I have now been in Israel for exactly 15 years.
There is so much I could write about this milestone:
My connection to the land itself, the dirt literally nestled in the nail beds of my farmer toes.
My menagerie of animals.
My Israeli children, born and bred.
Language, culture, my connection to the One.
Dreams fulfilled and dreams deferred.
Joy, disappointment, heartbreak, connection, rejection, wide openness –
A wide openness that is my lived experience everywhere, but even more specifically, more achingly, here.
But instead, because that all feels like a lot sometimes, I will tell you the story of the day of my anniversary itself, which is a microcosm of the past 15 years.
* * *
The saga of the Israeli driver’s license:
When I moved to Israel, converting my license was wayyy down on my list of priorities. Why would something rational like that be on my radar? I was too alive, too in love with my new home; too busy dreaming, scheming, flying in and out of the alleyways of Nachlaot, fingertips scraped raw on Jerusalem stone, drunk on the smell of night blooming jasmine.
Since exchanging those enchanted alleyways for a differently enchanted farm life (the photo here is from today’s sunrise), it is clear that I need to have a driver’s license. It’s inconvenient and irresponsible not to. So even though I got my license as an awkward 17-year-old in Newton MA, I was told by several Israeli driving instructors that I had to begin again. From scratch. At the age of 37.
So: I study my tush off and pass the theory test on my first try. I begin to notice that seemingly no other Israeli driver has ever actually studied driving theory, or if they have, they just don’t care about things like right of way or traffic signs. I find this both endearing and terrifying.
Then I make an appointment at the Misrad Harishui (Department of Motor Vehicles) in Jerusalem to beg them to let me off the hook with just a few classes and not the full 28 classes (as all the instructors I’d spoken to had claimed). The woman behind the counter looks at my expired American license for less than one second and scoffs, telling me as long as I passed the theory test I could just take one or two classes and pass the practical test. I beg her to write this down somewhere, anywhere, in the system (should such a system exist), or even just on a piece of paper — anywhere. She insists that this request is both impossible and unnecessary, adding, If the teachers bother you, you tell them Chedva from the Jerusalem office told them to go jump in a lake. You know what, tell them to call me, I’ll tell them myself.
So anyway, I connect with a teacher and schedule a refresher lesson. I have to tremp (hitchhike) from my little farm to Kiryat Gat, because that’s the only place I found with an available driving teacher — “the end of corona” has apparently unleashed hordes of teenagers eager to finally learn how to drive. Tremping is how I’ve been getting around for almost 15 years, so I don’t really mind; and while I’ve never been to the central bus station in Kiryat Gat, it’s like every other little central bus station I’ve been in, and I feel at home.
I wait there for Yossi, the driving teacher, but out of sight of the bus’s shawarma shop, because I see a few men I recognize from the last moshav I lived in. One of them accused me years ago of poisoning his dog. Needless to say, I did not poison his dog. My 15 years here have not been boring — but there are scenes enough for other posts.
Yossi, gruff but sweet, t-shirt straining over his watermelon belly, picks me up and I get in the backseat. There is a teenage girl in the driver’s seat in a Bais Yaakov uniform. She’s so tiny, it’s hard to believe she’s legally allowed to drive. She drives like a very worried snail, and she seems terrified — though to be fair, I don’t think Yossi is helping. Then again, maybe that’s part of the lesson. TOHAR! he bellows, smacking her on the arm, TNI GAZ! (PUSH THE GAS) GAZ! NOW STOP! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! THERE’S SOMEONE IN THE CROSSWALK!
This goes on for a few blocks, until she pulls up in front of her apartment block and gets out with an audible sigh of relief.
I get in the front sear and we drive around for a while, and guess what, it turns out Yossi’s best friend is my neighbor from my hole-in-the-wall moshav, and, as we drive around, he tells me stories about how they led nature and camping trips for school kids because that’s what we do with our kids — we send them out to sleep under the stars in this crazy beautiful living holy land, but with an armed medic, a Yossi, in addition to a tour guide, because, you know, this is where we live.
As I cruise through Kiryat Gat’s roundabouts (this country seems to have a real passion for roundabouts), we bond over our love of nature. Yossi points out places where trees have been removed to make room for this central island, that parking lot. These are trees he grew up with, trees he misses. He scrolls through his phone until he finds a picture of the tree he misses most and says with a mix of sorrow and something like pride, or awe, Look! Look at how tall that tree was! and I think this is part of the test and I laugh and say, No, I can’t look at a phone, I’m driving! and he says Nu, I’ll take the wheel, look at this picture! He leans over, taking the wheel and thrusting his phone in my face, and it is indeed tall, a beautiful taller-than-tall date palm that used to be where that pile of concrete is now.
He smacks me on the arm a few times in between stories. Why did you stop at a yield sign, you’re only supposed to slow down; did you see that pedestrian? It’s a little nerve-wracking, but also, I kind of like driving and I am desperately looking forward to adventuring with my children all over this crazy beautiful living holy land.
Along the way — and this sounds made up, but isn’t — Yossi suddenly cries Ethiopian pumpkins! and has me pull over on a narrow two-lane road covered in sand and gravel, while he gets out and chats with a man leaning against the back of a small trailer, brimming with what I suppose are Ethiopian pumpkins.
He gets back in after depositing two enormous gourds in the back seat. Pleased with his purchase, he begins another story, this time the tale of how his parents met on a nearby kibbutz. He tells me about his passion for woodworking. We stop to greet a friend of his who is crossing the roundabout. I hear about his daughter’s recent wedding.
Then we pick up an older Ethiopian woman, and I get back in the backseat and Yossi excitedly tells her about his Ethiopian pumpkins. He then alternates between yelling at her, while smacking her on the arm, and showing me pictures on his phone of his art, art that is surprisingly delicate and actually quite good. Then we pick up a young guy in white shirt, black pants, and black velvet kipa, and there we all are in the car, talking about found art, the process of creation, and God. Me in my half-mitpachat, Aladdin pants, and giant hoop earrings; Yossi, bald head bare and glowing; Sara, in a loud flower print dress and laughing in a lilting accent; and this 20-year-old yeshiva kid whose name I never catch.
And my soul feels so full after they drop me off at a bus stop, where a soldier stands next to a loose group of Sudanese men, who stand next to an elderly couple in sun hats muttering to one another in Russian. And the bus takes me back to my hole-in-the-wall moshav, to my farm, through fields of wheat and grapes, and everything is still complicated, but everything is still beautiful.