Vacation part two: Israel, where I go to grow.

I’m technically American because I was born here, but I’ve always considered myself Israeli too. My parents are Israeli and took my sisters and I to visit since we were little kids, where we spent long hot summers sleeping at my grandparents and playing hide and seek with our cousins. Heblish was my first language, and I blame my English language deficiency and grammatical slip ups on the fact that I didn’t hear advanced English around me in my formative years (it’s weird that I’m a writer). My point is, when your mother says “zambie” instead of “zombie,” and “let’s go to the Dust-Buster to rent a movie,” there’s some unlearning to be done.

I just returned from another trip to Israel. As an adult I still go every year or two. I can’t help it. My sisters feel the same – we need our “fix,” even if it’s for six days like this trip was for me. One of my cousins got married; I have so many that there’s always an annual excuse to go (not that I need one). But this trip was extra special because it was the first time my parents, sisters, and their children were all there at the same time. Add that to the thirty relatives who live there, and it’s one big party. It’s always emotional to see my cousins – who I feel connected to like siblings – the ones I grew up playing in the back fields of my grandparents house with, now all married with families of their own. One cousin who I am particularly close with and not just because he has a wicked sense of humor and calls me “bitch” (pronounced “beach”), picks me up at the airport, even when I land at five in the morning, and then we start house hopping, reuniting. My sisters who might be described as regimented or finicky back home, immediately adapt to the easy going Israeli culture. They pack light, sleep in different houses every night, the kids on mattresses on the floor, running barefoot outside, and no one cares about dirt or mess or the fact that it’s over a hundred degrees out.

And then there’s me, the “single” one, untethered by children or anyone else’s schedule. I can sleep until one in the afternoon (which I do) and stay wherever I want. Read: where there’s a working air conditioner. The AC in “my room” in my aunt’s attic broke, so the night after the wedding, which went on until close to 3am, I drove back from Jerusalem with my parents (and a caravan of relatives behind us). They set me up on a mattress on their bedroom floor, and before my mom and I put our earplugs in (my dad snores), I said: “Now you two behave yourselves or I’m going to have to blog about it.”

I noticed that I was in a unique position on this trip: an adult, older than many of my cousins who have kids, and yet still a kid myself, being looked after by my parents. And yes, mom still not only looks after me, she chases after me. Especially at meals. Wherever I go, there she is, making sure I’m eating more (and drinking less). On my last day there, my entire family (all 43 of us) had sabbath lunch at my cousin’s restaurant. When I arrived I sat next to my cousin and his new wife, and when I looked up, there was mom, sitting across from me. Without thinking, without stopping to realize that my mother just loves me and wants to be near me, I snapped, and told her I didn’t want to sit next to her because I wasn’t up for the Israeli style surveillance. She got upset, and rightly so, but I felt justified. I was on vacation; a grown-up who doesn’t need to be told how to behave by her mother. And yet I acted like a child.

Mothers have thick skin, right? It surfaces when their first child is born and coarsens over time, doesn’t it? I see my sisters lose their shit and lash out at mom, and their girls do it to them. It’s part of being a member of the family system. We constantly wrestle with our need to be individuals, and our need to be loved and accepted.

Not an excuse, Cougel. “Respect thy mother and father…No matter how irritating they can be,” I chastised myself.

That night I went out with the cousins and my sister to a bar and we stayed out til 2. I told my parents that rather than waking them (drunk and smelling like smoke), I’d sleep in the living room since I had to get up four hours later to catch my flight home to New York anyway. I also knew that if I slept in their room, they wouldn’t get any sleep until I got home. My second night in Israel was my dad’s first, and he surprised me by waiting up for me. “Abba, it’s 1:30 in the morning, aren’t you exhausted?” I asked. He didn’t answer the question: “I was waiting for you.” “Dad, I’m 38.” “I’ll do it when you’re 60,” he said.

I set my Blackberry alarm for seven and had no problem getting up. A moment later, I heard my parents’ bedroom door rattle open upstairs and mom’s feet shuffling across the floor and down the stairs. She was coming to wake me. When she saw me, her face brightened in amazement. “How did you get up? I didn’t sleep all night, I was worried you’d oversleep.” My reply: “You know that Blackberry you use to text me in all caps with? It also has an alarm clock.”

I let her help me pack. She wrapped my sandals in plastic bags (so they won’t touch my clothes) and pulled the stray hairs from my hairbrush. But my most notable act of reconciliation? I let her make me oatmeal with honey. God forbid I should fly hungry. I wasn’t hungry, but I smiled and ate the whole thing anyway, under her watchful – and loving – eye.

