The Comforts of Home

When I arrived in Jerusalem during Chol HaMoed Sukkos of last year, I came with my husband, a six-week-old baby, and a mix of confidence and complete denial.

In the months since we first decided that we would spend my husband’s second year of rabbinical studies in Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, a lot happened.

Perhaps most notably, we now had a real, live baby and all the baggage — both literal and figurative — that came with her. By the time we came to Israel, six-week-old Adira had already been on three flights. She was a pro, and we were painfully aware that our days of breezing through security without juggling a stroller, car seat, diaper bag, and a baby were over.

Both my husband and I spent a year after high school studying in yeshiva and seminary, respectively, and we had fond memories of that time: inspiring Torah learning, impressive teachers, fabulous friends, and plenty of time to roam around the country, heading off to new places for Shabbos with just a bag over our shoulders and not a care in the world.

This time, it was different. Suddenly, I was more or less a stay-at-home mom, spending long mornings in our tiny apartment trying to figure out how to entertain an always-screaming infant, lugging said infant to classes at Nishmat twice a week, in an effort to rediscover my adult brain, learning how to navigate bumping my stroller up onto buses without needing to accept the solicitous offer of the ubiquitous soldier, who’d reach out a hand to help me.

I learned that living in Israel with a baby and a husband in a tiny apartment was a lot less like seminary and a lot more like real life. I learned how to smile and nod when one savta on the light rail inquired as to whether my baby, dressed appropriately for the broiling hot weather in a short sleeve onesie, wasn’t perhaps cold, while the savta a few seats over wondered whether my baby wasn’t perhaps hot in her socks, that in weather like this one must always put a hat on babies (“Here, take mine.”). I learned that even if Adira was wearing her cutest, girliest get-up, dressed in head-to-toe pink, someone would still coo at her and ask, “Chamud oh chamudah?”

I learned that my stroller was better than any bubby cart I could tote around the shuk, that if I put my baby in the carrier, I could easily load the stroller up with a week’s worth of groceries. I learned that there were plenty of fellow bus passengers who were willing to entertain my efforts at speaking Hebrew and some who instantly sized me up as an “Amerikani” and saw me as the perfect excuse to brush up on their English.

I learned that our taxi driver, on the way to our first night out since the baby was born, would wish us a hearty mazel tov on our baby, our date, my husband’s birthday, being in Israel, being a Jew. I learned that Israeli woman are endowed with an inborn head-wrapping skill, and I spent many an afternoon out in town haunting mitpachot stores and studying the women milling around inside, trying to puzzle out how their scarves looked just-so.

Adjusting to life as a new mother, spending hours alone with a fussy baby and all the other trials that come along with those early months, was difficult for me, and the challenges of ordinary life in Israel as an American trying to navigate the system at times made me think longingly of the comforts of home that I had left behind. There were the weeks I couldn’t figure out how to make an appointment at Tipat Chalav for vaccination; the erev yom tov shopping trip at a packed Osher Ad that had me swearing never to set foot in a grocery store during the rest of our time there; the day Adira developed a scary-looking rash that I didn’t have the Hebrew words to describe to the health clinic hotline; the tiny, broken-down fridge that didn’t actually stay cold; the toaster oven that served as our main cooking implement; the uphill walks (always up, somehow) lugging a baby, a backpack, and arms heavy with groceries.

There was all that, and to say that I didn’t dream of the nice things we left behind — our car, our kitchen appliances, English — would be wrong. I did. I thought often of how much easier it would all be, but I knew, always, that the time we were spending living in Israel, among our fellow Jews, in the land so imbued with an eternal holiness, was fundamentally important for the future we hoped to forge in a small community in America where we one day hope to serve as the rabbinical couple and engage in bridging the gap between the world around us and the Torah that guides our lives.

As I hoisted my Trader Joe’s brown grocery bags into the car yesterday and buckled a slightly more contented toddler into her car seat, I found myself feeling grateful for the luxury of driving to the store and back so easily, so comfortably, and I was, admittedly, glad to be in a New Jersey suburb on a Sunday afternoon.

But as I commuted into Manhattan this morning, my mind swirling with images of bloodstained brothers on the Jerusalem streets I know so well, I felt alone. Walking down 34th Street, making my way to school from Penn Station, I saw so many different faces and ethnicities, so many people streaming past me, and this morning, the defining cultural diversity of New York that I normally so appreciate felt alienating and I felt different. I don’t want to walk casually past Old Navy and Macy’s, along with the hundreds of others walking beside me, when, in Israel, my fellow Jews now walk more slowly, stiffly, suspiciously. I don’t want to be the only one walking In Herald Square who knows or cares that every day, more Jews in Israel are hurt, killed, threatened.

I don’t want to be the only one who reads the way our stories are told in the newspaper and feels the need to rip the paper to shreds; I don’t want to be the only one around me who yearns to be somewhere I’m not; I don’t want to be the only one who knows that this Monday morning isn’t just any Monday morning for all the families whose children stand on patrol across Israel, risking their lives to protect our people, who very much need protecting on this Monday morning.

I don’t want to feel so far from my people: from the soldiers who help me with my stroller, gun slung over their shoulders on their way to help the rest of the country; from the savtas who worry whether my baby is too warm or warm enough;from the taxi driver who cares why we’re in his car;  from the women who know that the head wrap I wear each day is more than just a fashion statement.

So yeah, Trader Joe’s happens to be more pleasant to shop in than Osher Ad, and cars are easier to manage than buses, especially when you’re toting around a stubborn baby. But when my country is hurting, my heart hurts, too, and even here, in the place I call home, I feel like I’m a thousand miles away from where I’m supposed to be. During these difficult times, I look to all of our brothers and sisters living in Israel — Israelis and olim, alike — and I thank you for being where I’m not, for living each new day in the face of the ordinary challenges of life and now the extraordinary struggle that is the latest in the spiral of hatred that has tailed us through the centuries. Here in America, I’m just a lonely Jew on a train into Manhattan, close to the comforts of America but far from the comforts of home. But back home in Israel, all of you are heroes.

About the Author
Chana Brauser Shestack is a student in Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program in Advanced Talmudic Studies. Originally from Hollywood, Florida, she now lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey with her husband Ely and baby Adira.