Israel

My trip to Israel was timed to coincide with two of my four cousins’ return to the country for Passover. The eldest cousin, Nir, has lived in L.A. for seventeen or eighteen years (we overlapped during his first / my last year in the city, the only time I ever lived remotely close to any of the four). The youngest, Rachel, moved to Norway with her partner and two young children about a year ago.

Irit, the cousin who is closest in age to me, picked me up at the airport when I arrived in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks before Passover. We took the train to Zichron Ya’akov, the beautiful town near Haifa where she lives with her husband and two kids. I had never met her kids — my first cousins once removed — in person, even though they are already a teenager and a tween, respectively. It was really nice to finally spend time with them. I got ice cream in the old town with Ella and I watched Almog play video games and learn to drive.

The following evening, we went to Tel Aviv to join most of the rest of the family — the uncles, aunt, and cousins I’ve known my entire life; my cousin Tamar’s eldest child, Naama, who had transformed from a little girl to a pre-teen in the seven years since I first (and last) met her; and four of Tamar and Rachel’s younger children, whom I had only ever seen in photos — on the beach for Shabbat. On the one hand, there were so many adorable nibling-adjacents to marvel at, and on the other, there were so many people I last saw in the bloom of youth or the sturdiness of middle age now looking much, much older. The inexorable march of time…

Over the weekend, Irit took the kids and me to meet up with their friends at Sachne, a thermal spring that reminded me of Austin’s Barton Springs — except that Sachne’s water is a balmly 82 degrees year-round and Barton Springs’ water is a frigid 68 degrees year-round.

During the week, I visited Nazareth for a few hours. Nazareth is predominantly Arab and mostly Muslim, but its old city is a Christian pilgrimage site because tradition says it is where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived. I wanted to see those biblical sites, and I also just like wandering around very old cities.

The Church of the Annunciation is supposed to have been built over Mary’s home, the place where Catholics believe that she learned she was going to give birth to Jesus. The moment when the Angel Gabriel visited Mary with the news is called the Annunciation.

Greek Orthodox tradition holds that the site of the Annunciation was actually Mary’s Well, where she supposedly drew water on a daily basis.

The Synagogue Church, which was closed when I visited, is believed to be built on the site of an older synagogue where Jesus preached.

It is located in the old city market i.e. shuk, which was also closed on the day I visited.

I was thankful for this, because it meant that I could take my time walking through it and could see the details on the buildings.

The next day, I took the train to Akko (Acre in English), another ancient city.

I indulged in a very luxurious hotel for two nights, so that I could carve out a short and sweet solo vacation in the midst of my two weeks of family time.

The hotel was along the seawall. Note the en-suite bathtub. I ended up bingeing all of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Crashing from the tub.

When I wasn’t in the bath, I was wandering around the old city, which, like Nazareth, is very, very old. I toured the Crusader-era Citadel and underground Templars Tunnel. I walked along the Ottoman-era city walls.

And I ate the most delicious meal — salmon sashimi with wasabi sorbet, scallops with Jerusalem artichoke puree and seaweed, and ceviche — at possibly the best restaurant in town, Uri Buri.

Good thing I loaded up on luxury while I could. Little did I know I would be eating hospital meals for the next four days.

When I took the train back to Haifa, my cousin was supposed to pick me up and we were going to visit the famous Bahai Gardens together. Instead, I took a picture of the gardens as we drove past them on the way to the E.R. Wah wah.

Skipping ahead…

I got out of the hospital right before my cousin, Nir, arrived with his wife and six-month-old son, Lior, from the States. Cooing and cuddling a teeny nugget was just the thing I needed during my convalescence.

After a couple of days spent lying on various couches, I felt well enough to take the train into Tel Aviv. I wanted to walk around the older neighborhoods with hundred and two hundred year-old buildings.

There’s so much of the city I’ve never seen — and so much that has changed — and wandering around for three hours only made me realize just how inadequate that amount of time is when you’re in a metropolis.

Tel Aviv has become huge and multicultural and it would take weeks to really get a sense of it. I dug back in a few more times before the end of the trip — once when we all went out to dinner in the Sarona neighborhood, in a restaurant in a block of painstakingly restored German Templar buildings from the 1800s surrounded by construction cranes.

