Happy birthday, Israel! You are now 74 years young and have accomplished so much in so few years.
You have always been part of my life. Remember Jewish National Fund tzedakah (charity) boxes? My pennies, nickels and dimes were collected religiously so that you could plant trees and turn a desert country into green. Your blue and white flag was the only flag, other than the Stars and Stripes, that I recognized growing up.
Israel became a real place to me when in 1970. That’s when Mom and Dad made their first trip as a 25th wedding anniversary present to themselves. My sister Laura and I drove them to Friendship Airport. Boy, did we sweat bullets when stuck in I-295 rush hour traffic! Somehow, we made it, and off Mom and Dad went on their three-week adventure.
I remember how upon their return, they couldn’t begin to describe the wonderful experience they had. Their tour “was the best;” their tour guide “was amazing;” the hotels “wonderful,” the food “terrific,” the sights “spectacular,” etc. They couldn’t wait to go again. And they did, for many years.
My first visit to you was in 1974. That’s when Mom and Dad took their friends, the Garfinkles, and me on the same three-week 1970 tour.
No one warned me that the Israel experience begins with the flight on El Al, your airline. For 11 hours, fellow passengers played “Jewish geography.” The flight attendants often lost their patience with the passengers who stood in the aisles and talked for 7,000 miles.
However, it was comforting, too, to see the guy across the aisle davening (praying) for our safety during turbulence. It was a “mechayah” (relief) to not worry that I wouldn’t get kosher meals since all the meals on El Al are kosher.
The trip was great, even though Mom broke her ankle! (A story for another day.) My college friend, David, was studying at Hebrew University. Seeing him and walking the streets of Yerushalayim (Jerusalem), talking, eating, gossiping and laughing added to the excitement of being in our homeland.
I’ll never forget going to the Kotel (Western Wall) Shavuot night. Yeshiva boys entered the Kotel plaza, singing, wearing blue and white. And the Chasidim! Many dressed in all white, and one dressed in gold! Their many children, often “steppingstones,” danced behind them. Their faces beamed as they celebrated Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) to the Jewish people.
Your magic rubbed off on me. You were young; your people were young. I was young! Families strolled down Ben Yehuda Street at 11 p.m., pushing baby carriages, enjoying the cool Yerushalayim air, socializing.
I felt safe and at home. In what U.S. city could I walk the streets late at night? Where else could I easily find a kosher restaurant for pizza, a hamburger or falafel? And in what other country were the soldiers guarding us non-threatening and oh so cute!
Finally, in 1992, I returned to you, this time with Ken. Nossi and Eli, nine and six, stayed one week with Grandma and Grandpa and one week with Bubby and Zayde. Honestly, I didn’t miss them at all! But I teared up during our one phone call home hearing six-year-old Eli say so many miles away, “Hi, Mommy!”
It was amazing to see how much you had grown in the 17 years since my last visit! Buying kosher M & M’s was a huge treat. But the highlight of the trip happened at the Kotel. As we stood in the plaza, taking pictures, we spotted niece and nephew, Chani and Ely Mendy, recently married in Pittsburgh! They were 50 yards away! Only in Israel!
This trip was a bit different. Nossi was doing his gap year in Israel. We and other families were encouraged to visit during their winter break, which coincided with Chanukah. Again, I felt at home and relaxed. Christmas was a non-holiday, another workday. I was free of the endless Christmas songs and commercialization. Instead, each night, chanukiyot (menorahs) were placed on porches and lit, making Yerushalayim even more beautiful, special and spiritual.
Another miracle happened, too. Eli and Nossi, after being separated for a few months, put aside their sibling rivalries of childhood and became friends! Your magic reached out to them.
Once again, we returned at Chanukah, this time to visit Eli. Touring with four generations of friends from our synagogue and our new 20-something rabbi and wife made the trip more memorable.
The itinerary was amazing. We visited sites never seen before on previous trips. We saw old friends from Baltimore who had made Aliyah. The group ventured to Judea and Sumaria (the West Bank) to dedicate a Sefer Torah in memory of our late rabbi. We celebrated Chanukah, the holiday of miracles, in the country of miracles. We laughed and cried as a group. Your spirituality moved us. Your arms welcomed us.
In 2005, Eli was studying at an English-speaking university in Herzliya. In February, I took a 10-day trip by myself to visit him.
When the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport, Eli was there to greet me. Neither of us had slept much. My flight was noisy with a screaming baby; Eli had spent the night in a sports bar watching the Super Bowl.
But with that extra burst of adrenaline one only gets in Israel, we walked through the city of Tel Aviv for hours. We discovered neighborhoods we never knew existed and talked, enjoying each other’s company. Exhaustion caught up to us by 4 p.m., so we said our goodbyes, only to reconnect the next morning.
What a great trip we had. Besides exploring Tel Aviv, which had grown immensely as a tech hub, we explored the streets of holy Safed, staying overnight in a luxury hotel and spa. We traveled by private taxi down the Jordan Valley to Yerushalayim, where we delighted in all that this enchanted city has to offer. We got lost trying to find the Menachem Begin Museum, which turned out to be maybe one-half mile from our hotel.
This was a one-of-a-kind mom and son trip.
Leaving you, Israel, as well as Eli, was so hard.
Ken and I decided to spend our 40th wedding anniversary of December 2016, once again, with you. Even the trip’s auspicious start of a six-hour flight delay did not dim my excitement.
We explored new museums, found new restaurants, shopped and spent time with former Baltimore friends who had made Aliyah. We attended our first Israeli wedding, which turned out to be another Baltimore reunion.
Once again, we spent Chanukah in Yerushalayim, where the holy lights burning brightly on residents’ porches reminded me of twinkling stars.
And now, you are 74 and we are 68. I’m envious of those who are able to visit you yearly. The trip is no longer so easy for us. I’m envious of those who have made Aliyah. I wish I had the courage to move to the land where I feel safe and protected, where I’m comfortable and secure. The land of my people.
Yom holedet sameach, Israel. Happy birthday.
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Read more by Eileen Creeger.