They drove me to the airport, and got out of the car to hug me. I was going home, and would see them in a week, but it felt similar to a college send off. In a way, I think they might be on to something. Recognizing the stage of life I’m at – on the brink of letting go of my childlike freedom and preparing for the next stage where I might have children of my own – this trip did feel like some kind of last hurrah. And there is no better place for a quick fix – for a quick retrieval of my unfettered and boundless youth – than a trip to Israel, the place where I got to grow up. And still do.

My father is not in the mafia. I swear.

I realize that I risk sounding like Meadow Soprano, but I’d like to try to demystify some things about my father that can be easily misinterpreted. Here are the top ten:
1) He’s an immigrant who lives in New Jersey, one town over from where The Sopranos was filmed. My parents’ house has big columns in front of it, and the same interior layout as The Sopranos. But that’s just a coincidence. 
2) He wears wife-beater undershirts, leather loafers, and sometimes, suspenders. But it’s because they’re comfortable.
3) He’s a big guy, with tufts of hair above his ears and nothing on top, so his thick eyebrows accentuate the deep creases between them, which makes him look serious (and a little scary). But my grandfather looked like that too. (Although no one is really sure what he did for a living, but no matter.)
4) What does my father do?  Okay, I probably should have left this one off the list, since it won’t help my case, but I’d like to be honest here. He works in construction. And import export. Please don’t ask what it is exactly that he exports. Or how (no, not in the trunks of cars).  
5) He carries a big fat money clip in his pocket, and pays for lots of things in cash. Including, as legend may have it, my big fat Jewish wedding.
6) He doesn’t speak unless it’s necessary, or when using his favorite line, “Don’t bust my balls.”
7) His favorite movie is The Godfather. But isn’t it everybody’s?
8) There is nothing more important to him than his brothers, and his family. He doesn’t have any friends, because they are not to be trusted the way family is.
9) My father used to sometimes call my ex-husband “Fredo,” after Don Corleone’s mentally inferior son. And no, I don’t know where my ex has disappeared to ever since he (according to my father) “went against the family.”
10) My brother-in-law works with my father and he’s so loyal – it’s loyalty people, not fear! – that he won’t tell us details about his day to day employment.
After years of us teasing my father about the above, he finally decided to just go with it. He has a wicked sense of humor, so why not f*ck with people?
Last year, my parents’ fourteen-year-old Golden Retriever died, and my parents wanted to bury him in the backyard. My father asked my brother-in-law to bring in some workers from a house they were building (the same one they were approached to film in by none other than The Sopranos production, but my father declined. He didn’t want strangers “poking around in his business.”) So, my brother-in-law drove two Hispanic carpenters over to the house and explained (their English was poor) as best he could that they needed to dig a big hole in our backyard. After they finished, my father emerged from the house to inspect it. These men had never met my father before. He peered into the fresh grave by the woods, sufficiently sized to contain the corpse of a seventy-pound retriever, looked at the two men and then opened his arms wide. “More grande,” he said. Make it bigger.
According to my brother-in-law, the ride back with the two workers in the pick-up truck was silent. Eventually, one of the men looked at him and said, “Su padre…Cosa Nostra?”  (ie. “Sicilian Mafia”)
But my dad isn’t scary to me (except when he gets pissed). Those of us lucky enough to be on the inside are privy to his true motives. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for his children, and that includes flying out with my mom to Los Angeles at a moment’s notice, to take his heartbroken daughter to a spa for a weekend when she needed it most (my mother had a coupon). When I was worried that my father might not accept the choices I had made in my life, or the detour that it had abruptly taken, he surprised me with a strong accepting silence. When I left Los Angeles and the life I had there, and moved back to New York City alone, he was waiting for me at the arrivals gate with my niece on his shoulders, welcoming me home.  He’s over sixty, and looks older than that, but he still insists on installing things into each apartment I move into, straining, with reading glasses slipping off his sweaty nose. He calls me almost every day for a one-sided conversation that lasts no more than two minutes, “just to hear my voice.” 

If my father loves me for who I am, and accepts who I am becoming, then, mafia ties or not, I’m going to accept him too. Or rather, in his words, what I don’t know can’t hurt me.

*Disclaimer: Some statements in this post are exaggerated and names altered for Cougel’s – and her family’s – own protection.