A Home for the Holidays

I. Cleaning

Of the many things I have looked forward to in Israel, spending the holidays with my family has been among the most anticipated. The last time I was home for the holidays was 2001. I was six and honestly, I can’t remember anything. As a result, I committed to making Aliyah before Rosh Hashanah, 5780, the turn of the Jewish New Year.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my Abba, brother, and I went to my grandparents’ house in the neighborhood of Canaan in Tzfat to clean. In a few days, fifteen people would descend onto this house to celebrate together. In the synagogue above the house, “Beit Knesset Beit Elokim,” which my Sabba Moshe had maintained with his brother Yisrael for decades, neighbors, many from the same village in Morocco, would come to pray in the same style as their fathers and grandfathers had. There was plenty to do.

Since I had last been in the house in Canaan, our lives changed completely. With the death of my Savta earlier this year, the pictures on the wall began to collect dust and the house waited, silently preserving memories. The soul that once animated the boisterous center of our familial life had, in the absence of my grandparents, gone dormant, rendering the structure still. The new year presented us with the chance to revive it.

As I walked through the house, sweeping up dust and debris into little piles, I had a few moments to think. I was still in the US when my Savta died. When it happened, I hadn’t seen her in nearly three years, and even then, she had long since lost much of her memory. The last time we said goodbye, in the hope of not confusing my Savta further, I told her that I was going home for the night and I would see her again tomorrow. Three years later, sweeping the same floors she swept, I felt I finally had a chance to say goodbye to my Savta Chana whose love transcended distance, time, and even death.

Gripping the same broom she had used a thousand times, I thought of the little woman I was lucky enough to call my Savta. She was tiny, barely five feet off the ground, but an absolute force. Her hair was a henna-dyed fiery orange that conveyed her ferocious vitality even after her body began to weaken in her old age. My Savtah’s hands were simultaneously the tools of a skilled artist when she cooked or baked for her eight children and twenty-four grandchildren, and lethal weapons when she pinched your cheeks, accompanied by a Kappara Aleicha or Nabibashk, terms of endearment for those she loved.

There is an inherent magic that places possess in their ability to connect us to each other. It’s why we return to the site of a first date to propose, or why we avoid that same place after a bad breakup. It’s why tourists flock in the millions to national monuments, and devoted widows bring flowers to their late partner’s grave. Places lock away vivid memories for safekeeping, until we return to explore and reminisce and laugh and cry at all of the wondrous moments we’d nearly forgotten.

II. The Brown Paper Bag

In the synagogue above the house, I followed along in the Siddur, trying to sing unfamiliar melodies. I’ve always thought the synagogue itself was beautiful. At its entrance, a staircase of more than a dozen steps leads worshippers into the center of a simple room. Red benches line the walls allowing those present to see each other, although few raise their eyes from their prayers, except to look longingly towards heaven. At the front of the room stands the ark. Behind its red curtain rest six ornately decorated Torah scrolls.

The story behind the synagogue’s founding is a rather incredible one. In the 20th century, nearly 250,000 Moroccan Jews came to Israel. Their arrival was a combination of persecution and ideology. Among these new Israelis was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeria, more commonly known as the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was a master Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the highest order. Within the Sephardi community, stories of the mystic’s seemingly supernatural gifts are ubiquitous. One such story took place in that same house in Canaan.

After settling in Netivot, the Baba Sali set out to visit the members of his community throughout the country. Tzfat was home to significant Moroccan community, including my Sabba Moshe and his brother, Yisrael, who knew the Abuhatzeria family in Morocco. When the sage came to Tzfat, he always stayed with the two brothers. What are today separate homes were, at the time,  little more than two rooms, separated by a curtain.

On the first such occasion, the pair rushed to prepare the space for the Baba Sali. Yisrael, who owned a corner store in the neighborhood, brought dozens of bottles of Arak, a fennel-based liquor, to the house. The Baba Sali was known to give his blessings by pouring a small shot of Arak for each of his devotees. Thousands of people came to seek out his spiritual advice and so, logically, a lot of the drink was needed.

