Shortly after we arrived in Israel a few weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Aviva, who said something that struck me: “This time, you’ve come back with your eyes wide open.”
Indeed, this is not my first time living here; it is my third. When I initially came in April 1989, I only intended to stay for four months to learn Hebrew and live closer to my brother. Shortly after my arrival, I met my future husband Philippe and, slowly, my path changed. I deferred graduate school, we married, I got my Masters at Haifa University, and we had a baby. While living in this faraway land, I developed a love-hate relationship to it.
I loved the deep sense of belonging, as if I were part of something bigger. I loved living history real-time. The day we brought Benjamin home from the hospital when he was born was the day former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and former PLO leader Yaser Arafat shook hands, making the first move toward peace in my adult lifetime. Yet I couldn’t imagine raising Benjamin in a country that often made me cry. I was scared to visit Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where busses and cafes were randomly attacked by suicide bombers. In Israel, two of my basic needs were not met: feeling safe and being able to communicate with ease. Plus the distance from my parents in California pained me.
When Benjamin was one, we left for an agreed-upon two years, which eventually turned into three, then four, so on and so on. We stayed away from Israel for 13 years because of me, visiting only in the summer. We kept our distance until August 2007, when, looking for a break from our predictable, upwardly mobile, Westchester County, New York life, Philippe and I relocated our family to Raanana, Israel, for one year. It was the city where his company was based and which I had never visited until we arrived. Call it an early mid-life crisis or the year of living differently; the name is less important than the impact that year had on our family. Neither Philippe nor Benjamin, almost 15 by the year’s end, wanted to leave their Promised Land. The girls were still young and flexible, willing to stay or go, but I felt vulnerable, unable to cope with the challenges of living in the Middle East. Once again, we left.
As a peace offering to my deeply unhappy husband, I held out an olive branch, one I will never forget that has forever changed my life and that of our family. I offered to return to Israel—again—for a longer, less defined timeframe when the kids were older. We would come after Benjamin graduated from high school, Daniella finished middle school and Simone had her bat mitzvah. He took my offer and clung to it tightly. From the fall of 2008 until August 23, 2011, the day we boarded El Al flight 08 on a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv, Philippe and I dissected, compromised, negotiated, reasoned and finally settled on a plan to return. Many would say I am here reluctantly; while it is true that I would have preferred to stay in the comfort and safety of my White Plains life, I also welcome change, adventure. It is my own personal paradox with which I have often wrestled throughout the years.
Israel, for me, is neither the Holy nor the Promised Land. I do not believe every Jew should live here or that any God commanded me to do so. This blog is my attempt to make peace with my ambivalence about being here, to find the good in a place where I am not always comfortable, where life is far from easy. Israel is a place where I have to think before I speak, in a language that I read and write on a kindergarten level. It is a place where I try to breathe deeply rather than honk on the horn like everybody else when drivers pull over to buy a newspaper on the side of a narrow road, blocking all the cars behind. A place where I have to force myself to smile at the grocery store cashier even though she is working at a turtle’s pace and pushing weekly discounts at me until I am sputtering. It is a country that still makes me cry, whether from the overly pushy people who do not know how to form lines and wait their turn politely or from the beauty of being surrounded by Jews from all over the world while singing the national anthem before any ceremony. This third time around is my effort to make it different—to be strong, stay open to all the possibilities and to see the bright side. I have returned with my eyes wide open, as well as my heart.