When you land, the whole plane erupts in applause. Some people kiss the tarmac, tears dotting their cheeks.
The first time I stepped off a plane onto the land of Israel, I felt oddly as if I had come home – though I had never been there before. And thus began a lifelong journey of yearning to go back, to visit, to be in the land and on the land and among the strongest Jewish people I have ever known.
Next week, Dan and I are going – our first big overseas trip as a married couple, his first visit to Israel ever, my first since I stopped being Orthodox. The last time I visited Israel, I was in a crumbling marriage, with three children, ages 10 months, 3 1/2 and 5.
We went for Passover with my in-law relatives and stayed at a religious hotel in Haifa. Our rooms were across the parking lot and across a street in the hotel’s annex, which made staying up late for the Seders difficult, when my children only wanted sleep. We Americans observed two days of holiday, while the Israeli religious only kept one, so we wouldn’t ride elevators or drive cars while they zoomed and smoked and spoke on their cell phones.
It’s easy to visit Israel as a religious Jew; everything there is respectful of a religious Jewish lifestyle. You can find kosher food, places to worship, others like you, wearing long sleeves in the hot Mideast sun.
Ever since I stopped being religious, I’ve wanted to return, to see Israel through new eyes. My very first visits in the 1990s were as a secular Jew, but that was so long ago, and I’ve visited many times in the interim. Until the last seven years: radio silence.
So we are going. Up, up and away. And we get there on the eve of a festive fall holiday, so I can’t wait to watch the dancing in Jerusalem streets.
It’s a weird thing, to be proudly American, native-born, and yet to feel at home in another land. I have never wanted to move to Israeli permanently, but I am grateful for its existence. I know that if any of history’s bad events began to repeat themselves, I would have a safe place to go where I would be accepted and protected because of who I am – the opposite of treatment of Jews the world over.
It’s a funny thing, our persecution complex. Except it’s real. People do hate us, for no good reason, for no reason at all, and it comes up again and again throughout history, blame the Jews, blame the Jews.
When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, in the wake of the horrible Holocaust, it was in desperate need of settling. Now, it’s a green miracle, an incredibly vibrant and economically cutting-edge place filled with the brethren of the same pasty people who like ghosts drifted through the European Diaspora aimless and strengthless.
Israelis are strong. Tough. Attractive. Confident. They are my people as much as the people who cling to the shadows in other cities, doing their ritual observances and trying to to blend into the mainstream. Except I claim Israel more. Let’s make something of ourselves, let’s stop being pushed around.
Last night, the kids and I started to watch a movie in which the new kid in town is bullied by two thugs who take his sneakers and steal his Halloween candy. “I hate bullying,” I said, as the four of us snuggled in tight on my bed.
“It’s just a movie, Mommy,” one of them remarked. Yes, but. It happens in real life all the time. It happens among adults. Bullies are real and they just won’t go away. Just look at our global political landscape today and weep.
We are facing a new election in a few weeks, and all the campaigning reminds me of how we vote based on fear – fear of the unknown, fear of the worse candidate winning the seat, fear of what-if. We cannot live in fear, and in Israel that is never an option. You live in fear there, and you die.
The key to survival, to thriving, to loving the life you live on the land you’ve claimed and reclaimed, is to stand your ground, with pride, hands fisted on hips, a shadowy smile on your face, your hair shorn short, your gaze far into the distance. This is my land, brave and free.
We’ll be there next week, and I simply cannot wait. To be a different, better, stronger version of me, in the place of the strong, in the place of our collective history, in the glowing sunlight of the desert mountains, of the running rivers, of the rich tradition that takes me back nearly 6,000 years. It’s mine as much as yours. Just try and take it from me.