There is something intoxicating about visiting Israel.
It happens every time I go: I feel overcome by a need to stay there, to plant roots in the soil of my ancestors, to live among people who are all like me, to become enmeshed with the ideal of what it means to be a Jew: proud, strong, fearless, confident.
And then, I get to the airport at the end of my stay and feel the rush of relief that I am headed back to the United States, where everything I know beckons like a friendly finger pulling me into the routine that I have built. I touch down on American soil and eagerly await the mechanical pulling up of my garage door, the opening of my home with its scents and colors and blankets for early morning cuddles on the couch.
During my journey, I read a book called Aliya, by Liel Leibovitz, a nonfiction tome detailing the journeys of three families over the course of Israel’s history who made aliyah, or returned to the holy land to become citizens. One family pre-state, in 1947; one in the 1960s and 1970s to the border with Lebanon; one in 2002, to realize religious ideals.
It was a good book to read while in the Jewish state. In its pages I confronted the realities, sometimes harsh, of making this journey back to a life not previously known, and for the first time I reckoned with what it might really be like to make my home in Israel.
I would not know, in the 21st century, the tainted water and troubled food of pre-state life. I would not know the terror of living in close proximity to rebel factions in Lebanon. But the family disharmony that the most recent family found, that of divorce and struggles to find compelling work, that I might have waiting for me.
The bloom is off the rose.
On the way home, I began a book by Sonali Dev called The Bollywood Bride, and I was reminded about the love I have found in this chapter of my life. The companionship, the passion, the relationship that eluded me in my first attempt at marriage. The plane raced over the cold Atlantic, ticking away 12 hours of travel, until I would return to the embrace of my beloved, the familiar touch of his strong hands, the reassuring gaze followed by a light laugh that all is well in this home we have built.
And then our connecting flight was delayed, until canceled, and I spent one more night on the road home, waiting to stop journeying.
Besieged by jet lag, out of sorts, swarmed by ideas and memories and yearnings and thoughts I tried to piece together into an organized clatter of purpose and focus, I opened a third book, All Who Go Do Not Return, by Shulem Deen.
This memoir told the journey of a former Hasidic man who left his rigid enclave for a life of free thought and independence. It was incredibly well written, heart-wrenching at times, beautiful poetic at others.
But it was important to read at this time, in this place.
It was our last night in Israel, and the children and I waited for our ordered cab from Qiryat Sefer, the City of the Book, which abuts my ex-sister-in-law’s religious moshav.
We were headed to see the kids’ cousins, several of whom had been born since their last visit three years ago. They wanted desperately to see their family who, happy but impoverished, live half a world away with few opportunities or reasons to come to the States.
And so we packed into the cab and careened through the West Bank until we reached the swelling slopes of this religious city, and meandered past it into the fenced enclave of the tiny ultra-religious community where she lives.
They welcomed us with smiles and hugs, even me, the ex-sister-in-law, the ex-aunt, the formerly pious but now incredibly secular ex-family-member-by-marriage. I wondered if I would be welcomed, if I would feel uneasy, if we would have anything to say to each other.
I needn’t have worried.
Smiles abounded throughout the evening. They asked what I was working on, whether I was still writing. They asked about my parents. They listened to tales of our journeys.
Shaya dropped to the floor to build with blocks among his cousins. Asher twisted his cube to the adoring glances of younger cousins, wondering how the puzzle worked out. Eliana cooed at the babies, their big eyes and big smiles so adoring.
We cut into the barbecued chicken and hot dogs, scooped heaps of salad onto our plates, watched as their uncle turned bottled water into Israeli apple juice.
And when it was time to leave, we were sad to go.
During the visit, I gazed at my former nieces in their long skirts and long sleeves, their high-collared sweaters and tights with sneakers, their covered hair and happy bouncing of babies on their laps. And I felt that familiar envy, that niggling thought of maybe I should return to being religious, that life is so easy, so well-mapped-out, look at how happy they are.
It shocked even me, for when I think of living in Israel, I don’t confuse it with living a religious life. I just think of the ease and joy of being Jewish 24/7 rather than in the margins of a greater world that knows nothing of my rituals.
So to open this last book was a blessing, a journey home to myself.
There are reasons I left. There are reasons to not return.
I love reading a good book because it’s like a journey. While staying put in my comfortable life, I can leave for a while to step into other worlds, other times, other possibilities and relationships and wanderings.
And when I close the pages, I am back where I started, in all that I have carefully constructed to hold dear.
It’s important not to imagine what we see as all there is. No life outside our own is perfect all the time. Just like the concerns and misgivings we harbor deep within are not the sum total of our own lives.
It’s incredible to think about the rush of transformation that takes place on big trips like the one I just took.
Even moreso when we realize the gem of truth in the place we left, and the place we return to. Home is a concept we create internally, one we cannot run from, one we cannot find outside of ourselves. A deep question with striking truths that only we can find, unaided.