A Letter from Home by Binah ben Shachar
Since she made aliya from the US five years ago, my friend Binah has been sending out occasional updates to her friends and family about her life in the Promised Land highlighting her experiences as a mother, a teacher, and the wife of a soldier. Binah is one of my favorite writers, I’m looking forward to reading the book I hope she writes one day…Tissue alert, JewishMOM.
We’d make it home but then struggle over dinner. With some food in her stomach, Rachel was slightly more tolerable, but then the bath routine would often set her off again. By the time seven o’clock rolled around, there were nights when we hadn’t even managed to read a short book. It was time to go directly to bed.
On one of those nights, Rachel asks me to snuggle with her. Her eyes are still puffy, her face damp. Moriah is asleep in the bassinet in the living room. I lie down next to her, and, for once, she does not resist when I put my arm around her chest. I suggest taking some deep breaths, and she actually agrees. We breathe in and out a few times.
“Abba and Ima love you so, so much,” I whisper to Rachel, who just stares, wide-eyed, up at the ceiling. “Soooooo much.” I kiss her. Then, I decide to probe a bit. “It must be hard becoming a big sister….Moriah is so little and she can’t do anything for herself. She can’t talk, or walk, or eat….She needs so much attention from Ima and Abba. It must be so hard to share that attention!” Rachel sucks in a deep breath all at once. I wait until her shoulders relax again. “But one day, Rachel, your sister is going to be able to look at you and smile. She’s going to sit up, and crawl, and walk—to you. One day, when you hug her, she’s going to be able to hug you back. One day, she’s going to be able to say ‘I love you’….”
I reach up to wipe my own eyes. Then, I glance at my first-born child, the one who is teaching me how to be a mom. I see the faintest of dimples in her cheeks and ever-so-slightly upturned lips, a moment of sweetness in a bitterly challenging time.
The next day, Moriah is in the baby rocker, staring blankly at a hanging toy, when Rachel finishes a puzzle, turns around, leans over her, and croons, “Mo-wee-Ya! You are a sweet bean! A sweet bean!”
At a pace imperceptible to the naked eye, the tantrums begin to dissipate. A few weeks later, I dare to count them and realize we are down to only about two or three a day, and sometimes only one. I draw in a deep breath all at once, and then, forcing my shoulders back down, I remember.
The beginning of the school year is always a whirlwind of excitement, stress, and adjustment. It doesn’t matter how much planning and holiday cooking I do in July—the school year starts with a bang. In between school and parental responsibilities, I manage to respond to my good friend from the boarding school I attended for high school, who e-mailed me in the summer. We make a date to talk on skype, but I have to reschedule. The new date is set for early September, just days after her 30th birthday. Let’s call her Anne. It’s a Tuesday evening. Rosh Hashanah starts tomorrow night. I’ve gotten through hours of paperwork and planning and have carved out this quiet, kitchen time to do something I love but rarely get to do—make challah. The dough has already risen in the bowl. I’ve got the computer at one end of the table and the balls of dough at the other. I’ve already thought through what I want to talk about with Anne and have smiled in anticipation of her responses. It is with great joy and expectation that I turn on the computer.
To my surprise, Anne is not on skype. I check g-chat, but she’s not online. This is so unlike Anne; she is always so punctual. I can’t believe she’s forgotten our long-anticipated catch-up skype date! I send her a brief message via g-chat and hope we’ll be able to reschedule soon. It’s been so long since I’ve heard her voice. I shape the loaves into circles, round like the cycle of life for the new year, and bake them.
Wednesday is filled with preparations for the eve of the new year. There are chicken soup and matzah balls to put up on the stove, floors to sweep and mop, the silver honey jar to fill as we begin a month of dipping challah into honey. As I drape the white tablecloth over the table and watch my husband arrange the candlesticks, I remember that we are marking so many new beginnings all at once—our sixth anniversary, my twenty-ninth birthday, the start of a new school year, and our fifth year as Israeli citizens. Our daughters are three-and-a-half and almost six months old.
As the sun dips low on the horizon, my hands encircle four candles—for Eitan, Rachel, Moriah, and me. As the liturgy instructs me, I thank G-d for reaching this time, this season. After services and before dinner, we sing “Achot Ketanah”, a liturgical poem for the new year. It expresses the yearning of the Jewish people to return to Israel, and of course, here we are. “Let the past year and its curses end,” intones the chorus. Then, there is the last line, Eitan’s and my favorite, and the melody is triumphant, brimming over with hope for the coming year: “Let the new year and its blessings begin!”
