In 1991, when I moved to Shavei Zion on the shores of the Mediterranean in Northern Israel, about 12 miles south of the Lebanese border, there were more cows and chickens than people and the tiny train platform reminded me of the TV show, “Petticoat Junction.”
And now that the village is celebrating its eightieth birthday (with twice as many cars and people), I’m so happy that I’ve been a part of it.
My mother was furious when I left Great Neck, the town where I’d grown up, and moved with my first husband and our four children right to this village, which she called a dusty outpost that looks like Africa. Whenever people called her from the UJA asking for donations after I’d left, she’d say, “I donated my daughter and my four grandchildren, isn’t that enough for you?” and then she’d slam down the phone.
She raised my sister and me as Zionists, but she never thought I’d actually pick up and move. “Who does something like that?” she’d ask me. “Only a meshuggeneh like you.”
My marriage fell apart not too long after we settled down in Shavei Zion, which only goes to show that moving halfway around the world with four children under the age of six can strain any relationship. But I stayed in Shavei Zion, I couldn’t help it, I had already felt a tug in my heart for this pastoral farm village that sits on the edge of the sea, surrounded by fields, where the moon rises over the hills in the east and the sun sets over the sea.
I loved the way living in the village felt like being in summer camp, and how my kids could roam all over; even my daughters, when they were only four and five, could ride their bicycles to the gan. Living here made them independent and unafraid .
I loved how people in the village celebrated holidays together (and still do): the Independence Day party, when twelfth grade students light torches and share what they cherish most about Israel and what they want changed; the Shavuot celebrations where there are skits and dances and everyone welcomes the year’s latest crop of babies wearing floral wreaths around their head. And I loved how I was always considered the wacky American (still am), like the time there was a Shavuot cheesecake contest and I decorated my son’s cheesecake (he had tested this recipe for months) with oleander flowers because he was called back to the Army. Who knew that oleander flowers are poisonous?
I’ve always preferred to overlook the poison in favor of the positive, even during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War when more than 300 Hezbollah rockets were fired right at Shavei Zion. None of them hit. But in 2014, a rocket launched by Hezbollah landed right on the building of Zedeka Beit-El, a hotel run by an incredible German Christian family that offers free vacations for Holocaust survivors and their families. Shmuel Bayer, who runs the hotel with his wife, Dorit, and a staff of German volunteers, herded the guests to the bomb shelter, averting an enormous catastrophe. But it was a direct hit. The glass shattered. It was our Kristallnacht.
I know that my children are who they are – curious, open-minded and respectful of different cultures – because they grew up in the periphery of Israel, where our home has always been open to a wide variety of visitors – our neighbors – Arab Christians and Muslims and Druze. Roots and wings: that’s what I tried to give my kids, and wherever they decide to live now is fine with me. I followed my dreams; they have to follow theirs. Isn’t that why, even with a homeland, we’re still wandering Jews?
Just the other day, my husband, Jonny, and I got up before dawn to go for a run through the groves of olive and avocado trees that surround Shavei Zion. This is where Jonny still works, the way he did when he first moved to Shavei Zion in 1975. A jackal flitted out between the rows of trees; a hawk circled above in the soft gray light. This landscape is not at all like Manhattan, where I was born, or Great Neck, where I grew up. I don’t know why or how it is, but this is the place my soul calls home.
Happy 80th birthday, Shavei Zion.