And once on my last day, when I wandered through Jaffa and up the beach promenade.

But on this particular day, I left the city after only a few hours to get on a train to Beit Shemesh, which is where my cousins grew up, and where I grew up visiting them. In the 80s and 90s, it was a fairly small and generally secular town, but it’s transformed in the decades since. It’s had a population explosion, growing from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s become a majority ultra-Orthodox city. When I stepped off the train, I didn’t recognize it in the least, which was really sad.

That wasn’t my final destination, though. My aunt and uncle and cousins picked me up near the train station and we continued on to a nearby forest for a cookout at dusk. The forest cookout was a mainstay of every trip my family made to Israel. We always went to the same forest — my grandparents’ favorite — and while the grandparents sat in their foldable chairs and the parents prepared the food, the kids ran around playing.

While I had never been to the forest we were in now, I looked around and the scene was uncannily familiar. My aunt and uncle — now the grandparents — were holding court. My cousins — now the parents — were laying out the fixings and lighting up the grills. And a dozen or so crazily animated cousins — not my cousins but the next generation of them — were now the kids in the picture. Even the way they were communing gave me deja vu.

For the next few nights, I stayed with my cousin Tamar’s family in a town near Jerusalem. Her two little boys took me on a hike with gorgeous views, during which they showed me their hilltop hideout and found a chameleon.

I thought that the most forgiving audience to practice my elementary Hebrew with would be my elementary school-age niblings, but five year-old Shahar scolded me, “I’m not a girl,” every time I accidentally addressed him using the female gender. (Having to make verbs agree with genders, an annoying feature of Hebrew, has never become natural for me. My default conjugation is female since I myself am female.) Shahar couldn’t understand why this strange fully grown adult was speaking to him like a toddler. His exasperation did encourage me to conjugate better.

On the afternoon of the first night of Passover, we went back to my aunt and uncle’s house, where the preparations for the seder were underway and like nothing I had ever seen before. I had realized earlier in the week that Passover in Israel is like Christmas in the United States. It’s a huge deal, and spring break is timed to coincide with it. I also realized, the second I got to my aunt’s house, that Sephardic Passover, or at least my aunt’s Sephardic Passover, is next level. She was simultaneously making a meat dish, a fish dish, a lamb dish, a rice dish, a few vegetable dishes, and a bazillion salatim (which are essentially vegetable-based tapas).

When we gathered around the table for the seder, it felt epic. Three generations, ranging in age from 6 months to almost 80 years, loudly and chaotically carried out this thousands-of-years-old ritual that is all about survival and continuity. This was my first Israeli seder, my first Sephardic seder, and my first seder in the company of my uncle, who was one of some 11 or 12 children born in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia to actually live through the war. At the end of American seders, there’s a part where you sing, “Next year in Jerusalem.” And here I was, fifteen minutes from Jerusalem, and one week out from a hospital bed. I felt very lucky and very grateful.

The next day, the entire family packed up and left for a vacation in the Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee). Tamar and her family dropped me off at the airport for the PCR test I needed to get before the flight. I almost cried when I smelled the oranges as we entered the parking lot. My strongest memory of Israel is a scent memory: the moment I would step off the plane and begin to descend the rolling metal stairs to the tarmac, where the bus would be waiting to take us to the terminal, a blast of sultry air perfumed with a mixture of jet fuel and oranges would announce that we were back at Ben Gurion. That seemingly unique-in-all-the-world smell was there every time I arrived at the old airport. But for the past couple of decades, there has been a new airport, with jet-bridges instead of metal staircases and busses, and so I have been denied my warm welcome of orange-scented gasoline. My cousins had told me that most of the orange groves that used to surround the airport for miles around are gone now. It brought tears to my eyes to realize that there must still be some left — even if they are owned by the airport. Just one whiff was enough to bridge the Israel of my past with the Israel of my present.

After I got my PCR test, I had another ten hours to kill before my flight, so I left my stuff at the airport and took a taxi to Tzahala, my grandparents’ old neighborhood in Tel Aviv. I hadn’t been there since the late 90s, before both my grandparents died. I had expected to get emotional when we pulled up to the apartment building, but I had not expected to burst into tears.

