I’m not much of a shopper. On vacations I spend more time thinking about gifts for friends and family members than anything for me. All I remember buying during my 1982 trip to Israel was a “Yiddishe Momme” carrying bag for my mother. The 2017 trip to Israel followed the same pattern, except this time I really wanted to find something for my partner Naomi and me.
Finding just the mementos from Israel took time. My son, now a college graduate, topped the shopping list. I got him a magnetic sign board at the Tel Aviv Museum that he could jot notes on. Next came my eight-month old twin grand-niece and grand-nephew in Texas, River and Sawyer. Friends also deserved some kind of tchachkes from the Holy Land. They range from Texas evangelicals to Northeastern Jewish secularists, so my gifting strategy had to be finely tuned to a range of religious frequencies.
First I bought drink coasters featuring biblical and modern historic figures that I found at the Tel Aviv Museum. I liked the Hebrew phrases on them, lending a sense of authenticity. Depictions of Adam and Eve, Noah, Jacob, Moses, David, Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky felt just right once I sorted them out for the appropriate recipients. I kept Revisionist leader Jabotinsky’s coaster for myself, since I visited the Jabotinsky Museum in 1982 and the coaster neatly linked my Israel journeys.
Refrigerator magnets became the next gift source. I scooped up a variety of them with Jerusalem themes, including one that doubled as a bottle-opener. I immediately set that aside for the twins’ father, my nephew Travis in Texas, for the next time he wants to pop open a tall cold Shiner Bock beer—would that make the beer a “He-Brew?” His wife Amanda, the mother of twins, got the Ahava mud facial kit from the Dead Sea, an indulgence of self-care every new mom must crave. I scoped out a smart-looking IDF t-shirt for my brother, with the logos of a dozen or more IDF branches, like Intelligence and the Givati Brigade.
Gifts for twins River and Sawyer proved challenging. Like Goldilocks, I wanted something not too religious and not too bland, gifts “just right.” With Naomi as my unerring guide to finding the right sizes for fast-growing Texans, I opted for charming onesies with “My First Hebrew Lesson” on them, showing animals and nature. I bought them in two sizes (6-12 months and 12-18 months) so the young ‘uns can enjoy at least a couple months of wear and tear with them out on their ranch as they roll around with the longhorns, pigs, chickens, ducks and dogs. Then at Ben Gurion Airport, with hours to kill on Shabbat before the 12:15 a.m. flight, we staggered into an open kids clothing store and I found cute shirts and hats, so that topped off my friends and family buying cycle.
When it came to finding a little something for myself, I ran into a problem. What, exactly, could I find in Israel that either I didn’t already have, or couldn’t find at a Judaica store in New York, like J. Levine Books & Judaica? Kippot and tallitim I’m well stocked in. I looked into religious books but everything I saw was in Hebrew and, anyway, I have plenty of Torah volumes, how-to-learn-Hebrew guides and dictionaries. While I like Jewish music, my stack of Matisyahu, Ofra Haza and the greatest hits of the Yiddish theater CDs satisfy that interest. Backpacks and watches? I’ve got enough.
Nothing appealed to me until I scanned Facebook on our-next-to-last day in Jerusalem, during the chanting, dancing, flag-waving festivities of Jerusalem Day. I’m FB friends with Debra Warburg Victor, my Hebrew teacher in Stamford, Connecticut from 10 years ago, before she returned to Israel. She had posted a note that she was exhibiting crafts such as table runners and challah covers at the Jerusalem Night Market at Zion Square, a short walk from the Abraham Hostel.
At that moment I knew HaShem was directly telling me to move my tuchus down to the Night Market and shop ’til I plotzed. I now view Facebook as a channel of divine instruction. Maybe not on the level of the urim and thummim, but you get the point.
Naomi and I did exactly that. We wandered through the stalls and found Debra and her husband. While the Hebrew class was a decade ago, we recognized each other and made introductions all around. Naomi and I looked at her merchandise. We’ve have table runners, so we scanned her challah covers. Our eyes kept coming back to a lovely one with a green border and floral theme. We decided to buy it and—just like that—I had my gift for Naomi and me. Both beautiful and practical, it now plays a central role of our Jewish household.
Here’s how. The challah cover from Israel inspired us to live a more Jewish life, it’s that simple. Soon after our return, I bought a challah at Zaro’s Family Bakery in Grand Central Terminal on Friday. At home, we put the cell phones away, set out candles, pour cups of wine and work our way through the prayers. For two people who had never regularly welcomed the arrival of Shabbat, this observance spoke to a strong sense of faith and solidarity. That was the best and most lasting gift we found in Israel and brought back to our Diaspora life.
The trip echoed into August, when I visited my brother’s family on a ranch outside Houston, for what I called Hanukkah on the Bayou, so I could present and properly narrate the pedigree for each gift I brought. Besides those from Israel, I included a book of Jewish children’s stories that my brother and I had been sent by a great-aunt in 1976 (when we were teenagers, but her intentions were good). The book later wound up with a close family friend, who recently found it and mailed it to me.
Everybody liked their gifts. They communicated about Israel and connected the new generation to an older one. The gifts build on the mezuzah I gave Travis and Amanda when they were married in 2014—I became a minister, in fact, to perform the ceremony. Our Hanukkah in August added some more pieces to the Jewish heritage of the family, a sense of awareness down the road and a spark of neshama.
In a few years, I’ll explain to River and Sawyer the meaning of their last name and what ve’ahavta l’rocha chamocha is all about.