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.