“Who is Dani Tal?” my father asked me while he sifted through the ziplock bag of photos I had purloined from my mother’s desk after she had died, the bag I carried with me all the way to Israel in a purple carry-on.

A treasure trove, this bag — photos of family past, the photos my parents took at a carnival booth, the photos my Grandparents took next to a sepia sea long before my mother was even a dream, the photos of faces that look like ours, and faces from far, far away.

“Who?”

“Who. Is. Dani. Tal?” he asked again as he held up a picture of my mother. She was glowing even in black and white. Her cheekbones rounded in a smile, her teeth bright against dark skin…. and her left arm around a man with a smile as wide as hers.

“It says Dani Tal on the back. In your mother’s hand-writing” he said, “and I want to know who he is.”

I know he’s joking — never once did he doubt my mother’s love.

My parents met three days before the spring of 1968, her arms still toned and tanned from her year in Israel picking oranges.

He proposed on their first date over Irish coffee. She laughed at him with all her teeth showing, but she took him seriously enough to go out with him again and again and again until finally, on a late night ride back from the valley, while they passed the Wilshire Boulevard exit on the 405 freeway, she turned to him and said “Yes.”

He knew my mom adored him, that was never the question.

You could see it in the way her eyes would glow and her cheeks would flush when he would call her his “beautiful bride,’ every day, throughout the years, when she would wash the dirt off her hands after gardening, when she would bend over the typewriter, her fingers flying, when she would tie the bandanna around head after her hair had fallen out three weeks after she began chemo.

He knew she adored him, that was never the question.

You could see it in the way they’d laugh, in the way they’d fight, in the way they’d make up again, in her simple kindnesses, the brush of her hand, his favorite meal on the table, her “oh, let your father sleep another hour, he had a hard week,” on Saturdays mornings.

He knew she adored him, that was never the question.

But “Sarah, who is Dani Tal?” is the question.

And I wonder too, while I look at her smile and the way she’s leaning toward this man, the way her arm wraps around his waist and the way his arm drapes over hers — I wonder, too, if maybe I wasn’t the only one to fall in love with Israel through the eyes and arms of an Israeli…

Who was Dani Tal?

And more importantly, who was my mother?

Who was she before she nursed me night after night and took me to the pediatrician and wiped my… nose and sang “You are my Sunshine” and “Feeling Groovey” when my stomach hurt and  drew faces on the hardboiled eggs she put in my lunches and waited at home for me to come back and asked me stories about my day and drove me to Hebrew School and helped me write my history papers and…

… and who was my mother that year in Israel when she walked the alley-ways of the Old City, when she swam in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea, when she hiked through the rippling desert, and rappelled down steep mountains, when she danced in front of bonfires, and held hands with a man who made her smile.

And I wish I could ask, and hear about her life before mine, and about this man, this man who may have helped her fall in love with this country, enough to send me here so that I may fall in love with it, too.

dani tal

It goes without saying that if any of you know a Dani Tal who would be in his mid to late 70′s by now, PLEASE let me know.