I don’t have a thousand friends on Facebook, so for me it has been more of an intimate platform to share information with friends and family. After spending years posting old and new photos of life in Israel, I have come to realize that I am plagued with a condition that I call permanent nostalgia. It’s not debilitating in any way, it’s universal, and I see it as a positive even though some will tell you that it’s an idealized version of the past, or whitewashing of events, or that it keeps us from accepting the present.
Nostalgia takes over when little things trigger a feeling of happiness and I am temporarily transported to a different time and place by a memory that conjures up images of old friends, or people who have passed on, unforgettable tastes and flavors, a conversation that I long to have again, a certain atmosphere that is no longer there. Sometimes, I feel nostalgia for a time that I never experienced but I nevertheless enjoyed through film, or a book, or through stories that I heard from family members or photos in my grandparents’ old, thick albums that necessitate careful handling because the spine has already fallen apart from years and years of paging through them.
Without reminiscing about a past we’ve never experienced, we wouldn’t be privy to the latest Bettie Page bangs-fashion-trend and antique cars and furniture would not be a profitable business either. There is a tendency to create a new narrative, focus on isolated moments from the past as a collective–a celebration of a certain standard and beauty. Why do we have ‘40s Classics on Sirius Radio, unless this is just another way to cater to those who are stuck in an abyss of what they think of as better days? When I listen to Israeli army groups (lehakot tzvaiot) that performed their songs before I was born, it triggers emotions in me that make me homesick for Israel, and the same goes for songs by Miriam Yalan Shteklis, specifically ”Ima amrah li Danny,” or serious oldies–poems by Yehuda Halevi. I admit that lately, I am glued to one particular television series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; I love the fashion, attitude and humor, and everything that surfaces along with a glimpse into a past era, and an unequivocal reminder of the retinue of events that enchant us and bring value to our lives—including the good, the bad, and the ugly.
However, the specific nostalgia that I’m interested in talking about is when you are born in one place but live in another; when I walk into an Israeli establishment abroad I see it as affirmation of a culture of nostalgia. The minute I set foot inside one of these eateries, my senses set off a cascade of memories. My eyes dart from wall to wall, as if looking for clues that I am in a place that evokes common traditions, a place that sustains my Israeli identity. I spot the customary hamsa that hangs on the wall, a Kashrut certificate even when the owners are secular Jews, and a photo of some unfamiliar rabbi hangs at an angle–the aestheticism of American décor has not affected the owners yet. Instantly, excitement grips me—a quick glance to the left and I notice a display that offers Bamba and Bisli products, canned Israeli pickles and olives, neatly stacked herbs and spices—Za’atar grabs my attention first and foremost. The Hebrew chatter pervades the air and my Israeliness in that specific moment is effortless.
However, it’s not about trying to change the people and place that currently make up my life in America, but it is about a phenomenon that is present among those of us who derive pleasure from remembering our old way of life in a foreign country with all of its thrills and spills. Looking back is just like watching a movie that resonates with us. And I find that this is the case even if life is pretty good and you’re happy–part of you wonders what life would be like if you never left. And it also wanders over there. You don’t mean to do it, and I definitely have to bite my tongue in order to keep my friends from rolling their eyes, or my husband from divorcing me, or for strangers to think that I am an insufferable snob–but I find that often times I compare flavors and long for Israeli food.
What’s interesting to note is that I was born in England and spent a few years living in London, Cambridge, and Manchester; during the ‘70s I lived in the States for three years, and yet my most powerful nostalgia is for one place only. I feel this way even though I have fond memories of delectable biscuits at Granny Gertrude’s place in London; crunchy-meaty pizza crust at Casa-Di-Pizza on Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo, NY, evokes a smile, and so do flexible memories of daily gymnastics lessons in state-of-the-art gyms that one could only find in America. However, I don’t crave any of it and nothing is calling me back other than missing my granny and frustrated that I can’t even mimic my old English Accent.
On the rare occasion when the sky in Las Vegas turns grey and cloudy and it rains, first of all, I feel immediate happiness; yes, grey makes me happy. The smell of rain washing down the tarmac outside my home reminds me of Israel–it’s not a particularly pleasant smell, nothing like wet red hamra soil in the Sharon coastal area, but it’s enough to spark a reaction that illuminates those wonderful rainy days in Herzliya where I grew up. Las Vegas is a complete contrast to the beach city of Hezliya where coconut sunblock and salt infuse the air with a distinctive scent during summer time, but on a rainy day beach and desert become one, and I am immediately transported to Mitzpe Yam 5 and my old telephone number 557-492. The thing is, I have a terrible memory for numbers–I suck at math–and this is one number that I have never forgotten.
Freud had already linked odors and emotions together, and for me it works every single time. When I see beautiful fruit at the market, I sigh deeply because I know it only looks good–picture-perfect actually–even though picture-perfect has a different meaning in America. You see, good produce isn’t perfectly shaped, but it is rich in flavor and taste. Say, I have eyed a cluster of green grapes, and mind you, I will only purchase them in season–just as I’m about to bite into that perfect, green ellipsoid, something feels wrong, the bite isn’t as crisp and the taste is foreign and the texture blah. How can a grape taste like a potato? Of course I mumble under my breath even when I’m alone: “This tastes nothing like grapes in Israel.”
