Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Emotion Parade During Our Trip to Israel

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Ultimately, Relief Is the Grand Marshal

This dusty dirt road belies the rows and rows of spry, young avocado trees behind the hoary trees on the left, but doesn't surprise me with the village's cemetery just around the bend. My father's parents, his sister and her husband are buried there (z"l). In reliving the trip here, I'm not sure how orderly I can make the emotion parade, or how much I should try to do so. Here, I'm posting photos and writing about a place of which I have been conscious for more than 40 years, first through Sabta (my grandmother) and Aunt Tovah -- the generations of our family that moved there in 1948 and '47 respectively.

Until reading the name beneath my grandfather's on his side of the gravestone, I do not know or recall that my grandfather was the son of Chaim Mordechai haLevi, and had chosen to name his eldest son (my dad of blessed memory) after his deceased dad (z"l). One grave sits in a moshav in Israel and the other on the outskirts of Stamford, Connecticut. If my dad had stayed in Israel after serving in WWII in the U.S. Navy, rather than leaving and moving to the Village in New York City, I wouldn't be here to blog about standing in awe at the continuity.

This visit with my family, both dead and alive, doesn't happen till our last day in Israel and I am anticipating it the entire time. Instead of being anticlimactic or even somehow disappointing -- which a number of highly-anticipated events are in my experience -- it is marvelous. Relatively, my first cousins Edna and Meishe are two of seven first cousins with whom I'm the closest; siblings Sarit -- aka Sari -- and Yanai are the others with whom I'm closest. Meishe and Edna have worse luck than the rest of us in that their parents Tovah and Lulu both were buried already, and Uncle Lulu died when they were young, in 1967, just weeks after our grandfather died; Saba died of Leukemia and Uncle Lulu of a freakish bathtub fall if I remember correctly -- 50 years, so far, of Edna and Meishe, leaving stones on Uncle Lulu's grave, and Uncle Lulu never got to see his gorgeous, talented grandchildren, Dvori, Lilach, Anat, Eli and Omri. And Meishe's now a grandfather himself, twice already, of Ori and Hilla. What if Aunt Tovah were still living? She would have gotten to know two delightful great-grandchildren so far. What if my father were still alive? He would have gotten to know four beautiful, stellar grandchildren. What if Uncle Vevy (Zev), the father of Yanai and Sari, were still living? He would have gotten to know all four of his precious, brilliant grandchildren, rather than only Yanai's kids.

So much envy to trudge through: I envy Sari and Yanai for getting to have both of their parents for much longer than I did, and perhaps Edna and Meishe envy Sari and Yanai, too, as well as how my dad lasted a few more years than theirs, till 56, and how my mom, so far, has lasted 20 years longer than theirs. Or maybe I'm the only one who thinks this way. And how does it serve me? In this case, I think, envy is just another type of mourning. This family in Israel is a thick link to my father, who I miss practically continuously, no matter that this November, he'll already have been gone corporeally for 30 years. The ache doesn't lessen. The couple of random memories that Edna and I share about him in the car from Tel Aviv to Beit Herut are incalculably dear to me, including how he used to read her stories in Hebrew and then when he was done, asked her what they were about. "The difference was that your father could read, but couldn't speak, and Uncle Vevy could speak, but couldn't read as well." We leave the cemetery, which had been Meishe's and Edna's profound idea to visit. The white slabs of my lost relatives serve as a peaceful, sad contrast to all of the hopeful colors to come during the rest of my visit.

My one priority other than seeing all of my available relatives is first to stop at the community pool, where I had spent significant times at 15, during the Summer of '80, when I lived with my second cousins, Gila, Shmuel (z"l), Moti, Ron and Nitza. It is a bit out of the way and it is definitely a youngest-child-syndrome moment, where just like my older sisters Deb and Kayla had done for me my whole early life, and perhaps they think they do still, Meishe and Edna are proxies and indulge me. This is the only time Pat intervenes and says, "Sarah, the rest of your relatives are waiting to see you." In response, I feel less guilty than determined to peek at the pool.

Probably, I could pause here to wonder what else Pat was thinking of all of this -- a dimension of my history to which she hasn't had direct access prior -- but the reality is that I am fully self-absorbed and unconsciously taking for granted that Pat can be self-sufficient during the visit, beyond my making initial introductions, where I consciously refer to her as my wife; I follow our dear friends David & Gerard's advice to use the term "wife" as often as possible to make up for all of the years that we couldn't. My cousins prove to be completely, naturally, genuinely welcoming to us. Their warmth makes me feel proudly beloved.

My dad of blessed memory always talked about the *Pirkei Avot*/*Ethics of the Fathers* statement, "K'neh l'chah chaver," which was the concept that friendship is so precious, we should be willing to pay for it. With that in mind -- not knowing how warmly we'd be received -- I bring gifts for family of all ages. Though I am not satisfied that they are amazing enough -- bunches of IBM logo'ed items...a cup, toddler T-shirts, mini golf umbrellas and rebus notebooks, plus a couple of Mickey Mouse paint-sets from my mother, a child's puzzle from the Jewish Museum in New York, and a Beijing Olympics key-ring for Dvori, since I remember that she is a champion swimmer and instructor -- I hand them out quickly upon our arrival, which helps me channel my nervous excitement at being met by known and new faces.