Rosh Hashanah is a three-day affair this year—two days for the holiday which then roll right into Shabbat. We have good friends staying with us, and three more families joining us for each of the midday meals. I am grateful to be busy with all of this hosting—so many dishes to wash and tables to set, and all of the chicken and kugels and honey cakes I made in July coming out of the freezer, one by one. This is what I yearned for when I became more traditionally observant: a home and a family immersed in joyful, meaningful tradition. On Saturday night, when Eitan and I fold up the table and wave goodbye to our guests, we are exhausted but pleased to have started the new year on such a high note.
The next time I turn on the computer, it’s Sunday dinner, our usual skype-date with my sister.
“Did you see my e-mail?” my sister asks at the end of our conversation. I’m trying to get Rachel to finish the last few bites while simultaneously burping Moriah, my eyes on the clock in anticipation of bath time. Eitan walked in the door a few minutes ago. We are trying to figure out who should take a bath first, but there’s an urgency in my sister’s voice.
“Um, no, I haven’t had a chance to check,” I respond, trying to steal a glance at the computer screen while orchestrating this post-dinner, pre-bath transition.
“I didn’t want to tell you like this,” she says, “but you need to know.” I listen more closely, aware that whatever she is about to tell me is going to be bad news, and brace for it. “Anne died last Sunday….All I know is that it was an accident. I’m so sorry, Binah.”
I cannot react in front of the kids. I just realize that when I signed onto the computer to talk with Anne, she’d been dead for two days. I share this with my sister. After the kids are asleep, I check e-mail and then facebook, where I find a message from Anne’s sister which she’d written on Wednesday morning, after Rosh Hashanah had begun here in Israel.
Over the course of the week, I manage to piece the information together. Anne went out to dinner with her sister and brother-in-law to celebrate her thirtieth birthday. She got home that night and drank too much. She got into a bathtub. And drowned.
“I Have Not Yet Loved Enough” by Naomi Shemer, one of Israel’s greatest singer songwriters
With these hands, I have not yet built a village.
I have not yet found water in the desert.
I haven’t drawn a flower, I haven’t yet figured out
How you will lead me on the path and where I will go.
Ay-yay-yay, I haven’t loved enough!
The wind and the sun on my face.
Ay-yay-yay, I haven’t loved enough!
And if not, if not now, when?
I have not yet planted grass, I haven’t established a city.
I haven’t planted a vineyard on a hilltop.
There is so much that I haven’t done with my two hands.
I haven’t tried everything, I haven’t loved enough.
I haven’t started a tribe, I haven’t written a song.
I’ve never seen snow fall in the middle of the harvest season.
I haven’t yet written a memoir.
I haven’t yet built the house of my dreams….
One afternoon, when my twelfth graders are restless, I express my frustration at their inability to be quiet. As a way of explaining something, I mention, anecdotally, having taught in the U.S. Orel, who made aliyah from France in middle school and who still speaks with a slight accent in Hebrew, raises his hand.
“Teacher,” he says in Hebrew. “I am sure that in the U.S., your students were better behaved. Isn’t that right?”
All of a sudden, the entire room is silent. I must think of a good answer, and fast. The honest answer is, “YES! You are full of chutzpah! You guys are so brazen, and you don’t even realize it! You don’t know how to raise your hands. There are days that you all drive me crazy!” But if I say that, they’ll be offended, and my lesson, and possibly the entire year, will be lost. On the other hand, the opposite isn’t true, and Israelis despise flattery. In Israel, it is better to be brutally honest than to sugar-coat. If I hesitate any longer, they’ll figure out what I’m thinking, and then it won’t matter what comes out of my mouth. G-d help me. I take a deep breath, and go for it.
“Ein mah l’hashvot,” I respond in Hebrew. “There’s really no comparison….” What I want to say is that the cultures are different. That, yes, students and everyone in this country have chutzpah—best translated, I think, as a combination of gumption, gall, and nerve, in heavy doses. Stubbornness is a positive trait here. One of my former colleagues used to say, in Hebrew, “when something doesn’t work with force, apply more force.”
In Haifa, there is a Museum of Clandestine Immigration. This refers to the time period during the British Mandate, during and after World War Two, when Jews who had managed to escape Europe were trying to get into Israel—and were barred from doing so. Ships would arrive within sight of the shoreline, but their passengers were not allowed to disembark. The most famous of these ships was the Exodus of literary and cinematic fame. In many instances, having survived concentration camps, hundreds of Jewish refugees died because they were denied access to Palestine. In a few instances, the refugees managed to evade the British blockade. They dove into the water and swam to shore. On the roof of the museum in Haifa is an entire ship that has been preserved from that period. It is called the Af Al Pi Chen—the In Spite Of.
