My soul was hungry, empty, but I didn’t know it.
I felt disconnected, disappointed. My life had not taken the path I thought it would have; I expected myself to have made different choices. At each juncture and moment in life when we face decisions, we may not realize the full import, the consequences, until much later on.
Ultimately, I had not chosen to move to the Holy Land, the birthplace of our forebearers, my country, like my brother did. At age 62 I have not yet made it home, my decision by default. Life is thorny and complicated, and my plans and dreams were overtaken by the ordinary and the unimaginable.
During the Covid pandemic when the world was turned on its head, and the unexpected became the norm, my flight to Israel was canceled in a panic, the doors of Israel slammed shut in my face. Disappointed? I was devastated that a place I always knew (thought?) was open to me in good times, a place I could flee to in times of challenge, was no longer an option.
Without Israeli citizenship, I was like any other nomadic Jew wandering for centuries, like Moses at the cusp but not quite there. Israel was closed to me because of choices I had made earlier, never giving a thought to its repercussions. I believed the country was mine and would always be there for me any time of day or night, during feast or famine, war or anti-semitism, vacation or family gathering. I never, ever imagined a pandemic forcing me back to the land that was home in reality, but not the one I longed for.
A divide grew in my heart and mind. I no longer felt I had complete access to Israel, the place of my dreams and hopes, and I actually stopped saying “my” country or “our” brilliant military operations. I couldn’t vote, barely understood the complex party system and coalitions formed over and again. I used to be so proud of Israel’s army, the strongest in the world, of its military intelligence and national anthem. Yet, what right did I have to voice an opinion for a country that wasn’t mine? I felt isolated and I shied away, realizing that my connection had been fraying for a while. The trip that was not meant to be was a sign of how far I had strayed, the dissolution of what was once deep and true. It was an uncoupling of dream and reality, and my own personal partition plan.
Our parents were avid Zionists, members of the Mizrachi movement which supported Israel at every turn. I grew up with Bnei Akiva, a youth organization that spoke to my soul in a way that my humdrum life in Philadelphia never could. I had a connection, hopes and dreams, and people who understood me. Summer camp became not only my escape, but my life, and Israel began to tease its way into my soul. I went on a year-long program to prepare myself for life in Israel, only dated guys who would move across the pond, and shouted along with my equally passionate friends at the Israel Day Parade in New York, “We’re going on aliyah….How ‘bout you?”
Four decades later I live in the US and wonder what happened. Where did I go wrong? The disappointment has morphed into a stinging failure, wounding an already injured heart. Or was I meant to live in this country so that I could meet my husband, have the medical resources for my ill son, and to see our mothers to the end of life?
And then this winter a chance to celebrate presented itself, sown of a seed which was my nephew’s wedding in Israel. The threat of covid dwindling, I felt safe to travel, and little did I know what threads were about to be rewoven, a trip which my soul knew I needed. I love traveling with my husband, but tax-season work was his priority this time, which left me free to be myself, to travel from friend to friend, and finally let loose after decades of obligations to others. For too many years I have been bogged down with residual grief for our son, with caring for our elderly mothers, with a job in an unstable economy placing me at an occupational precipice, and without the financial freedom so many others seem to have easily garnered. It was finally time for me, to see family and friends, tend to my longing, start healing and forgiving myself for the life I’d been living. It was time.
I flew alone and met fantastically interesting people on a plane whose seats are too small for even my 5 foot frame, with a hip and knee issue that no longer allowed me to climb over my fellow passengers as I did when I was 18. I landed and Hebrew poured out, a language I love to speak. Bought a coffee (not “coffee” but “a coffee”) and an unnecessary but delicious chocolate danish while waiting for a friend who went out of the way through traffic to pick me up.
Each visit with friends was an adventure, whether I was riding buses, meeting for dinner or lunch, missing trains, or sitting in a cab on new highways already overfull. I was part of an exceptional family wedding, wandered through museums, breathed deeply at the Dead Sea, and listened as my sister-in-law read to me overlooking where David and Goliat fought. But what became abundantly clear was that the country of my heart still felt like home, even if I wasn’t yet claiming it as my own.
I shared my feelings of not belonging, of possibly making the wrong choices, with everyone at every turn. The conversations went back and forth, the yin-yang of my conscience. We have so many friends and family members who are finally living the dream, buying an achuzah, a portion of land or a building to call their own. It simply is not a realistic option for us, but it does pinch at my own inability to reach that life goal.
I spent my days in friends’ homes and cars, not pampered in a luxury hotel. I waited for the water to warm so I could shower, used the squeegee for the floor when I was done, and navigated my way in and out of a friend’s tub with my bum hip. I saw their lives and their issues, the balancing of their joys and challenges, none of it easy no matter which side of the pond we find ourselves. They graciously took off time from work to be with me, and it was real and simple and beautiful. My heart was filled with joy being able to spend time with people of my heart…even though I didn’t get to see everyone this time.
During one of my car rides someone pointed to towns considered to be “ghost cities,” and I was puzzled. Apparently, when North Americans and other non-Israelis buy houses and apartments in which to spend holidays, vacations, and retirement years, but leave them fallow for months at a time, the neighborhood suffers. With homes left unoccupied, the town is sometimes quiet or noisy, businesses are empty or thrive, streets are busy or lonely. Municipal planning for schools, bus stops, and communal services are based on dwellings built, not people in residence. So while these dream homes are what I am envious of, it suddenly struck me that perhaps it’s not a perfect solution.
Maybe there are multiple ways to own a piece of something that is larger than yourself, I thought to myself. Perhaps I cannot possess Israel fully, maybe I cannot vote in the elections, but the State of Israel can still be mine in my own unique way. A friend reminded me that we are all part of Am Yisrael, after all, and it slowly dawned on me that no one can usurp that right, nor is it something to be taken for granted.
I relished every moment of my short visit, armed with renewed hope, ready to allow myself the simple heartfelt pleasure of being fully present breathing the air and walking the land in Israel. I’ve made a commitment to nurture the emotional attachment I restored, and to return soon, again and again.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the State of Israel, a tiny country borne from the ashes of our grandparents a mere 23 years before my birth, I am still struggling with my life decisions, but less so. I am grappling, but am hopeful and I will never stop dreaming. I will be back, next time with my husband, who recognized what this trip accomplished for my soul. As we did on our early dates, we are discussing how Israel can be in our plans, if not for living right now, then for visiting soon and often. It may not be enough, but it’s a start for me and my homeland.