The wall of the room in which the holy man would receive his visitors was lined with bottles of the Middle Eastern alcohol. As the story goes, upon entering the room, the Baba Sali did something peculiar. He took a single bottle of Arak, opened it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He handed the bottle to his assistant and instructed him not to put the bottle down until the last person had been in to see him. As the pilgrims entered the room, the bottle continued to yield, pour after pour. It was miraculous. The bottle seemed to never run dry. Finally, when the last person had seen the mystic, he instructed his assistant to remove the brown bag and set the bottle down. When he revealed the bottle, it was empty.

These visits happened nearly a dozen times over the course of twenty years. It was on one such occasion that the Baba Sali instructed Sabba Moshe and Yisrael to build a synagogue above their joined houses. 

It was in this synagogue that I sat alone on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. While the other worshipers had gone home to eat and rest, I slipped away from my family for a few moments of privacy with my thoughts. As I sat, I spent little time thinking about the miraculous story of the Baba Sali. Instead, I thought about Sabba Moshe. I stared at the spot in the synagogue where he always sat. I thought about his absence and I cried. I cried because of the loss I felt—that my family felt. I cried because of how unfairly suffering seems to be distributed. I remembered him making silly faces at me during Shabbat prayers and squeezing my hand like a lemon when I went to shake his and I laughed. I scanned the room for a brown paper bag, that I might place these memories into it and make them infinite.

III. Time Travel

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my family gathered around the table as they had so many times before. I was grateful to be there. We made blessings over pomegranates, apples dipped in honey, and dates. We ate salads and fish and chicken and lamb, all the while laughing at each other’s little jokes and jabs.

After the meal, the cousins decided it was time to go on the walk that we’d always take around the neighborhood to help us burn off some of the excess food and stretch our legs. For some odd reason, we made a left turn instead of a right one. This was strange because, as far back as I can remember, we had always turned right.

As the walk went on, I couldn’t let go of our left turn. Had things changed so much that we had forgotten which way to turn? Why were we walking backwards?

I think now, that we walked backwards because we’d hoped to unwind time and return to the days where our memories were made. The mystics and cooking and handshakes and meals together have combined to elevate this home to a place of holiness. At times, such a special place with such treasured memories makes moving forward feel impossible. How could we ever leave those things behind? 

The most obvious lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that time, no matter the circumstances, presses forward. My hope is that the future holds as many memories as the past. I hope that this house can always be a meeting place for my family in times of celebration, and a place of comfort in times of grief. I hope that this house is always our home, and I hope that one day our children know that when they go for a walk in the neighborhood, they should always turn right.

Dear Love, thank you for waiting.

Dear Love,

Thank you for waiting.

As a kid, I could not wait to meet you. I would see you in movie theaters where couples nestled into each other’s arms as soon as the lights went dim or in school hallways where my classmates dove head first into your crystal clear waters. You were mesmerizing, but always just out of grasp. That only made my desire to meet you stronger. When it finally happened, I was in awe. You shone so brightly when I held you in my hands, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. In my eagerness to finally meet you, I burned myself and another like a child playing carelessly with an open flame. For a long time afterwards, I thought I had blown my chance at knowing you, and so I sulked and mourned and longed for lost love. 

I realized that, eventually, all wounds heal and that one day, I would get another shot at knowing you.

I’ve had to put off our next encounter for some time now. I decided a couple of years back that in a short time, I would move across the world and build my life in the place I’ve always felt closest to you, Love. As a consequence, I resigned myself to believe that you and I would not cross paths again for some time, but I never stopped looking for you.

I always thought I saw hints of you in every date I went on, every phone number exchanged, and every chance conversation, hoping I might be lucky enough to see you again. They were all wonderfully intelligent, kind, beautiful souls who, no doubt deserved to meet you and know you much more than I. It’s hard though, to try with another to find you knowing how rare it would be that, given the circumstances, our paths would cross. I’m afraid that while you may be able to move mountains, moving people into an entirely new life in an entirely new country still seems to be out of the question.

Nevertheless, I still wrote you songs and poems and letters, all to remind me that one day, we would find each other again.

Sure enough, we did, just not how I expected.