Two very kind women sitting outside the apartment building comforted me as I stood in front of it with snot dripping down my face. “I understand,” the older woman said, when I sputtered that this was my last physical link to my grandparents, who had been gone for decades. They unlocked the door to the lobby so that I could see if the old familiar smell was still there (Israel is very scent-memory-heavy for me, I guess) and if the scary but exciting old European-style elevator was still operating. The old familiar smell was gone, except for like 5% of its essence that I faintly sniffed, and the old scary elevator had been replaced, though the new elevator had been installed in the same tiny frame, and I think the outer doors were the same. When I turned around I noticed the staircase and a light button/timer on the first landing, and a long-forgotten memory came flooding back, of trying to race down the stairs from my grandparents’ apartment faster than my parents could get down in the elevator and before the timer went out and left me in the dark.

I walked around the apartment building a few times, trying to figure out which had been my grandparents’ balcony, and which had been the window from which my grandmother would hang her laundry on a line between buildings (which always fascinated me). Then I wandered around blindly trying to find the old playground we used to love, and the supermarket nearby where we’d go afterwards to buy fruit-flavored syrup in liter bottles (to mix with the soda water that came out of a spout in my grandmother’s kitchen) and ice cream (which, in Israel in the 80s, came in a flat box — we would cut the ice cream with a knife and eat it in slices, and it had a strange gooey consistency that I found heavenly). We would go from the park to the supermarket by way of a shortcut so hazy in my memory now that all I remember is a path and grass.

I tried to find the playground by memory, following a route that instinctively felt like the one I used to take, but the neighborhood had changed, and the landmarks were different, and when I got to the oval-shaped clearing that I thought was the playground, it was in the process of being demolished — and most of what was still standing was itself a renovated version of the playground I used to go to. It all felt very metaphorical.

I was both sure and uncertain that I was in the right spot. The only thing that definitively confirmed it as the playground of my youth were these concrete structures that I remember very clearly from when I was a kid. Apparently they are bomb shelters, but I had no idea at the time, which also felt metaphorical.

It took me a full hour to find the shopping center that in my memory was directly linked to the playground by a tiny shortcut, but in reality — or at least in the reality of the present — was not. The supermarket was still there, as well as the adjoining post office that I had forgotten about. The neighborhood is now also crisscrossed with a beautiful network of paths and greenbelts, rendering it both bucolic and foreign to me. But walking around, I smelled orange blossoms all over, and I realized that Tzahala may be responsible for my love of that scent.

I took a cab back to Tel Aviv and wandered around some more, hugging the Yaffa coast and walking up the beachside promenade at dusk, feeling like a half-baked time traveler with one foot in the past and one in the present.

When the sun set I got in one more cab and returned to Ben Gurion, where there was a slight chance I would get indefinitely waylaid (aforementioned passport problems). My expired Israeli passport was scrutinized by three different passport agents, who grilled me three separate times, the last of which was at the diplomats-only window — though I am in no way a diplomat — and finally they let me through. (Aside: now that I’ve visited Israel recently, I am eligible to renew my expired passport for five years — but I can’t, because the Israeli Consulate in NYC is not processing any travel documents, because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been partially on strike since March, which is only one of the many reasons why getting in and out of Israel was such a bureaucratic nightmare.)

But even that touch and go, will they / won’t they situation in the airport was a little bittersweet and nostalgic for me. Every time my family would visit Israel, on the last full day or two of our trip, my dad would drive us to a military post where he would have to get written permission to leave the country, since as an Israeli army veteran below a certain age, he was still officially call-up-able. My mom and siblings would sit in the car, not knowing if we’d be waiting twenty minutes or two hours. And while I would always loudly declare that I would never in a million years move to Israel, there was always a tiny part of me that wished the army would tell my dad he couldn’t go, and that we would have to stay. But the army never did.

Standing at the diplomats’ window at Ben Gurion, a tiny piece of me really wanted to get stuck — to call my cousins, tell them that I wasn’t allowed to board the plane, and ask them to pick me up and bring me back with them to the Kinneret, where we swam together when I was young.

But the Israelis let me go. As I boarded the plane to New York, I promised myself that I would never stay away as long again — that I would try to return to Israel every two or three years, like I did as a kid. My trip had made me realize that two seemingly contradictory things can be true at once: you can never go home again, but when you do, you can pick up right where you left off.

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