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Reflections on Leaving and Returning

July 2011

I just came home from being abroad for six days. The trip was my mother’s idea and it was an incredible one! My mother, my two sisters, Judy and Batya, and my brother-in-law

Richie, live in America, all in the New York area, and my husband and I live in Israel. It’s hard. We always say that the only thing that we were never able to get used to, since moving to Israel 19 years ago, is that it’s just so terribly far from America.

So we all met, sort of in the middle, for six days of together-time in Brussels, Belgium.

It was really busy for a while, making all the arrangements, checking passports, deciding when to leave, where to stay, what to bring. Then there were all the preparations involved in leaving a house full of unoccupied children whose days were especially not busy, it being summer break. But finally, the night arrived and my daughter dropped us off at Ben Gurion airport. You would never know it was 3:00 in the morning. The Departures Hall (and of course the Duty Free shops) were mobbed with Israelis getting ready to take off on trips to different destinations all over the world. After boarding, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep immediately and woke up to the sight of perfectly quilted cotton candy clouds through my little window. I hadn’t been awake during take-off, so never felt ourselves leaving Israel, and now we were up in this piece of heaven over foreign waters. And I felt a little disoriented. My connection with my beloved land was cut off and I sensed I would suffer this semi-lost sensation until I landed back on Israeli soil.

We were soon buckling our seat belts and raising our seat backs and trays in preparation for landing. The view from my window took my breath away. Checkerboard fields upon fields of different shades of green, with trees crowding richly all over the landscape met my gaze. Everything was so green! The pilot announced that we would be landing into a gentle rain and I realized that rain in July was definitely something I wasn’t used to and definitely a phenomenon that could result in all that growth and green! I personally hadn’t seen rain in months and probably would not till after October.

The airport was filled with people and billboards spouting romantic French, guttural Flemish and familiar English and it took an effort—the entire six days actually—to not speak Hebrew. I had to stop myself from greeting the passport control clerk with a “Boker Tov” (Good Morning) and when I squeezed between the passengers waiting for their luggage I think I said “Slicha” (Excuse Me). I felt a lot better when we caught sight of my mother, sisters and brother-in-law, and grabbed in our first reunion hugs. Okay, so, I wasn’t home, but I was with family.

Almost immediately we caught whiffs of the famous Belgian waffles wafting from the airport stores and we steeled ourselves to the fact that the scent was all we’re going to get to indulge in. We knew there were no kosher waffle places. As we settled into the lovely apartment we would share, we unpacked our huge duffel bags and heavy suitcases, unloading our food… from rye breads, to jars of coffee, to barbecue chickens, knowing we would probably not find kosher certified food nearby. And then we started touring. It seemed that every other storefront housed another tempting chocolate store. But we did have an important piece of information that our previous research had uncovered…there was one popular Belgian chocolate chain store that DID sell kosher chocolate! So, at every Leonidas, whether on the streets of Brussels or in the train stations or lining the canals of Bruges, we popped in to see if the store had the list of kosher certified products. We finally found one and treated ourselves to a block of Belgian chocolate, happily breaking off chunks and sharing as we strolled. We found a kosher restaurant in Brussels and a whole selection of them on the day we went to Antwerp, but it was always a conscious effort to find things we could eat out. Perhaps it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but in Israel it would require an effort to find something not kosher. Guess I’m just spoiled.

Synagogues also became an issue. My husband Kuti and my brother-in-law Richie wanted to pray in a quorum of men every morning so they got up early to make the 15 minute cab ride to the closest synagogue. Again, I’m spoiled. I live where we are the majority. Where every other block has another synagogue, in my neighborhood of Karnei Shomron we have 8 prayer services on one regular Shabbat morning. On Shabbat morning in Brussels, we walked a half hour to a synagogue where we were welcomed warmly into their midst, Kuti and Richie immediately being offered the honors of opening the Holy Ark and raising the Torah Scrolls. Being Jewish and stepping into a synagogue, anywhere in the world, is almost like being given the secret password of entry. You are automatically accepted as being part of the Brotherhood and it’s a wonderful feeling. You pick up a prayer book and the ancient Hebrew words (even in a European accent) are an instant connector, among the congregants, and between the congregants and their heritage. After the services, we were surrounded by local well-wishers whose first question was “Where are you from?” I was so proud to be able to point to Kuti and myself and say, “We two live in Israel.” There’s a certain “Aaah” of respect/yearning/wistfulness when Jewish people from different corners of the earth hear that there are actually Jewish people making a life for themselves in the Holy Land.

