For a daughter returning from Israel

My daughter says she’s all packed.

Her duffle bags are a couple of kilos overweight, and she’s fretting about what she may have to leave behind. Tomorrow night, she departs for Ben Gurion, and from there, she gets on an El Al flight bound for Newark. I haven’t seen her since last August. I’m counting down the hours.

Time flies. Despite all my fears, despite fountains of words and gushers of anxiety over sending her to Israel during the war in Gaza last summer, she had a magnificent, life-changing year, and now, she is making her way back.

O, Jerusalem, center of the world, Holy of Holies. In Jerusalem, everything you do matters, from the mundane to the insane. Every time you kick a pebble in Jerusalem, it rolls up against a site of historical importance; turn down any street, and you will find better kosher food than we have anywhere in America; day and night, and all year long, there are unique and mind-expanding activities, right outside your door. The clothes you wear take on significance. Skirt or pants? Cover your hair, or not? Fascinating people, of all colors and races, from a kaleidoscope of distant countries—and these people are Jewish!—strike up conversations with you, on the street, in the market, on the bus. Spend a few minutes chatting with the baker, the man who fixes your shoes, the police officer, your barber, your waiter, and it’s likely you’ll find that you are no more than six degrees away from being related to them. Even mental illness is unique in Jerusalem; only within her ancient borders can you come down with Jerusalem Syndrome, where tourists suddenly believe they are Biblical prophets, Jesus Christ, or the Messiah.

I tick through the list of things I have to do before she gets home. Spread sheets and blankets and pillowcases on her bare bed. Find a place to park the computer and printer that we moved into her room while she was away. Transfer the piles of books and manuscripts back to my desk. Dust the furniture. Wash the curtains. Vacuum her carpet. At Pathmark, I browse through the gluten-free aisle, considering what to make for her welcome-home dinner. I imagine us going for manicures, or having our eyebrows done. And movies! My other children are boys. I haven’t seen a chick flick all year.

She has already informed us that she wants to make Aliyah. I am so proud of her. But my heart aches at the thought of losing her. “Not just yet,” I tell her. “Go to school first.”

Because I was once a teenage girl who came home from Israel, I try to imagine what it will be like for her. She’s been independent for ten months now, operating with her own bank card, responsible for doing her own laundry, cooking for herself, keeping her kitchen clean, budgeting her money, shopping for groceries, negotiating with roommates, being on time for classes and events.

Friends who have been through this scenario before tell me that the dynamic changes when a child who has been to Israel comes home. What will that mean, other than the inevitable fight over who gets the car? What if she’s wearing skirts down to her ankles and shirtsleeves that reach past her elbows, what do we do then? Will she roll her eyes at our rules? At our guidance? Will she be happy to return to us here in the Diaspora, to be our baby again? Or will she count the days until she can leave?

I think back on how I felt, coming back to Chicago after my year on Kvutzat Yavneh, where even collecting eggs for the kibbutz felt significant. In my absence, so many things had changed. The only music I could find on the radio was disco. Dumb shows like Three’s Company and The Love Boat were the biggest hits on TV. People cared about designer names on the labels sewed into their clothes. Friends who had started college instead of going to Israel had moved on with their lives. Some weren’t religious anymore. Some were getting married. Some were completely absorbed in boyfriends, or new acquaintances. My parents couldn’t understand why I was so moody. I spent a lot of time in my room playing guitar and singing sad songs. Inside, I felt so different from the person I used to be, but my friends and family treated me as if I was exactly the same. I felt deeply, utterly lost.

The day I moved back to the US happened to be a week before Tisha B’Av, when we mourn for the loss of the Beit HaMikdash, signaling the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora. Exile was a perfect metaphor for the way I felt. The world I had been submerged in, the sense of being part of something larger and more important than my own needs and desires, had vanished. Everywhere I looked, the Western culture I traveled through seemed false, arid, trivial, materialistic.

Fortunately, college started. All those cool courses to choose from! All the new skills to learn, paths to navigate, books to read, papers to write, knowledge to be gained! What should I do? Who should I be? All those intense late-night conversations that started with questions like, “If you commit an altruistic deed that benefits somebody else, but the deed benefits you as well, is it still considered altruistic?”

I began to understand; what I had cherished about my year in Israel—living a life of meaning, a feeling of being rooted in my religion, an awareness of my place in Jewish history—hadn’t disappeared. Now I carried it inside of me. It was my duty to share it. And it would be up to me keep the little flame stoked and burning.

Because, while it is difficult to leave Jerusalem behind, it is also far too easy to slip back into old habits, to lose the intent to lead a meaningful life in a summer’s worth of binge-watching Vikings and The Bachelorette.

So as I look for a new home for the printer and dust off her stuffed animals and throw her curtains into the washing machine, I’m also hoping this; that she finds happiness as she begins this new chapter of her life, and that what she takes from Israel runs like a river through it.

About the Author
Helen Maryles Shankman is an artist and author. Her book, "They Were Like Family to Me," originally published as "In the Land of Armadillos," was a finalist for The Story Prize in 2016 and won an Honorable Mention for the 2017 ALA Sophie Brody Medal for Achievement in Jewish Literature. Her stories have been published in many fine literary journals, including The Kenyon Review,, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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