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“What did you do?” “Where did you go?” “What did you see?”
These are the natural and anticipated questions. Over this past winter break, I had the joy and privilege of being in Israel with my kids, Matan and Yael, for two-and-a-half weeks. Of course, upon returning, I was excited to share stories of my trip: The ATV ride with my cousin. Making chocolate at the chocolate factory. Getting hit by a car (literally!). And having the honor of officiating at my friends’ twin boys’ b’nei mitzvah at the top of Masada.
I love the stories.
In the back of my mind, though, I constantly rebuke myself. The truth is that the sights, experiences, travels, and sight-seeing in Israel are remarkable but are far secondary to what I love most about the country. It’s the people. It’s specific people.
When I’m asked about my vacation, what I really want to respond is, “The sights were great, but it was spending time my aunt, uncle, first cousins, family, and friends — and my kids, of course! — that made the vacation extraordinary.” Indeed, seeing the places that I have visited dozens of times before or even for the first time was uniquely meaningful because I did it with people about whom I care deeply.
-From the top story of a high-rise apartment building, I saw the full skyline of Jerusalem at night. A stunning photograph for my eyes. The real beauty, though, was watching my childhood rabbi from Congregation Beth Israel, Lee Buckman, point out the sights to my children from atop the roof after visiting with him and Rachel, his wife.
-My “tour” of Netanya was limited to the inside of an apartment building, where all the residents came to the lobby to light Hanukkah candles, as I stood beside one of my middle school Hebrew and Jewish Studies teachers at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, Adina Altshull, and Harvey, her husband. The candles were beautiful, but only because they were lit with them nearby.
-I saw my first professional basketball game in Israel in Hod Hasharon. The game was exciting (I love live sports), but the true joy was watching my friend, Yariv Amiram, play on the team and having other friends — all of us who worked at Ramah Sports Academy this summer, and all of whom live in Israel — meet my kids and me there: Dore Amiram, Bracha Hermon, and her two boys.
-Although I have seen soccer matches in Israel before, this was the first time that I got to see one with a founder of the team and my cousin, Motti Porat. The game was a blowout — a five-nothing win for Beitar Nurdiya — but hearing the story of the franchise and its founding transformed it from a game to a lesson in civic responsibility and activism.
-Being atop Masada is always breathtaking. Being there to serve as the rabbi at the b’nei mitzvah of two boys whom I have known for their entire lives — I officiated at their bris and at their parents’ (Dayna and Arin Hayden) wedding — made the visage of the place the background with their gleaming faces and their sonorous voices the true delight.
-And, first and foremost, seeing my family. My daughter needed to interview me recently for a class assignment, and one of the questions led to my talking about my family in Israel. My response was, “They don’t treat me LIKE family. They are family.” It wouldn’t matter to me where in the world Bashi and Eli; Arale, Keren, No’am, and Yogev (and their dog, Gizelle); Keren, Motti, Ta’ir, and Nohar; and Avichai lived: that is where I would want to visit most and most often. Being with all of them every day of my trip is what makes Israel not just my homeland but a home.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madsion, I studied a poem by Yehuda Amichai called “The Tourists“. Looking only at its last line undermines the impact of the poem in its entirety. Please indulge me, though. Speaking in the first person, the unnamed narrator of the poem notes a tour group admiring arches alongside David’s Tower. The tour guide uses the narrator as a vantage point, suggesting that they look at the arches over the man’s shoulder.
To himself, the narrator remarks:
redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
Whenever I am asked about my trip to Israel, I tell about what I did and, of course, about seeing my family and friends. The reality is that it’s reversed. On my trip to Israel, I saw my family and friends — and we visited some extraordinary places together.