 15.
What I remember most vividly from that trip was stepping off the plane and having an enveloping feeling of being welcome in Israel. The airport walls were plastered with Hebrew and people all around me were…wait for it…Jewish. Many of them wearing gold chai’s on chains around their necks or, even more brazenly, yarmulkes! It was okay to be Jewish here. Better than okay, it was what you were supposed to be. The women here were olive-skinned, with thick dark tresses, and they laughed loudly. No one seemed to find this embarrassing. These are my people, I wanted to shout.
We were whisked from the airport to a kibbutz by a team of happy Jewish people — also something I had never witnessed in my Eastern European depressed family. For the next two months I lived on a farm measuring apples, dropping them into circles in a vast, round wooden disc. Despite being approached by an Israeli soldier who asked me if I was gym teacher in America — “Because you have very pretty face but you are very fat!” — I still wanted to move Israel. I didn’t. But when I returned to Connecticut, I did make my parents stop with the Christmas trees.
Forty years later, I got a call to return to Israel. I don’t mean I was called to go there in some deep spiritual way; I mean I was literally invited to Israel with the Bnai Zion Foundation, an organization that has been helping a very wide range of communities there for over 110 years. It was an opportunity to see the country through their eyes: an offer I couldn’t refuse.
On the outbound flight, my seat was next to
a visibly Orthodox man. He immediately asked the woman next to him if she would like to sit next to me.
“Why would I want to do this?” she asked. “I don’t know her.”
At least, I thought that’s what they were saying; they were speaking in Hebrew. He then proceeded to pray the entire flight — to distract himself from my exposed shoulders, I assumed. To distract myself from his praying, I pulled the map up on my individual screen. I had made that first trip to Israel from the east coast, and this one came upon me so quickly I didn’t have time to focus on the actual journey; I was entirely preoccupied with my young son’s schedules in my absence. Sitting in my seat now, facing the cartoon plane in front of me and the distance I was traveling away from my children, I nearly passed out. I put my head between my knees. Then I felt a tap.
“I have some chocolate if you would like it,” said my new Orthodox friend. “Kosher. It’s very good. You’ll see.”
As soon as we landed we were immediately taken to a factory in the West Bank, an air-conditioner plant called Twitoplast. We were told the Palestinians and Israelis work together here, happily. We met the founder, Israel Twito, and heard about his passion for inventions that make life better for everyone, regardless of religion. It was jarring to witness all this, since all talk in my progressive circles back in LA paint Israel solely as an evil oppressor. From there we were taken to Bnai Zion Medical Center in Haifa, where after the bombings of the Second Lebanon War they are now busy building an underground ER. Next up was Ahava Village, where neglected children move in with a couple and their offspring to experience normal family life, then a music and art center where again Jews and Palestinians work together, and then to the Knesset. I finally sat down there, facing a wall of Marc Chagall’s tapestries. They are so beautiful, so rich with detail and color, that I was rendered speechless.
Every stop on this excursion was so emotionally loaded that I had little time to revisit my personal feelings of belonging until we took a break and went to the Old City of Jerusalem, to the shuk. It was here, seeing tables and tables of sweets and nuts and what felt like hundreds of versions of granola, inhaling the smells of freshly roasted meats and ground coffee, that I thought of my family, my boys, wishing they were with me and experiencing this marketplace in this ancient city, created by Jews and run by Jews. I wanted to bring a piece of it back for them to hold in their hands. I was overwhelmed by options.
I remembered my younger son will become a Bar Mitzvah in 2020, and instantly I knew what to buy him. A tallit, from here. I haggled a little, but not wanting to be too Jewish—still my mother’s daughter after all—I settled pretty quickly.
“What did you get?” my traveling companions asked when I rejoined the group. I showed them the handwoven fabric with prayers on it.
“So gorgeous,” they said.
No one pushed it back in the bag. No one said, “That’s enough, put that away, no one needs to see that.”
Nobody says that to me anymore, and this makes me very happy.