A few years ago, at my sister’s retirement party, our eldest daughter was one of the speakers.  She said lots of complimentary things, as was expected and all definitely deserved, but what I remember the most is when she said, and thank you for giving us the gift of Israel.  

The gift of Israel?  Such a strange phrase.  How do you give a country, a nation, a dream fulfilled, as a gift?  Just what exactly did she mean by her carefully chosen words?

This is what she meant. History first:

When my younger sister and I were growing up in Newark, in the 40s and 50s, Israel was not really on our horizon.  Sure our mother and aunts were hardworking Hadassah ladies (not women), but it seemed like a social activity to us with talk of Donor Luncheons, and endless meetings. HMO was not the site of my future miscarriage D and C in the mid 70’s.  It was some unfathomable phrase of the ladies.  Youth Aliyah meant very little (in fact, nothing) to us. Our lives and dreams were built around the world of New Jersey and New York Jewry.  We would do the usual:  go to college, get married, have children, maybe careers, build our lives and try and inspire our progeny to do more of the same.  After all, America was pretty new to our family and it is a really wonderful place for dream fulfillment.

My sister, however, was a bit more sophisticated than I, and certainly more of a dreamer and a risk taker.  While I got married at 20 and began teaching in the Newark school system, she finished college and moved to Manhattan, a very big step in those days. Today it seems so ordinary and aspirational. Not then.

A brief couple of years later and she made her announcement:  “I’m moving to Israel.”  My parent’s Zionism was severely challenged but, in all fairness to those who can no longer speak for themselves, they took the news with relative aplomb and followed her several years later.  Me? I had never known anyone who had moved to Israel but this was 1967, shortly after the brilliant victory we call the Six Day War.  It was an inspiring time and we were really proud of her.  She knew just about no one in Israel except a couple of distant cousins.  She knew no Hebrew. And off she went.

All these years later she’s still here, in Herzliya, with her two married Sabra children, and four Sabra grandchildren.  Her beautiful mensch of a husband, Ze’ev, who was handed a uniform and gun in 1948 when he arrived from the camps in Cyprus, is now in olam ha ba.  And she has retired from a long and meaningful career as a writer and high school English teacher.  Her students really learned English.

So what about the gift?  The gift of Israel?

We, my husband and I, have four children.  We always wanted them to know their family, regardless of where that family lived  So we committed ourselves to an annual visit to Israel.  These trips were very hard, even on me.  Shlepping four little kids on long and exhausting international flights could never be described as a walk in the park. And hosting us was a sort of ambiguous joy.  Laundry.  Food.  Mess.  All imported from America.  And there was the time when my son, our youngest, landed in the hospital with a stomach bug.  Lots of stories. But meanwhile, something transformational was happening. Israel was becoming homelike to all of us.  So much so that one of the kids once asked if we could go to the Caribbean for a vacation because she wanted to go someplace.  Israel wasn’t someplace. Israel was just Israel!

My sister’s noble spirit never intervened.  Our visits were welcome. Hence we have wonderful photos of kids sharing playpens, hers and mine, and growing up knowing each other well, as if they lived in the next town, not in a different hemisphere. We all remember Ze’ev calling out to our son, In a language he did not possess, English, Peter, go to sleep, in response to our baby’s nightly screaming bouts. Jetlag or colic?  Who knew?  I believe the whole city of Ramat Gan heard!

When our two older girls opted for studies at Hebrew University, Aunt Janet and Uncle Ze’ev were, for years, surrogate parents, places for meals, Shabbatot, laundry and, above all, love.

All of our kids have been back and forth to Israel so many times that it’s truly not a vacation.  It’s like visiting your aunt and uncle in Queens or Boca.  And there are lots of dual passports in the family.

And now, we have a genuine, full time Israeli.  Finally!  He’s our 25-year-old grandson, a summa cum laude graduate of an Ivy League university, who has been here several years and will celebrate his geus in September.. We are so proud of him.  May he be blessed!

With God’s help our family ties to this hallowed land will continue.  But without the help of my sister this never would have happened.  It is she who, humbly and with humility, gave us this amazing, life altering gift, the gift of Israel.  And we say, with hearts full of love, respect and admiration:  todah rabbah.