On this vacation we were definitely the outsiders… the minority. Different cities of Europe have, for the longest time now, been the sites of heartbreaking anti-Semitism. Everywhere we went we were asked where we were from. Kuti and I could easily have lumped ourselves with the communal answer of my four American relatives, but each time I proudly (obstinately?) said that we were Israeli. Maybe not too smart, after all, what was I out to prove? Perhaps I was living too long (or just long enough) in Israel to realize that I didn’t make that move to Israel 19 years ago in order to hide it and throw out my hard-earned idealism! As we were getting our training session for our Segway rides in Bruges, a guy in our group asked that question again. Where are you from? He and his teenage son were from England and I stubbornly told him we were from Israel. And you know what? I think that by the time the hour-long tour through the cobblestone streets was done, something was accomplished – he had learned something positive about Jews and about Israel. We had created what we call in Hebrew, a “Kiddush Hashem” – a sanctification of G-d’s name.

Sometimes it was fun to talk to new people! On our train ride to Amsterdam, we sat next to a young guy who was backpacking his way through Holland and it turned out he recently finished serving in the Israeli army and was studying at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. I was foolishly tempted to ask him if he served in the same battalion as my son-in-law or if he was in any of the same classes as my daughter. When you’re that far from home, fellow natives feel like neighbors… like family.

Belgium was beautiful! The open squares lined with castles and cathedrals had a medieval majesty that was awe-inspiring. As we learned the ancient history of the places we visited, I was struck by the incredible age of these cities. We watched a whole ceremony celebrating how the Belgians used to greet their royal emperor in the 15th century, and though fascinating and truly beautiful, I couldn’t work up a sense of true enthusiasm for a leadership… a land that was not mine. I’m from a country that just celebrated its meager 63rd birthday and here I was surrounded by edifices that were centuries old. But I had to remind myself that the seeming youth of my sweet country was made up for by its boundless accomplishments. I also realized that modern day Israel is young, but the land itself is ageless and timeless. Leading back to times when our patriarchs walked through the deserts and the people of Israel built places of worship like the Holy Temple and burial sites like The Tomb of Machpelah… places which today are sadly not whole and not completely accessible, but please G-d, that will be reversed one day soon.

The day we left to go home was hard, knowing we would have to say good-bye. My mother, Judy, Batya and Richie were off to America and Kuti and I to Israel. When we stood in line to check in, what a shock it was when the El Al clerk greeted me in Hebrew! He saw my Israeli passport and was happy to show off his newly acquired language skills. He proudly told me that he was taking an Ulpan class – an intensive course of Hebrew study. He said it makes him feel connected to the people and the land of Israel. I told him to keep it up and to come visit! When the El-Al guards did their world-famous security check I felt a thrill when they addressed us in Hebrew. They asked us where we were headed and we were able to say “Holchim Ha-Bayta” – We’re going home.

On the plane I sat next to an Israeli woman who was going to Israel to visit her sickly father who she hadn’t seen in years. She told me that she, her husband and her children moved to Belgium ten years earlier because her husband was sent there on business for a couple of years. She spoke with regret when she said that year followed year, and one day she realized that her children will never have the privilege of growing up in the best land in the world. She feels that the material goods she managed to provide for them will never make up for the values she knows living in G-d’s land would have given them… and wasn’t sure she would every forgive herself for that. I was selfishly glad she said that, because I had just said good-bye to my family, and was thinking, for a fraction of a second, how nice it would have been… could have been… for my children if we lived near my family.

We landed less than 5 hours later, the view from the airplane of dry, brittle fields; there was even a noticeable ripple in the atmosphere hinting of the heat that was waiting for us. But I didn’t care. So it wasn’t green and lush; it wasn’t breezy and cool. But it was mine, and I was reminded of a wonderful song that I’d like to translate for you:

I’ve been to Paris and to Rome, I’ve seen the Seven Wonders of the World The North Pole and the South… But there’s nowhere like the Land of Israel. And like postcards of beautiful views, Pictures fly in my memory Through a camera’s lens, in my memory I’ll carry them, To every place on every journey. Mosaic pieces of a whole picture.

Hello there my wonderful country. I am your meager servant, offering up a song of praise Even if I sometimes roam. It’s great to roam but even better to return.

The spires of Jerusalem’s towers… The alleys of the colorful market The tiled roofs of Givatayim that peep through my window. Spring in Tel Aviv… My grandma and grandpa… Challa and Shabbat candles The Dead Sea across from Edom… And Lot’s wife gazing on Sodom And summer on the way to Eilat

Shalom Shalom and never good- bye To my wonderful country. I am your meager servant, offering up a song of praise Even if I sometimes roam. It’s great to roam but even better to return.

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities