Monday, January 16, 2006

My First and Last Vacation to Israel 

After reading Jack's recent pinch-hitting post over at The Muqata about his first trip to Israel, I was inspired to take my own swing at the very same pitch. Since my first vacation trip to Israel was also my last, I'll focus on memories that explain why that is.

Lest my "first and last" cleverness risks misleading those who don't read all the way to the bottom, I'll make it clear from the start that my first vacation to Israel was my last because it convinced me to move here. However, as I prepared for that first El Al flight, moving to Israel was the furthest thing from my mind, repeated encouragements from Sharon's family notwithstanding. Such recommendations, which struck me at the time more as messianic prophecy than relocation advice, just reflexively brought up my defensive shields, as if I thought such a move would be met with greetings of "Welcome, and I told you so." Not rational, I know, but different people get the message in different ways. Here's how I got it.

It was 1994. Sharon and I were married less than a year and living in Los Angeles. Like so many other Angelenos we knew, we had every intention of moving elsewhere to raise a family, we just didn't know where yet exactly -- Denver, Seattle, here or there, didn't really matter. We didn't want our kids growing up in the world's biggest mall the way I did -- I kind of liked it actually, but still...

In the spring, however, we took a break from our Gedanken survey of "great American cities we might want to live in"  so we could visit Sharon's father in the Holy "who wants to live in a war-zone"  Land. Going in, I was pretty sure I knew the essentials of Israel: "It's a great place to visit but I wouldn't want to get killed there."

Two memories stand out from that trip.

Disappearing Kids

Spending Shabbat with some of Sharon's friends in Jerusalem, we were walking the kilometer or so back from synogogue Saturday morning when our hosts' young kids decided to run off to a playground up ahead. That they were even allowed to escape their parents' immediate gravitational field was astonishing to us, who'd been trained that the only time you don't have to worry about your kids being snatched was when they're still in the womb -- and even then, it's optional.

But the kids ran ahead as we parents slowly walked and talked behind. When we reached the playground and didn't immediately find them, I could feel my heart pounding out of my chest, afraid I'd traveled all these thousands of miles only to witness a tragedy. Sharon and I immediately scanned the surrounding bushes for discarded kid clothes or signs of a struggle. Then we noticed that our hosts, somewhat callously, hadn't joined in the search for their own missing kids. Is this what living in Israel does to you we, wondered? Shouldn't we be consulting competent Halachik authorities about the permissibility of publishing missing-kid milk cartons on the Sabbath? But our hosts just wanted to continue the conversation and the leisurely stroll. Apparently there was another park up ahead the kids might have gone on to.

So Sharon and I swallowed our anxiety and deferred our panic until we reached that next park. Well, or course, the kids weren't there either. But did this upset anyone? No, not a bit. They just figured we should walk the last block or two to the house, that the children would probably be waiting there. Obviously Sharon and I were too polite to openly question their sanity or their concern for their children, but I recognized Sharon's arched eyebrow and gave it right back to her.

Home. Finally. The parents opened the door and called out, but there was no answer. Oh my God! But still they didn't seem to worry. They just explained that their kids had friends in the neighborhood, and all the other parents know them, and so they'd probably be home in a little while. And we were supposed to sit and chat while we waited. Calmly.

But you know what? Half an hour later, the crying little kids wandered through the door. "Where were you?" they asked and accused at the same time. Mom and Dad patted their heads and explained. And with a little prodding, it turned out the kids had indeed stopped off at friends and house-hopped their way back home, one friend at a time.

We let that memory sink in for awhile, needing a little time to diffuse the tension between their lack of parental anxiety when panic was actually called for, and the amount of trust they had in the neighborhood that could allow such an irresponsible parental response. We moved on with our vacation.

Road to Ramallah

A couple days later, returning to Jerusalem after a side trip, I quickly slowed our rental car to a halt as a mammoth traffic jam loomed in front of us. My L.A. road instincts quickly kicked in and I noticed an off-ramp to a different highway that was also labeled as going to Jerusalem -- and no one was taking it! Hurrying to beat the crowd, I slithered over to the right and sped off on this other, almost unused highway with a great deal of satisfaction, and more than a little smugness about the superiority of my L.A.-honed navigational abilities.

We drove and drove -- absolutely no traffic, just the occasional individual car. It was getting late in the afternoon and the light was slowly fading into dusk, and still we drove, still pointed to Jerusalem, but wondering why it was taking so long. We started to notice buildings, houses, little villages on the side of the road, and we slowly started to realize we weren't in Kansas anymore.

Finally, we entered a city, hoping it was the outskirts of Jerusalem. We noticed the sign and gulped. Ramallah. Although this was 1994, years before Israelis taking a similar wrong turn were lynched, there had been a number of fatal shootings in this city during the previous months. So even in 1994 we were quite uneasy to be wandering, lost on the streets of Ramallah in a clearly marked Israeli rental car. I vowed silently that no matter what, I wasn't going to take my foot off the gas pedal, mentally reviewing advanced evasive driving tactics I'd once seen on Starsky and Hutch, and wondering whether my kippa was visible in the low light of dusk. We tried to maintain the appearance of calm as we hurried through the city, praying that the straight path was the quickest one out, our hearts pounding in the back of our throats as we passed each mosque and each crowd gathering in the growing dark.

Finally, after barely escaping numerous near-shootings and avoiding what might have been bombers -- you never know! -- we emerged from Ramallah at an East Jerusalam Israeli checkpoint. As we waited in line behind numerous Arab cars, we started calming down, knowing soldiers were there in case anything happened. Finally, we got to the front of the line, wondering if our American passports would be enough for them to let us through the checkpoint, or if we'd have to explain to some company commander what we were doing there. But the soldiers just looked at us and burst out laughing. Then we started laughing too as they waved us through. I still laugh about it.

But it gets less funny every year. Back then, I thought it was funny how afraid I was even though nothing happened. Now I realize how important timing is, grateful for having gotten lost in Ramallah on the right day of the right year.

So why no more Israeli vacation visits?

So I never came back for another Israeli visit. Clearly it's not because the Ramallah panic overshadowed everything else, but the opposite. Despite the anxiety about terror, we were more impressed by the comfortable integration of Israeli families within their neighborhoods, that closeness between families that allowed parents to simply let their kids play without worrying that if you blinked they might disappear. Obviously there's more to Israel than that, but that's a lot.

So now we live here. Of course things aren't so simple. There has been much more and much worse terror since our visit. But Israelis don't live in a CNN TV show. Life here really is much like we saw it. Sure, the spectre of the Iranian bomb lingers over us now, but I'll try to trust in my abilty to pass on to my kids what little I remember of my own childhood "duck and cover" drills to keep us safe -- that and the determination of the IDF and maybe even George Bush.

I probably should strongly suggest you consider aliyah as well, or at least, Jewish or not, coming for a visit -- Israel is a great place to visit and you probably won't get killed. But I know sometimes people can come on too strong, accidentally distancing those they wish to draw close. I remember my own such reactions. In the end, no matter what anyone else told me about where they felt I should live, I had to find my own reasons. I'm probably not alone in that regard. So if you know what you're looking for, and you find what you want, I'm sure you can do the math without my help.

But if you do come someday, don't worry, I won't say "I told you so." I'll just say, "Welcome, and did you happen to see a little girl with curly blonde hair, about so tall...?"

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