When I announced my move, you sent me an outpouring of support and encouragement from a community of friends who surprised me with their kindness and sincerity. They told me they were proud of me. They told me they were excited for me. Most meaningfully, they told me they would miss me and that they loved me.

I’m not sure why you surprised me. I found you in a rather obvious place—among a group of people who care deeply for me, and for whom I care deeply. You were there in movie theaters where we howled at the absurdity of Marvel’s post-credit scenes and around Shabbat tables where we carved out our own traditions. In marching band practices where we worked to perfect our shows and during weekend escapades where we never managed to accomplish much of anything at all. At a strange little summer camp in New Hampshire where days felt like weeks, months felt like days, and a friendship bracelet from a nine-year-old felt like a lifelong promise.

And so, Love, thank you for waiting for me to realize that you come in many forms and that you are never more than a phone call away.

To my friends who have made my time here in Las Vegas, in Hartford, in New Hampshire, and in Boston so special, thank you. I love you and I know I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Liel

On Roller Coasters and Dealing with Fear

With just over one month until the move, I spend most of my days in a state of excitement. It’s a bit of a frenetic excitement as there’s still so much left for me to do, but all told, I experience it as a positive emotion. The prospect of moving is rightly a thrill. New places, new people, and a new life to build all await me and often times, I catch myself grinning ear to ear as I think of all of the possibilities.

Hidden away in all of this excitement is a single fear from which all of my other negative thoughts and nerves stem. It’s a fear I’ve had since before I decided to move. On its most terrifying days, it has all but blotted out my excitement.

What if the Israel I know and love isn’t the real Israel? What if, in all this time I’ve been gone, dreaming about the land and its people, I’ve created a caricature of a country that could never live up to my expectations?

To answer these questions, I had to ride a roller coaster.

From birth to 18 years old, thrill rides terrified me. The thought of strapping myself into a gravity defying metal death machine petrified to the point that, for a time, I refused to go to amusement parks. I could not be reasoned with. I was a child controlled by fear.

To this day it’s unclear what prompted it—perhaps a new found courage, or just the changing tastes of a person growing with age, but eventually, I went on a roller coaster. Then another, and then another. My fear, it appeared, was conquered. That is until last week when, as a perk of my job, I went on an outing to an amusement park in New England.

As I sat, strapped into a ride with a particularly long ascent, I felt my heart begin to pound. I noticed too, that my hands had started to sweat, and all sorts of wild questions about the safety of the ride started swirling around in my head. Just as the ride’s extended climb reached its peak, I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about the impending drop and in that moment, a wave of euphoria swept over me. I laughed and hollered all through the ride and even managed a smile just before the automated camera snapped our picture. 

As we were welcomed back to the loading station by an aloof teenager in khaki shorts, I had a moment of remarkable clarity, likely spurred on by the adrenaline in my system. My fear of roller coasters was still alive and well. What had changed was my relationship with that fear. Rather than allow it to paralyze me, I realized that fear is an absolutely necessary component of any good adventure story. The rush of riding a roller coaster is only possible because of the healthy dose of fear it administers. Any good thrill ride has mastered the art of tension and release.

(At this point I feel compelled to say that I too was disappointed that this realization came on a roller coaster, the most cliched device of all fear-based metaphor, but unfortunately, we can’t choose the scene for our revelations.)

Here, then, are a few lessons that roller coasters have taught me about my fears and worries and that I hope a future version of me takes the time to reflect on, especially on the days when he is doubting his direction.

1) I have definitely built up Israel in my head into something that it’s not, and that’s okay.

The truth is, when it comes to my move, there are likely some expectations I have that are unrealistic. Much like during the roller coaster’s ascent, when we are given too much time to think, wild ideas sprout wings and, if we aren’t careful, can carry us away into the most frightful corners of our imaginations. That shouldn’t; however, be allowed to distract us. Adventure is had, not when things are perfect, but when things are imperfect. As with all adventures, there will be things that fall short of our expectations while others far surpass them. The thing that makes the future special is that it is full of surprises.

2) When something is frightening, letting out emotion is a good way to expel some excess energy.

