Leaving The Land
By Sara Nelkin
The breaking point came on a stormy Thursday in March. It was one of those days where the Jerusalem skies had released their hold on fountains of rainwater. Where waves of water flooded the hills and thunder and lightning shook the trees outside our apartment building and made the thin glass windowpanes rattle ominously. Yes, this was the rain we had prayed for, the rain that this parched land so thirsted for. And yet...
"I've had enough," said my husband Danny as he staggered through the front door, his dark hair matted against his forehead, his glasses fogged up, droplets of rain falling off the soaked edges of his thin black jacket. He put down the dripping, bulging shopping bags he held over his white knuckles with a dull thud.
I jumped up from my lazy perch on the couch, where I had been reading a magazine as my chubby toddler built a tower of mega blocks on the hard stone floor.
Danny threw his drenched jacket over a wooden dining room chair and sighed.
I knew what he was thinking. When it rained in Jerusalem, things just didn’t function. He didn’t have to describe his experiences today; I could well imagine them in my mind. The buses would have been packed, he had probably spent the slow ride down Yechezkel street gripping a pole for dear life as he was sandwiched between a burly man with a voluminous knapsack that banged into his ribs every time the bus lurched forwards, three rowdy teenagers who high fived and chortled with abandon, a soldier with a rifle and a wise looking old woman with her kerchief pulled low over her forehead. Then when he had finally reached the main road in our neighbourhood of Ramat Eshkol, he had to stop first in the supermarket to buy food for my shabbos cooking. (It was even harder for me, with a carriage and a cranky baby bundled up inside to make the trek up the hill to the store in this weather.)
The supermarket was surely packed as is usual for Thursdays, with other dripping yeshiva guys, brows furrowed in concentration, holding torn pieces of paper adorned with their wives scrawled shopping lists, bumping into each other in the narrow aisles, narrowly avoiding rows of tomato paste cans that threatened to be knocked off their precarious perch if you so much as brushed against the dirty metal shelves.
The lines were surely long, winding into each other in a hopeless mess, and there must’ve been some irate shoppers, who used their Israeli forcefulness to push ahead of the line when they were impatient.
And then there are always the harried mothers, trying to juggle a screaming hungry baby on one hip while they manoeuvred their shopping basket towards the counter, with children pulling at their kerchiefs and sticky fingers clutching their skirts and whining for candy. Those women always elicit sympathy, and someone usually lets them go ahead. This makes the line a tad longer for all the other sufferers. And of course they were out of soy sauce, and the only potatoes left had spuds on them. Oh, and when he reached the counter, the cashier mysteriously had to leave. Her shift was over, she said. Yes, I could imagine all this, because I had experienced very similar moments over the four years that I had been living in Israel.
Of course at such times we would always think of the comfort and luxuries that we had left back at home in America, where every couple our age had a car and a salary and a warm carpeted home and there were supermarkets with wide shining aisles and a long line of peaceful smiling cashiers practically begging you to give them something to do. Where people were refined and polite and never cut the line and where the streets were all level and you never had to be swept down the hill in a frightening pull of gravity with ten shopping bags pulling you as you stumbled along.
"I've had enough," Danny repeated. And as he came wearily towards the couch, I noticed a trail of something brown marking his path. I glanced at the mound of shopping bags on the floor. There was something oozing out of one of them.
Ah. I guess he had found it after all.
And so it was, that a few months later we found ourselves standing in Ben Gurion airport, surrounded by the remnants of our life in Israel: a pile of suitcases teetering on two airport trolleys, trying to keep our grip on a boisterous toddler and holding the latest addition to our family, a sleepy baby boy. It felt surreal, leaving behind the land that had been our home since our marriage. But we looked forward to our new life in America.
We settled down quickly in New York. Our house was comfortable and warm; the floors were covered in thick carpeting, the likes of which we had never experienced in our small drafty stone apartment in Israel. We had a minivan so we could get around with unbelievable ease. Gone were the days of schlepping an unruly toddler and equally uncooperative stroller onto a cramped and shaky egged bus. In the summer, we had central air conditioning! a novelty, indeed. The turning fan that had been our salvation on sweltering Jerusalem afternoons was a distant memory. Oh, and the supermarkets. What a pleasure. After four years of wearily dragging a shopping basket through narrow store aisles, dodging strollers and shopping carts coming my way, I now couldn’t resist beaming in delight as I strolled down the wide, shining aisles of the local supermarket, leisurely taking in the colourful array of merchandise arranged so neatly on the shelves. Yes, life in the U.S was definitely easier in a lot of ways.
For the first few weeks, I simply reveled in the comforts of America.
As we enjoyed a container of blueberries one afternoon, Danny sighed with pleasure. "You know these are impossible to find in Israel, he said."
"Mhhmmm,"I agreed happily, my mouth full of the succulent fruit.
And as Danny shed his black hat and jacket and donned a fashionable sweater as he went out to earn a living, he said, “I’m so happy to finally be doing something to support our family."
"Yes," I murmured.
But then, something happened. Slowly, the excitement of having everything so comfortable and easily accessible began to evaporate. As I walked home one day down the busy avenue, past the unsmiling faces absorbed in their iphones, hurrying past me towards some indefinite destination, I felt something constrict in my throat. I thought of the love and genuine feeling that Sabras gave to anyone around them, the feeling of camaraderie that was felt everywhere in Jerusalem.
When I peered out my window in the late afternoon at the grey tree lined street, I missed the sight of the breathtaking sunset that used to greet me as I gazed out the window of our Israeli apartment, a sky aflame with rose colored hues that cast the most beautiful light on the rows of Jerusalem stone.
As I lifted a prayer book in the morning, I yearned for the cool soothing feeling of the Kosel wall on my cheek, its strong presence telling a story of years of tears and prayer, of a people who never give up. I missed its reassuring stalwart presence, a place to go in a time of sadness, but also in a time of joy, a place I could always leave with a light and unburdened heart.
When I walked sadly through the local mall, which smelled of McDonalds’ and cologne, I dreamt of the atmosphere of holiness that permeated the city I had once lived in and uplifted everyone who walked its ancient cobblestone paths.
As I listened to the snippets of conversation around me, I remembered the depth and practicality of Israelis, busy with real issues, politics, and matters of life and death, as sadly they had to be.
When I took my little ones to the park, I felt a pang of sadness as I sat on the empty park bench and stared at the concrete. I couldn’t help but feel a rush of painful nostalgia as I recalled the friendly, bustling parks in our neighbourhood, full of carefree frolicking children displaying their wild antics, and tired but happy mothers, always ready to converse, share recipes, advice on child rearing, or have deep discussions about anything under the sun.
When my husband left the house, I suddenly missed seeing him in his black hat, missed his eager youthful expression as he set out for a day of Torah learning in the hallowed walls of the yeshiva. I missed the feeling that we were busy with spiritual, elevated things, that our life revolved around a lofty purpose.
Driving quietly in my minivan, I felt unbidden tears in the corner of my eye as I thought of the trips I used to take on the packed Israeli buses, of the constant hum of conversation among passengers so full of colourful life and bursting with humanity as Israel is.
And when it rained, the droplets that pelted our solid glass windowpanes reminded me of Israel, so desperately in need of its own rainfall, and as I sat safely ensconced in my warm home, I finally realized that in our selfish quest for physical comfort, we hadn’t realized that we were leaving behind something very special.