I remember the time I first came to Israel. I stepped off the El Al flight and made my way through the terminal both bewildered and excited. Everything was different. The roads were different. The people were different. Even the air felt different. With a deep breath I stepped off the tarmac – and almost got hit by a taxi!
I remember when I first drove in Israel – which is an experience in self-preservation, adrenalin and anxiety. Although I’m not a Jedi, I’m convinced that I was using the Force when I weaved my way through the streets of Tel Aviv, doing things with my Aunt’s car that are not meant to be done. I learnt so many things that day – like parking bay lines are more a suggestion than a rule, and parking half way up a pavement is perfectly acceptable. I also learnt that driving at the speed limit in the fast lane is one sure way of being abused and hooted at. Coming from a country where I drove on the left-hand side of the road, every time I tried to change a gear, I’d open the window!
I also learnt that sometimes the only way to cross a pedestrian crossing is to play chicken with a car. Standing patiently at the beginning of a pedestrian crossing, waiting for the cars to stop, meant that after an hour, I’d still be waiting patiently at the beginning of the crossing, waiting for the cars to stop.
I remember taking the busses constantly around Israel marvelling at the skills of the drivers who drove these colossal vehicles as if they were driving a Mini Cooper, finding their way through gaps that just weren’t there!
I remember arguing with people in different languages using my broken Hebrew, English (which becomes broken after a while) and Russian, which I don’t even speak at all! And in Israel everyone gets involved in an argument – even when they are in total agreement!
But I also remember sitting in the fading light upon the grass banks of Kibbutz Sdot Yam, looking out over the Mediterranean Sea, and watching the sun fill the sky with golden warmth as it slowly slipped into the comforting embrace of the ocean.
I think of the bakeries in Haifa whose salted pretzels and bagels would still be warm to the touch as they melted on contact with your tongue which would still be dancing the hora long after the bagels were gone. I remember stopping on the side of the road and sampling the Arab pita bread with the Labana cheese for the first time, sending me into a culinary ecstasy that convinced me that if I ever made it to Heaven one day, this is what will be served in the waiting room.
I remember climbing up the snake path of Masada and wiping the sweat off my brow as I sat on the summit, watching the morning’s first rays illuminate the Judean Desert slowly revealing its beauty – just as my fellow brethren had sat there almost 2000 years earlier, overlooking the Roman army.
I remember standing in a Kibbutz during Yom Hazikaron, listening to the sirens wail, as Israel remembered its fallen soldiers and victims of terror. I did not understand all the words that were said, but I also didn’t need the words to understand, because sometimes words alone do not convey meaning enough.
I listened to the quietness of the valleys around Yad Vashem and marvelled at their beauty, as I reflected on the events of just a few decades earlier that had led to the murder of so many of my people.
I remember the first time I walked through the streets of Jerusalem, where the giants of Jewish history shout out at you from the sign posts; Rambam, Yehuda Halevi, Herzl, Yosef Trumpledor. I can still feel the cobble stoned paths of the Old City of Jerusalem, as it weaved its way through its 5000 year old history, leading you to the Kotel – the beating heart of Israel and the Jewish people.
People talk about maps, and they draw lines in the sand. They talk about barriers, and they talk about borders. But no border can contain the spirit that has filled this land for thousands of years. When you walk in Israel, you are walking where Abraham walked. When you swim in the streams of Ein Gedi, you are swimming where Joshua and the people swam. When you rest against a palm tree in the desert mountains, you are resting where Deborah once rested. When you ride horseback across the Judean desert, you are riding where King David once rode.
The bond between Jews and Israel is strong and always has been. Distance does not cause it to go weak. Conflict does not cause it to grow weary. Time does not cause it to fade.
The first time I visited Israel, I knew that Israel was a part of who I am, etched into my heart like granite, imprinted on my DNA, branded on my soul.
We may live in just a blink of history’s eye, but the Jewish people’s connection to Israel is eternal. And while our physical bodies might be dispersed across the globe, our spirit remains where it always has been – home.