Of course, I need to bring gifts because they always give us gifts, even when we are visiting them in their home-country. Maybe they are similarly familiar with the *Pirkei Avot* saying, or maybe they're just generous. They give Pat & me each some special Dead Sea revitalizing products as well as a fantastic 2012-2013 Israeli art calendar. The thing is, in choosing gifts for them, I can't think of anything American that they don't already have access to, and the IBM-logo'ed products, at least, are not generally, publicly available, and they really are a reflection of how I've spent nearly the past two decades in the States and and India. In fact, my IBM service counts for 22 years this month. We also wish we could have brought them bottles of the New Jersey State Fair-winning Iris honey from the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, where Pat serves as Treasurer of the Board, here in Montclair, but we figure that it could be a Security challenge, or else disastrous if the bottles break in our luggage.

Also, I'm hoping that some of my memories are bonus gifts for them; theirs are to me, certainly. I've got an aerogramme from Aunt Tovah, dated November, 1980, that refers to Anat's precociousness as a toddler. And as I'm sitting here, reflecting now, I'm recalling how when Dvori was an infant and I was 11, I blew at her eyes to watch her long eyelashes wave at the wind and no one stopped me. Probably, no one other than Dvori saw me do it. She was smiling, or at least, not crying during my experiment, so I don't think I did any lasting harm.

And I've got a nice photo of my oldest cousin Gila with her husband, Shmuel and her parents, if I remember correctly, and me at 15, which I show to Gila and which she asks Meishe to photocopy. Of course, this being 2012, he has a photocopier in his home. And Gila's daughter Nitza recalls two memories that I had forgotten: She took me to school with her during my first or second visit, when I was eight or 11, and she remembers that I ran the 60 meter dash really fast. (It was not a trend.) Nitza also remembers how exciting it was to receive a package from me, from the United States: "You sent those [molded rubber] Sesame Street finger-puppets, and to this day, I can't throw them away. I still have them." (My dad (z"l), who was a game and toy designer, had brought them home -- enough to share some, so I did.)

When Nitza and her mom Gila, along with Nitza's darling young son, enter Meishe and Bina's living room, I spring up and hug them. I also introduce Pat, but want to sit closer to them to be able to talk and leave Pat on the couch. By now, everyone is talking with her and she is enjoying the conversation and a sort of melon that she says later tasted like a more delicious version of cantaloupe, but which isn't the same color.

Pat looks perfectly comfortable, and I take the golden opportunity to sit down especially next to Gila, who is just a few years younger than my mom and she kindly lets me speak halting Hebrew with her, rather than English, even though she understands English perfectly. It is so cool! Gila, Nitza, Edna and Bina all are sitting near me at the same time and we have a history! At this moment, I don't need the Dead Sea serum; I am 30 years younger, just reminiscing with them. And being around typically remote people who still remembered my dear father (z"l) brings him back to life for me for a bit, even if just for the length of our visit.

The time with my Israeli family is too brief, as we are meeting my mom's 90ish-year-old friend for lunch Chaya back in Tel Aviv, but it leaves Pat and me wanting more, and I hope our Beit Herut-based family feels the same way. Gila (second from the left in this last photo) says to me emphatically, "I'm all alone in that big house, so next time you and Pat come to Israel, you must stay with me." We'd love to and hope to. What a rich visit, with 22 of my emotions on parade, some internally and some externally: awe, anticipation, surprise, nostalgia, envy, mourning, ache, appreciation, amusement, peace, sadness, hope, courage, warmth, pride, love, vulnerability, nervousness, excitement, wonderment, and renewal -- with relief leading the way...relief that I could pick up with my family where we left off, that the family, including Pat, warmly received one another, relief that I could communicate in Hebrew, even if at a pre-Kindergarten level, and relief at the ease we felt, being with all of them.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sarah. I loved reading about this. (Though just to clarify, my dad never met either of my kids; he died a few weeks after David came home from the NICU.) I appreciate your sharing both your thoughts and the pics. I never knew our grandparents, and it was lovely to see the gravestones.


Sarah Siegel said...

Dear Sari,

Oy. Didn't recall that about your dad and your son David as I was writing. Fixed it.

I keep thinking about accidents of birth. How it's an accident of birth that I'm five (or more?) years older than you -- I'll be 47 on Friday -- and so that that's why I knew Sabta when she was in Maryland. How it's an accident of birth that you had, as your father, the child of Chayah and Eliezer Siegel who lasted the longest. How it's an accident of birth that Edna and Meishe were born in Israel and we weren't, and so they're part of a tight-knit family that drops in on one another in a way we'll never do in the States, where all of us live too far apart, and where it's just simply at odds with our culture to be that spontaneous. Still, even as we in this country seem to see each other mostly for simchas or funerals/shivas, I always enjoy your company when I'm in it...and an experience like the one Pat & I had in Beit Herut makes me confident that if we saw each other more randomly, we'd enjoy each other's company then, too.