Indeed, Israel exists in spite of the efforts of so many to destroy us. This country was established by breaking all the rules. Success here involves thinking creatively about how to get around challenges. Here, the word “no” doesn’t actually mean “no”. There’s always a way to persist, to push through, to apply more force in order to get your way. This kind of brash persistence is not just accepted. In many cases, it is applauded. The student’s brazen insistence on putting his bag down in my classroom is no less brazen for this context, but it makes a little more sense. He didn’t actually think he was being disrespectful.
“Ein mah l’hashvot,” I say, preparing to launch into a tactful explanation of cultural differences between the U.S. and Israel. But looking at the students’ expectant faces, I think better of it. They are just waiting for the ax to fall. I can let that happen and lose them, or I can answer differently. After a pause of a few seconds, I finish my sentence, this time in English: “I live in Israel.” I grin for added effect.
I’ve basically avoided the question. What I’m saying is that I don’t care about the exasperating days, the level of brazenness that I find appalling and downright hurtful. I mean, I do care, but it doesn’t change my love of this country or its people, my people.
The class goes wild. They clap and cheer. Some start chanting, “HamoRAH Bin-AH!” (Teacher Binah) over and over again until I motion to stop. I am grinning as we continue on with the lesson.
In November, Eitan is called up for a week of reserve duty. He puts on his uniform and boots, borrowing a belt from a neighbor. (“The base ran out of belts. Go figure.”) He awakens earlier than usual to pray with a minyan, and then runs out the door at seven to catch a bus. Eitan travels first to Tel Aviv and then to a base somewhere in the center of the country, the location of which he cannot disclose to me. On the base, he is helping to run a complicated, public relations drill, putting in twelve-hour shifts, returning home to sleep at close to eleven at night.
“Kids always get sick when their fathers are on meeloo’eem [reserve duty]!” our American-Israeli pediatrician tells me during our second visit that week. Exhausted doesn’t begin to describe my current state. The doctor looks at me and says, “you’re on meeloo’eem too. Remember that.” Don’t I know it.
Rachel wets her pants every single day that week. She’s been having a very rocky adjustment to nursery school anyway, and Abba’s sudden absence doesn’t help. Moriah is still waking up several times a night. I never realized a week could be this long.
Eitan comes home on one of those nights exhausted but grinning. He hands me a chocolate bar from the canteen (my reward for holding down the fort during his reserve duty) and tells me about how he got home. He left the base a few minutes late and ran to the bus stop. Despite his efforts, he just missed the bus, and it started to pull away. Eitan stopped sprinting, resigning himself to catching the next bus. Just then, a police car that had been parked about a block behind the bus started moving suddenly, sirens blaring, and pulled the bus over to the curb. The policewoman got out of the car, motioned to Eitan, and called out, “Hey, soldier, hustle over here. I stopped the bus for you!” While my husband ran the last block to the bus, the policewoman explained to the panicked bus driver that everything was OK—just let the soldier on. The driver didn’t even ask to see Eitan’s military I.D. He waved it away, smiling and saying, “I should only be pulled over for such reasons!”
I used to balk at last-minute changes. I feared the unknown and strove to avoid it. Hence, my neat-freak, type A personality, my love of to-do lists, all my planning ahead. Aliyah has taught me not just to tolerate the unknown, but to embrace it. Classes can be canceled last-minute. Don’t even think of trying to buy challah before Friday morning.
For parents of young children, a routine, 5-minute trip to nursery school turns into a discovery-walk: the puddles to step in, the leaves that go “swoosh” and swirl in circles on the sidewalk when the wind blows, the tree branches “dancing” in the wind because it’s Tu BShvat– their birthday. With aliyah, your every living moment becomes a discovery-moment. You realize “there is so much that [you] haven’t done with [your] two hands. [You] haven’t tried everything. [You] haven’t loved enough.” Indeed, living in Israel has taught me to appreciate the unexpected: the tantrums that do actually end; the bitter beverage that turns out to be sweet; the students who really do appreciate their teacher; the almond trees that bloom when it is still winter. In spite of the challenges, when my students cheer for me and when the police officer pulls over a bus for my husband, I feel embraced here in this teddy bear-abrasive culture, by this loving, stiff-necked people, my people.
Even beyond appreciation, there is a strength that comes from diving into the unknown. Eitan and I have honed that muscle since we set foot on this shore. I call upon that Israeli strength to buoy me up in spite of tragedies like Anne’s death. Even as I mourn her loss, Anne’s death reminds me to refocus the lens of my life, to experience every waking second as a discovery-second.
G-d has given me an enormous jar of sweet beans. Looking at them, I know that I haven’t appreciated them enough. I haven’t loved enough. I haven’t lived enough. But I’m trying. What a blessing it is to strive in that direction in the Land of In Spite Of, the Land of Israel.