When I was 15, I used to paint my big brown eyes with way too much black eyeliner. I listened to Guns and Roses on my iPod Nano, wrote poetry by my window, and begged my parents to let me go to a performing arts school. My tight curly hair sprang nearly down to my waist, and I was in the very early stages of beginning to find myself.
When I was 15, my grandfather died. My Saba, whose voice I knew best over the phone, and whose smile I knew was my mother’s favorite view. I did not know him like I did my Papa – the grandfather who was like my second dad and lived just a car ride away from my house – but I knew Izhar, the Saba on the phone, said my name in a way that sounded like home.
Across crystal oceans, past many vast sand dunes, and the Mediterranean Sea thrown somewhere in between, my grandfather Izhar’s booming voice when he said “Daniella!” was the only mouth from which I knew my name felt absolutely right. They lived far away, on a moshav I did not know, and didn’t visit as much as they would have liked to. Airline websites don’t have any financial request sections for Missing Your Family.
My mom told me that Saba used to joke that he was actually Palestinian, since he was born in Israel before the country gained independence. During the War of Independence in 1948, Saba spent his bar mitzvah running food and supplies to the soldiers fighting on the front lines, instead of celebrating with relatives at a synagogue. My family owned land and lived on Moshav Balfouria, south of Nazareth and right near Afula, and Saba’s father dug the first water irrigation tunnels that lead from the Emek and snaked all the way down to the Negev. He helped lay the pavement for Israel’s sustenance.
When he turned 18, Saba was drafted to the army, as all Israeli 18 year olds are. He was recruited to the Air Force, where he served as an airplane technician, rebuilding the engines of airplanes and developing new ways to make the aircrafts more efficient.
Saba grew up in an Israel surrounded by golden fields that peppered the seemingly infinite horizon. An Israel where farming the land was a multi-cultured job. He and his father worked alongside their Arab neighbors, swapping tractors for harvest labor and smiles for free. Saba was a man of the land; tanned, easy to please, and sporting only nine fingers (he had lost one while fixing a tractor). Nobody had a laugh that rumbled quite as deeply as his, and I bet that on windy days you could hear it all the way to the Kinneret.
Saba’s nine fingers didn’t make his hugs any less tight; in fact, his hugs were the tightest of them all. He immigrated to Canada and lived the life of a man with an accent in a foreign country – he owned a restaurant in Toronto’s Downtown District where he raised my mom and her two siblings, bringing much needed Middle Eastern spice to Ontario. Once his children had grown up, he moved back to Israel with my grandmother where they returned to their moshav with the wide dirt roads and lushly overgrown front lawns.
When I was 15, my Saba died. The man whose voice made my name sound like home and who cultivated a land with rich soil under the wide blue sky of Northern Israel. The man who valued friendship with his Arab neighbors because it brought them both a plentiful land for their families to live on. That was when I knew that my name would never sound right again if I didn’t honor the place that he called home – the place planted with seeds from his own tractor and watered with droplets from his own barrel. A part of what made me who I was, in a way that I couldn’t quite describe or understand – all the way from my long auburn curls and deep down into my fiery nature – was gone. And I needed to find it.
When I was just nearly 18, I graduated from high school with much, much less eyeliner painted on my eyes, curls cut past my shoulders, and a voice that I had finally found, and I left my home in California to draft to the Israeli Army. My parents sent me off with immense love and support, but I have to say, what did they expect when they gave me the middle name Tziona? (the feminine form of “Zion”, which literally means Israel). I did not know then what I would find, or what would await me in this place so far away. I knew however, that if I took it upon myself to help protect the land built with Saba’s own two hands and the hands of his father, then I might just hear him laugh through the wind blowing over the Kinneret, and that my name might finally feel like home once again.