On my last roller coaster, I caught myself laughing as I flew around the turns. There wasn’t  anything particularly funny happening, but I think that in that moment, laughter was my body’s way of spending some of the nervous energy that had been building up ever since I strapped myself into the seat. To my future self, when you are in difficult situations, allow yourself to be emotional. Laugh, cry, scream if you must, but don’t get off the ride before you’ve fully experienced its lows AND its highs.

3) Smile in pictures, your mom needs to see that you’re happy.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. If you don’t look happy in pictures, your mom is going to ask you why you aren’t happy, and then it’s going to turn into a whole thing. Don’t let it turn into a whole thing.

Musings On Discomfort and Belonging

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. 

At 19, I was convinced I was going to move to Israel. Fresh out of my first year of college, I visited the country for the first time in nearly four years. I surprised one of my cousins at her Bat Mitzvah. It was incredible having so many loved ones gathered in one place, but I recall feeling disoriented seeing my family again after such a long time. Faces change. Personalities change and with them, relationships. Four years is too long. I was convinced then and there that I would drop out of college, leave my life in the States behind, join the army, and finally be in the place I belonged.

My Abba had other ideas. As much as I’m sure it hurt him to say, he encouraged me to go back to school, finish my degree and only then return. My youth and idealism—some might say naiveté—were tempered by his unexpected practicality. I returned to the States, certain that I would graduate with a diploma in one hand and a return ticket in the other. But as with most things in life, my plan hasn’t quite gone as I planned.

Opportunities following graduation would pull me in a different direction, but my sense of belonging—of where I was meant to be never changed.

What is it to belong? We belong to our families, social groups, and locations, all of which form the basis of our communities. In a perfect world, belonging fully to any community means being completely in tune with its language, customs, and practices. In this way, individuals become the caretakers of their communities’ cultures.

What do we do when we belong to multiple groups? How do we handle the care of multiple identities? This has been my struggle as a dual citizen; a member of two communities with distinct cultures.

I was born in Israel, making me a citizen by birth. Consequently, I am not considered and Oleh Chadash, or new immigrant. Rather I’ll be a Katin Chozer, a minor returning. All told, the differences are minimal—no municipal tax break or airport Aliyah guides to help me acquire health care. And yet, something about the term implies that I possess an inherent Israeli-ness, even if only in a legal sense.

One of the most intimidating questions surrounding my move is simply, “Will I be Israeli enough?”

In 71 years, Israelis have formed a distinct culture in the world. They have their own slang. They have their own sense of humor. Their daily life has its own rhythm. Sabras, those born and raised in Israel, have their own swagger which, when accompanied by the Israeli, “Ehhhhhh,” makes them impossible to miss ambling through a bustling airport.

One of the drawbacks to being raised an Israeli outside of Israel is that my exposure to this culture came in micro-doses. Two months here, three months there, sometimes with years in between. As a result, my sense of comfort and connection with all the things Israel far exceeds my ability to navigate the nuances of the society. I feel largely like I missed out on the things that make Israelis Israeli.

The kicker of course is that to whatever extent that I am Israeli, it has made me deeply uncomfortable with certain elements of the American society in which I live. The work/life balance. The penchant for passive aggressive responses. The de-emphasis placed on the importance of family. The list goes on. 

Ahead of the move, one of the realities I’ve come to accept is that no matter where I am, I will never feel completely at ease. In fact, I’m quite sure that in the entirety of human existence, no one has ever felt completely like they belonged, nor should we. Without discomfort, there is no room for growth.

Another reality I’ve come to accept is that on a heart and soul level, I know I belong in Israel; to Israel. For better or for worse‒but I think for better‒this does not absolve me from experiencing the natural discomfort anyone would feel before and during a move across the world. Otherwise, I’m still not quite sure about the relationship between belonging and discomfort other than that one exists.

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. The cynic in me says that nothing belongs anywhere and we’re all just victims of circumstance. Discomfort is a product of a ruthless world. The mystic in me says that nothing is an accident, and that discomfort is simply a catalyst meant to encourage us to fulfill our unique purpose in the world. As with all things, on most days I’m somewhere in between.