I didn’t even know I was born on Tu BiShevat, the Jewish new year celebration for trees, until I went to the Rabbinute in the nearby city of Nahariya, to get my license for my second marriage. At first, the rabbi eyed me — a divorced woman — warily. Then he glanced at my identity card and looked up at me in surprise, telling me that being born on Tu BiShevat was lucky. And serendipitous, too, because my last name, Bletter, means the leaves of a tree or a book in Yiddish. And if you add the word, bletterl to yetzer hore, or the evil inclination, you get the Yiddish word for hickey — but that’s a fact for Tu B’Av, or the Jewish day of love, that falls in the summer.
I am a liberal, non-religious Jewish American who put down my roots in Israel almost 30 years ago. Transplanting myself here was a way to be part of an almost preposterous historical experiment. What happens when Jews from around the world gather in this crowded spit of land? It’s still unique and ongoing as we try to blend ancient beliefs with modern democratic principles — a monumental task.
When I first chose to live in a small beach village in the Western Galilee, Israel was far from a start-up nation. If anything, it was back country, and our tiny train station platform made me feel like I’d landed in a Hebrew-speaking “Petticoat Junction.”
The one time my mother left Long Island to visit me was in 1993, and all she said was that there was nothing to eat except cucumbers, tomatoes and hard-boiled eggs. She didn’t see the point of moving all the way across the ocean when I could have stayed surrounded by a tribe of leftwing, smart, hip Jews in New York. And although she had always been a Zionist, she drew the line after I left. When people called her during UJA fundraising campaigns, she’d snap, “I already donated a daughter!” and slam down the phone.
At first, I had no idea how difficult it would be to adjust to life in Israel. One time, I even cried in the local supermarket when I leaned over a freezer and pulled out a package of chicken with its legs bursting out of the plastic. Ideas like quality control and following everyday rules didn’t seem to be important. (Religious rules were another story.) And everything took so long; I was used to keeping pace to a different drummer, playing at the speed of a New York minute. One time I was so frustrated waiting to get a fax line installed that I pretended I was from the American Embassy. With my accent, they believed me.
I moved here determined to help with peace efforts and offer my optimism, which was a blend of the best of Jewish Americana. Back then, people called me naïve; it’s only now, since the Abraham Accords, that hope seems possible. I also wanted my four children to experience a different kind of childhood than the one I had in a New York suburb. I was also sure that by the time my sons were 18, there would be no need for them to be drafted into the Israeli Army. They did serve in the army, teaching me that for some extremists, religious ideology supersedes any kind of peace. The continuing conflicts in the Middle East remind me of the children’s game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” The rock wins against the scissors, but not against paper because it can cover the rock; however, the scissors win against the paper, which it can cut. In other words, there’s a Moebius strip of endless battles, fought over and over again.
One time, on an airplane to Israel, while I was waiting to change one of my children’s diapers, I started talking to a woman in line in front of me. She looked at my baby and said “If you’re going to put down roots for your children, root them in Israel.” Her words stayed with me, the way random comments of strangers sometimes do.
On my Tu BiShevat birthday, I acknowledge how I planted my family in Israel. We all protest the way things are here: the bending of rules for certain sectors, the corruption in the government, the fuddled leadership, and yet — this is where we all are planted.
Instead of elm and chestnut trees that grew in my backyard when I was growing up, I now have olive, orange and mango trees. However, I missed fall foliage so much that my husband, Jonny, planted an oak tree for me in front of the kitchen window. The tree has leaves that turn yellow in autumn and then scatter. That one tree reminds me of my Jewish American self now rooted in this desert soil, its branches reaching up to the sky, holding its face to the light.