I miss my grandfather Zachariah; he too was steeped in nostalgia. Zachariah spent so much time talking about the old life in Yemen that thirty years after his death I still have a vivid image of his home life in Sana’a, and I can taste it too. Similar to the main character in the story Fiddler on the Roof, Zachariah, just like Tevye, was a man who cherished tradition, but he also had to come to terms with unavoidable changes and accept that tradition needs adjustment at times. Most Yemenites were confronted with the precipice of old and new converging—and their children abandoning some of their old ways of life in order to better absorb into the more modern fabric of the budding Israeli society of the past century, and it was tough.
My grandfather never chided us for leading a secular life, but I can tell you that entering his home felt like a different dimension. The prayer style and blessings were all in Judeo-Yemeni Arabic, and he would read from a diwan that included poems and songs of renowned medieval poets of the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry. Every meal was a recreation of how he remembered food in Yemen, and since my grandmother was the cook, she also squeezed into the mix a few new typical Israeli favorites such as burekas or even gefilte fish in honor of my Ashkenazi, South African father, who’s physical attributes alone of 6’4” compared to the diminutive-sized Yemenites, made him look out of place–as if he walked up the wrong staircase.
As far as my grandfather was concerned, the food in Yemen tasted better, and this had nothing to do with my grandmother’s cooking abilities, but all to do with what he perceived as better-tasting produce in Yemen. My grandfather’s nostalgia for Yemen was both good and bad—once veering away from the taste and aroma of food, we would get a full-scale account of the life of Yemenite Jews subjugated to the most humiliating laws under Islamic rule. In spite of missing certain aspects of his life in Yemen, Zachariah was very content with life in Israel and refused to leave the country, even to visit us when we lived abroad. The only place he expressed a desire to travel and see once again was Yemen, but we can be positive that Yemen would not have been welcoming of him in any way.
Once, during a Passover meal in my home, I reminiscent in front of my parents about the way we used to celebrate Passover together with my grandparents in Rehovot; I mentioned the food, the Yemenite-style of seating on the floor on top of cushions, the blessings and singing. I expressed how much I enjoyed listening to Zachariah’s stories about Yemen, and I also revealed a sadness that my own children would never experience these types of flashbacks to a world that has since vanished. My father looked at me for a minute and said: “Rubbish, absolute nonsense. Your children have the very same when you tell them about your life in Israel . . . part of their experience of Israel is shaped through your eyes too.”
I have never forgotten that remark.
Once upon a time nostalgia was frowned upon, it was thought of as a disease in the 17th century, a curable one, but still a disease no less. However, Jewish liturgy is filled with nostalgia and so is Jewish writing throughout the centuries, and it’s become part of our collective culture. Yehuda Halevi was born in Spain in the 11th century, and poems he wrote before he visited Israel were filled with nostalgia for a place he had yet to visit.
“My Heart is in the East
But the rest of me far in the West—
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in the chains of the Moor,
Zion bound to the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
Gladly I’d leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.”
I read a few different interpretations of this poem by authors who saw Halevi as a romantic who idealized the notion of Jerusalem, a proto-Zionist even–someone who delayed his departure to Palestine until very late in his life because he may have feared disappointment. Other writers saw him as fulfilling a personal desire to get one step closer to living his truth when he finally journeyed to Palestine. If you read The Kuzari by Halevi and get to grips with the dialogue between King Bulan of the Khazars and a rabbi, you begin to understand Halevi’s approach to his life in the diaspora with more depth.
I don’t care if my idea of Israel is deemed by others as a romanticized notion of the country; I think nostalgia is a wonderful vehicle that allows us to feel appreciative of things we had and loved, and another way of keeping old traditions alive. I feel that nostalgia adds a layer of profound insight and beauty to our memories. I pine after tastes and flavors and the conviviality of the Israeli society; the first blossom of spring in the Galilee; a field painted in red poppy in the northern Negev region; a rainy day in Herzliya; a sunny Saturday at the beach while gazing into a horizon of azure-colored water–albeit dotted with madkot-players and loud-mouthed kids—full of life and laughter, and walking ice cream vendors who speak in rhyme and yell: “Banana ice cream for Miss Ilana.”
I miss walking along old paths littered with history, sidewalk cafes with patrons sipping a café hafuch, and the buzz in the air of impassioned conversations. I wish I could still walk back home in the dark without fear; I remember communal singing with my Uncle Ami on motzei Shabbat at a kibbutz in Jerusalem; asking the local grocery store in Herzliya to put the shopping on my tab—tirshom li bevakasha—just not the same as charging to a credit card. I miss crawling into caves near Beit Guvrin where we would find pottery shards, coins, and ancient beads–I miss that feeling of treading on soil that carries with it a history that excites me and that is also a part of my own ancestry.
But what about war and conflict and all the dead you may ask? I don’t think that anyone can escape thinking about that reality too. I don’t pretend to be disillusioned. But the good has outweighed the bad, and that part of the footage I carefully edit so my nostalgia remains a combination of experiences, thoughts and dreams. I was born in London, moved to Israel then back to England, returned to Israel, then America, Israel again, then England, until the second round of America happened. I think everyone lives a certain amount of contradictions, we are evolving beings after all, but there has been one powerful feeling that has always remained constant, which I cannot deny. One day I shall return I tell myself, and I bet that a healthy dose of nostalgia for America will keep my mind wandering again.