On hurricanes, memories, and a secret path to Jerusalem

I’m watching hurricane warnings on the news, and it all seems so far away as the crisp hint of fall air hangs over New England evenings. It has been uncharacteristically cool, this last month of summer. Visiting Cape Cod, we explored the tidepools and I didn’t even bother with a bathing suit, certain I would regret swimming the moment I exited the water and got hit by the ocean breeze. The kids ran out, teeth chattering, demanding towels.

Though we live in MA, and spend our summers mostly landlocked in Jerusalem, their primary experience of the ocean is from St Martin. For more than 25 years, my family spent vacations on the beach there. My parents, in a transparent bid to keep their teenagers, and later their grandchildren, spending a chunk of time together, provided the setting. They would rent a house big enough to fit the entire family, and simply wait as the positive responses poured in.

As a teenager, it was so freeing not having to fret about a scene around a hotel pool. The house was so far down the beach that few people passed by. I swam for hours at a time and listened to the waves roll in. If it rained, we played cards, or read, not bothering to change out of our PJ’s till the sun peeked through the clouds.

Sometimes we went with friends, and we girls would walk up and down the beach for hours, giggling about boys, stressing over college applications. Once, friends of ours who had no children of their own planned a New Year’s party for all the families who we knew who were visiting the island. We ate fancy hors d’oeuvres and drank expensive champagne. From our patio up top we could see fireworks displays from all over the Island. I can still taste the delicious extravagance of that night, my 18 or 19 year old self giddy from the sea air and a bit too much alcohol.

I called a promising new boyfriend from St. Martin when our flight was cancelled as a blizzard covered the northeast. And later, I brought him there as my husband and showed him all my secret places. I loved the way the island felt foreign. The way I needed to speak French in order to figure out what to buy in the supermarket.

My children were babies there, and then not. We took pictures each year in the same spots, and it was almost like leaving pencil marks on the doorjamb, seeing how they grew. My son, as big as a man now, found a spot at the very end of the beach that he (or maybe his grandfather?) dubbed the Pirate Cove as soon as he was old enough to talk. He would visit it every day to see what had been ‘moved’ by the pirates overnight. And occasionally he would find notes there, written to him by the pirates themselves! When his little brother was big enough, he brought him, too, and told him endless tales, as they climbed over rocks and built forts to protect from the invaders.

Once, when a strike by the electric company left us stranded inside by the electric gate, I slithered under a hole hastily dug beneath the fence, protecting a very pregnant belly. And a few years later, pregnant yet again, with a four year old, and a two year old who was on a sleep strike, I drove a family member (who shall remain nameless) to the hospital for stitches. Bleary eyed, I listened to him complain about that ‘nearly invisible’ glass door.

It was easy to be Jewish there, even conspicuously so, as we are. Many French Jews made the island their home. Until the economic downturn a number of years ago, the island had kosher restaurants, and we would have fabulous Moroccan feasts for our Shabbat dinners. And in the other restaurants, they would spot the kippot, and let us know that they, of course, had kosher wine available. And without asking us, they’d let us know what on the menu we would be able to eat.

On Friday nights, after we had gotten ready for Shabbat, we would take pictures just before the sun went down, faces scrubbed, hair still wet, cheeks pink. And then we would pray together as a family, singing loud, and dancing, watching the waves, our voices carried by the ocean straight to Yerushalayim.

Over the years we met many people in St. Martin. They were open and kind and generous. They were hospitable over and over again. They remembered us year after year, playing with our children and remarking as they grew. We learned about their families. About their lives there. It made us think, if only for a moment, that we could make a life in a place like that. It was a dream that blew away as soon as we stepped out of the airport, back into the freezing winter wind.

All those people, I can’t stop thinking about them as I obsessively refresh the pictures and videos coming in so sparingly from St. Martin. Watching on the screen, it hardly seems real, that an entire place, a world onto itself, could just be wiped out. Obliterated. Destroyed by monster versions of the very things that made it so beautiful. The warm water. The ocean breeze.

I recognize so many of the places now covered with debris, upended. Broken. I hope, feeling so impotent, that people won’t suffer, but I know they will. I imagine, sometime in the near future, there will be concrete ways we can help. In the meantime, all I can do is watch, as so much of their lives, and a tiny but precious sliver of mine, wash away with the waves. And wait, as their prayers, and mine, find their way to Yerushalayim.

About the Author
Leah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Massachusetts and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.
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