I’m visiting Israel for the Jewish New Media Summit, and all the while, in the back of my mind, one of the goals of this visit is to get a pulse on how I feel about Israel. Could I move back soon? Could we move back soon? I first visited Israel 10 years ago, and then I visited Israel every year thereafter until making aliyah in 2012. I left Israel in 2014, and this is my first time back in four long years.
The thing about visiting Israel after having lived here, however briefly, is that you’re not really sure whether to approach the place as a tourist or a citizen. If anything, traveling alone without my three under five and Brit of a husband, tourist or citizen, I feel completely out of place.
In the past 10 minutes, two police motorcycles, one police van, and one police SUV have driven by. If this had occurred in Denver, I probably wouldn’t think a thing of it. But here, for some reason, it gets the wheels turning. Is something happening? Are they preparing for something? Should I be worried?
I default to English. I default to my iPhone. I default to staying indoors at the hotel rather than wandering the city. I default to hiding away so I don’t have to decide whether I’m Chaviva the Israeli or Chaviva the American Tourist.
It’s a bit like how I felt after leaving Nebraska during every trip back after college. The coffee shop that felt more like home than any house I’d grown up in, where I’d spent hours upon hours every single day, felt like foreign territory the moment I came back after six months away. It was the same, I was the same, but it was all very different. I couldn’t get comfortable. I felt like an outsider.
My first thought as the plane slowly edged into Ben Gurion was, “It’s so green. Was it always this green? I don’t remember it being this green.” My first thought as I meandered around Ben Yehudah motzei (after) Shabbat was, “Was Jerusalem always this smelly, dirty, and covered in garbage?”
Maybe all big cities are this way, but there’s something about Jerusalem, the holiest of holy places, to be so filthy and covered in shmutz. You’d think we’d take better care, you’d think we’d want it sparkling and shimmering. Wouldn’t you? Or would that make it too appealing, too alluring? Or maybe everything feels less shiny when you’re alone and outside your family-built comfort zone?
As I walked around this morning and watched shuk shops opening and sipped my espresso consumed all too fast, I began to honestly ask myself the question: “Could I ever live here again? Could I raise my children here?”
Mind you, I never lived in Jerusalem with small children; I lived in Nachlaot as a single woman and then lived in Neve Daniel with a family. I don’t think I could ever live in Jerusalem with small kids, not with the noise and the dirt and the attitude that everything is a battle, a struggle, and that we’re all in it alone but together.
Could I live in Israel again? Are the yishuvim cleaner? Are they filled with more light and awareness than Jerusalem itself? Why does cleanliness matter to me so much anyway? I’ve been spoiled by Denver and its clean air, clean streets, clean state of mind … everything is green and beautiful and focused on sustainability.
According to Rebbe Nachman:
“You should never try to force yourself too hard in anything, because the more you try forcing yourself, the stronger the opposing forces become … Certainly, you should be extremely diligent and make every effort to sanctify your life and reach a level of true devotion … Anything you can do to serve God should be done immediately and determinedly, without delay … Man’s world consists only of the present” (Tzaddik, 431).
“However, there are times when you can see that in spite of all your efforts and determination, you can’t seem to succeed in what you want. Sometimes, you must simply wait. Don’t be discouraged … You must just wait a little, until the time comes.”
I suppose this is to say, I’m not ready. I don’t want to be a tourist here. I loathe visiting and feeling like I’m on the outside looking in, but I’m not ready for this place to be home again. I can’t push myself, and I can’t be discouraged. I just have to wait until the right time comes along. Will it come along?
For me, I think, that time involves some more intensive Hebrew language learning and for all of my kids to be a bit older because I want to implant deeply within them some core values that I feel, sometimes, are missing from Israeli society.
You see, I was born with an apology on my tongue. Maybe it’s my Midwestern roots that make every interaction I have in Israel seem like a fight, but it’s not who I am, and it’s not the values that are so important to me.
I just hope I have enough of the present, as Rebbe Nachman says, so that I can get back to remember what it is I love about Israel, Israelis, and this strange, confusing part of the world that I once leapt into without looking back.