Jill Schulman

Your people will be my people

Leaving Israel to return to live in South Africa in January, as the aircraft took off and dipped its wing into the turn towards the Mediterranean, I expected to see memories spiralling off the wingtip, the weight of my children’s early lives and the layers of 13 years pulling me back to ground, a skein of interconnected snapshots, emotions crystallised into images, threads of laughter, the pull of a rich life. My Israeli life.

Instead, I felt…. nothing. Nothing except the exhaustion from weeks of frantic preparation, juggling work deadlines, packing, move, animals, piles of red tape and bureaucracy in leaving behind one life and restarting another, enrolling 3 children into 3 new schools, leaving a 4th child behind, finding a house, coping with my husband’s frequent work absences, keeping going. Saying goodbyes. Exhausted. Exhausted after years of personal stress. Too exhausted to feel anything.

I know myself. Rational and detached in a crisis, emotion hits me later, and it hits hard. I stared out at the wingtip, the Tel Aviv shoreline receding below, expecting memory and emotion to well up like a tide within me, and it didn’t.

In the weeks before, I lost composure only once. Saying goodbye to my children’s paediatrician, now hunched over and shuffling from Parkinson’s, I started to cry. I could not bear that this gentle scribe of my children’s histories, who had guided us through multitudes of childhood ailments and parenting challenges, was being lost to us. Leaving is difficult, I told my children later, it’s okay to be sad.

How did it feel, people asked me once we arrived in South Africa, to leave Israel. How does it feel to be back. Why did you leave? Do you miss it?

It must be hard, they said, well-intentioned, understanding the complexities involved in making a decision to leave. To descend. That shameful word.

It took me weeks to admit even to myself that I missed very little. All my energy was directed forwards, at settling down, making sure my kids were okay, enjoying being close to my family again, figuring out which shul was right for us. Restarting a life.

I missed my daughter. And the ease of kosher food shopping, I said. I missed the food. The subtle buttery flavour of parsley root in chicken soup, grilled purple chatzilim sinking into a little lake of olive-oil-drenched tehina, the sharp tang of lemon and coriander, the best olives, the fragrance of spices in my favourite corner of the supermarket.

Mostly, I felt conflicted, and that was difficult to talk about. I felt conflicted at how easy it was to be back in an English speaking country, how liberated I was at rediscovering my voice, how my confidence came back to me in huge waves, my articulation restored and sense of competency returning every day, how advocating for my children and their particular circumstances empowered me as a mother instead of distressing me. Negotiating contracts, dealing with the bank, a myriad of daily tasks involved in managing a home and family miraculously made simpler overnight, and the biggest struggle reduced to simple time management.

And then Yom Hazikaron arrived. And after it, inevitably, Yom Haatzmaut.

To understand and value Yom Hazikaron… well, you have to be here. In the scrabble and struggle to hold on to our homeland, it’s not a concept, it’s personal. You know, when the siren goes and you pull over to the side of the road and see Israelis stop, stand, and silence descend as the siren wails on, that memory moves through us all like a wave. Newspaper and television headlines to the rest of the world are our stories. Names and photographs are our people. In the background, high rise apartment blocks with the distinctive secure room metal shutters ascending in a column remind us of what the future may still hold.

We ache. Before we celebrate, we ache.

But celebrate the next day we do. The day draws to a close with sandy beach towels in the laundry hamper, greasy aprons, the smell of BBQ permeating the air, fridge groaning with leftovers, guests leaving and asking, again, how many people exactly did we think we were feeding?? Slightly sunburnt, slightly tipsy, not-so-slightly full, tired, happy, replete. Another day, another year. A day for shehecheyanu.

On those two days, I missed Israel in a way that went beyond words. I missed it like a hunger.

And yet life goes on.

Six months later, I am leaving Israel with my children again. We’ve been here for 3 1/2 weeks, during which the abducted teenagers’ bodies were found, a Palestinian Arab boy was murdered by Jews, thousands of rockets began firing from Gaza, sirens wailed constantly throughout the country, our metal secure room shutters were closed in preparation, we started off with air strikes and then discovered the horror of the Hamas tunnel network, and our ground forces went in. Soldiers have been lost already, reservists called up, and everyone I know, every single person, is affected.

In the past days, we’ve been caught in the open by a siren in Herzliya, and as we are crouched in 34 degrees with our arms over our heads, the hot tarmac burning into our shins and excruciatingly aware of our vulnerability, the boom boom boom of three Iron Dome interceptions sounds right over our heads. I look up, over my husband hunched over our little boy who is inhaling rapidly, his breath catching in his throat, and see the plumes of white smoke and telltale puffs in the bright blue sky. Score three for kipat habarzel, I think, and we redirect him from his fear by telling him about our defences.

The night before we leave, I meet a friend for coffee. She has a son, in Gaza, in a tank unit. She is sagging with anxiety, her phone does not leave her hand. She cannot eat, she says, and she fears sleep in case she misses a call. And when her phone rings, her heart either stops in her chest or beats uncontrollably. When I arrive at our table, she is reciting tehillim. This most academic of my religious friends. What else can I do, she says, her voice hoarse, her immune system depleted from stress.

She is one of so many of my friends, and in our old shul every third or fourth family has a child or father who has been called up. My oldest daughter cannot concentrate in class. She says that concentrating on her degree seems incongruous when so many of her friends and peers are “there.” She is in contact whenever possible, although days can go by in between communications. She marshals friends, collects Shabbat food, and drives down south to deliver what she can where she can. My husband and I are concerned, but she says she cannot do nothing.

As I start writing this, waiting on the aircraft for the final passengers to be seated, the doors are about to close when the siren wails. My younger daughter hears it seconds before my tzeva adom phone app pings, and then the azaka is announced on the loudspeaker and we are instructed to leave our personal belongings and disembark immediately. We file past the staff, who are so admirably Israeli – calm and firm – and once the alert is over we repeat the whole business of re-boarding and being re-validated against the passenger manifest.

My little boy is frightened again and I tell him do you remember how kipat habarzel explodes the rockets so they can’t hurt us? Do you remember I told you about the soldiers whose job it is to protect us? And all the soldiers we know who are there, safeguarding us all? He is reassured, and only after we land in London do I discover that this was the rocket which hit Yehud, and which caused a widespread cessation of international flights to and from Israel for days.

There are so many things in this visit that are difficult to explain to non-Israelis. How your peripheral senses pick up something different and then you realise it’s overhead jets whose flight paths have changed because of the rocket threats from the south. How in the north, the beat of helicopters increases, and some internal barometer knows this without counting. How when the sirens are every 10-15 minutes and my husband is in Tel Aviv, my daughter in Jerusalem, my teenage kids out with friends but I’m not sure exactly where, my little boy with me, my mind is everywhere. In the first few days back in South Africa every time a local lawnmower starts up with a whine my body freezes, and I realise I am tensing for the siren, even though we were only caught in two. How my heart clenches in the hours between hearing about more lost soldiers and discovering their names. How I am fixated on the news.

This time, when I leave, the wingtip doesn’t dip to turn out over the Mediterranean and then south; this time we fly further north, away from the rocket fire. There is no familiar Tel Aviv shoreline receding below us. Everything is different.

And this time, I do feel something. It’s not memory, like I thought it would be. Memory is triggered by a hundred little things every day, independent of location.

I feel a band binding us together, stretching, stretching, and never letting go. I feel its pull, its strength. I feel its heaviness, its weight like an anchor, its tug.

What I feel, is my people. 

About the Author
Jill Schulman grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, before making aliyah with her husband and children in 2001. She lived in Israel for thirteen years while raising her family.
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