I hug him for a long time; then I let go

“What about socks?” I fret.

“Yeah, Mom, I need gym socks.”

“Okay.” I mark it down on my list. In addition to socks, we still need a heavy-duty case to protect his phone, a rain jacket, and another Shabbat shirt. “What about snacks? You know…cereal, or energy bars or something. What if you don’t like the food in yeshiva?”

By now, I have asked him this question six or seven times. He gives me a sidelong glance, and one of his patented taunting smiles. “I think they have snacks in Israel, Mom.”

“Toothpaste? Deodorant? Shampoo?”

Another taunting smile. “Pretty sure they have that stuff, too.”

“Right. But you probably don’t want to go looking for all those things the minute you get there. Better to have enough to get you through the first week.”

He considers, then agrees. My mothering skills have been validated. I am still necessary. Naturally, I am thrilled.

My son is packing for his year in Israel. From moment to moment, the color of my mood veers from a deep mournful indigo to a sunny lemon yellow. It was never in doubt that he would take a gap year in Israel. My husband and I expected him to learn in a yeshiva, to pray by the Kotel, to walk the streets, to eat the food, to breathe the air, to explore the cities and deserts and fields and wilderness, to meet Jews from all over the world, to fall in love with the ancient, crazy, glorious, sacred land of Israel.

Outwardly, I’m reasonably calm and effective. But inside, I am a basket case. To the casual viewer, my oldest son is already a man; angular and lean, thoughtful, independent and funny, a lover of movies, sports, history, news, and debate. But in my eyes, he is a laughing 18-month-old boy with chubby cheeks and dark brown curls, my sturdy and cheerful little companion helping me bake brownies in our Park Slope kitchen. Since when do they accept toddlers in yeshiva?

My husband says, “Remember when we were in Israel?” He coaxes me to smile. “There was one pay phone for my whole yeshiva. And there were hundreds of us.”

I smile, too. “It was the same on my kibbutz. I spoke to my parents twice the entire year.”

“They used to send tapes,” he reminds me. I laugh, remembering those tapes. I never listened to them for longer than five minutes, having much more exciting 17-year-old type activities to get to. “And aerogrammes?” I laugh again, remembering those feather-light blue letters that felt like they were made of tissue paper, light because mailing anything to or from Israel was so expensive. Does anyone still send aerogrammes?

“Things are different now,” he says. “You’ll be speaking to him on Skype or WhatsApp a zillion times a day. You’ll barely know he’s gone. He’s always out with his friends anyway.”

He’s right, of course. But I remember other things; getting off the bus after spending a Shabbat with my grandfather in Bnei Brak. My stop was Tzomet Ashdod, near Kvutzat Yavneh. No houses for a mile; just a dark and winding road that you followed toward kibbutz, and endless acres of silvery olive trees in the moonlight. “But what if there are terrorists?” I remember asking. It seemed dangerous. A kibbutznik laughed at me. “If terrorists ever get this deep into Israel, we are all in trouble,” he replied. In May 2015, when a rocket reached Ashdod, near Yavneh, I remembered the kibbutznik’s words, and shivered.

We had so much freedom. I remember shopping in the Arab shuk in Jerusalem to buy those gauzy, embroidered shirts we all wore, a lone girl haggling with the Arab shopkeepers. Do seminary girls still do that? I remember hikes, tiyulim, where we visited holy sites that are now bristling with barbed wire, places you visit these days, if you dare, in an armored bus and accompanied by soldiers. I remember Arab workers hanging around and chatting with my friends in irrigation until it was time to start work. I remember Palestinian children running up to us to stare shyly as we hiked near their towns.

Last year, as we met with representatives of the Israeli yeshivas, the words that came up again and again were safety and security. I hope my son will have an amazing, life-changing gap year, as I did. But it will be a different kind of Israel than the one I traveled through, one that is sharply divided, where those words, safety and security, are at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Finally, it is time. We put down the back seat of the mini van and load his El-Al approved duffel bags into the hatch. I print out his boarding pass and tuck it into his passport. We pile into the car and head for JFK.

The airport is a tangled melee of happy kids greeting each other and parents shlepping heavy bags and giving each other I-know-exactly-how-you-feel smiles. My son beams and waves at every teen that passes us. He seems to know everyone. I can see the excitement on his face, shining like the sun. That’s when it strikes me. He is so overwhelmingly ready for this next phase of his life, this new beginning, contrasting with my desire to freeze time, for him to stay my little boy forever.

We stand in various lines that snake through the terminal until his bags are checked, trade overweight luggage horror stories with the other parents, listen to the rabbi who will accompany them on the plane. It is warm in the terminal. At last, it’s time for my son to pass through security, where I cannot follow. He hugs me. I hold on for a long time. And then I let go. I watch him walk away, until he has blended into the mass of boys at the other end of the corridor.

And then we leave, moving slowly toward the sliding doors and towards the car.

I am a teary-eyed mess. For a year, we will be deprived of his company, and the noisy company of his friends, most of whom we’ve known since they were in kindergarten. For a year, a seat will be empty at our table. The house will be quieter without him telling me the news of his day, without the sound of him bouncing a basketball against the walls of his bedroom, without his music drifting down the stairs. But I am proud, too. He can only take this giant step, make this monumental transition, because we have loved him, cared for him, guided him, helped him learn to make decisions, cope with obstacles, and move on. A million tiny steps have led us to this airport terminal.

To all the kids going to Israel, I wish you a meaningful year. Have fun. Try new things. Meet new people. Go everywhere you can safely go.

To all the parents who miss their kids…Don’t worry. A year — it’s really ten months, you know — will pass in the blink of an eye. And another thing, all you moms and dads out there. Congratulations. You did a great job.

(By the way. We forgot to pack the socks.)

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, Jewishfiction.net, Gargoyle, and Cream City Review. She is a columnist at The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
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