We made it past luggage check-in and needed to dash on to security, but my 2 ½-year-old son Daniel had come to a full stop.
“Where are Saba and Savta?” he asked.
Silence. My husband and I exchange a quick glance. We have said our goodbyes; my parents were still within sight, ambling slowly to the exit, but they couldn’t accompany us any further. The 5,660-mile gulf between us was essentially already in place, our summer vacation over. Best we moved on quickly.
“They went back home, sweetie,” I replied cautiously, tugging him along. “It’s nighttime, they are going to sleep.”
Daniel nodded. He gets that, he’s sleepy too. He trudged on obediently for a few more feet (or meters, this being Israel) before halting again. “Where are Dod Addy and Doda Rachel?”
“And Cousin Shelly? And Cousin Dan? And Sabba Rabba?”
“They live here,” Ethan, our 4-year-old, who until now marched in stoic silence, interjected. “We live in New York. We have to go there.” A step or two more and he, too, let go of my hand. “But why, Ami?”
Now there’s a loaded question for you, at midnight, with two toddlers and four carry-ons. Well, cutie, it had to do mostly with finances, and upward immobility and intractable political realities — the ever-looming “Ha’Matzav” (The Situation), as they call it here — as well as with my own special, golden ticket that my parents gave me: my birthright to the promised land, America. You see, honey, my own parents were also immigrants, Europeans-turned-Israelis-turned Israeli-Americans (though the term did not exist in their time) who, after 20-some years of living comfortably but in relative isolation in the U.S., decided that they belong back in Israel, where their own parents and brothers and sisters and nephews still lived.
They moved back for our sake, you see. For their kids. Much like I am tempted to do it for you, every time we visit and witness the Israeli version of childhood, in which kids roam in packs outdoors, and the packs are rooted in the land and the culture and a sense of belonging from which people do not readily break apart or leave. But then I remember that for me and my older brother, back in the early ’80s, this transplantation didn’t work very well. Maybe because we were Americans, in a country which, at that moment in time, had little tolerance for anything but Sabras (the waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants were yet to come), or because our own parents could not adjust wholeheartedly to the move, and remained subtly removed from their own extended families. Either way, we both grew up feeling like outsiders. Eventually, we wandered back, first my brother and then me, to build our lives in the country in which we were born, in the language in which we were raised.
I’m sorry, sweetheart. I was in my late 20s, single. The math was different then. “Come,” my brother had urged me, “whatever it is you’re looking for in Israel — artistic endeavors, career opportunities, culture, whatever — there’s more of it here, bigger and better.”
Dod Addy could not have anticipated that only a few years later, once his own kids were preschoolers, the siren call of home and family would draw him back to Israel — compelling him, like salmon, to repeat the upstream journey he was forced into as a child with his own kids. “Sorry, Sis,” he apologized at the time. He was leaving me on my own in a foreign country, after all. “No worries,” I reassured him, but inwardly I was shaking my head. Not me, I promised myself. I will break the chain. My babies will not be uprooted, or forced into a culture shock. And honey, while you could choose to enlist when you are grown, I would not designate you now to become Israel’s war fodder, either.
I did try to steer away. I married a native, an American Jew. I didn’t foster ties to the Jewish state. I didn’t invest much in Hebrew: You called me Ami, your own peculiar compromise between “Ima” and “Mommy,” and I felt that’s just about right, that’s just about how close to the state of Israel I want to be. And yet here I am, feeling small and alone with two little boys in tow and my own tribe already receding into the horizon, wondering how will I raise you to feel like you are part of something? Who will take care of us if I fail? Why do we have to go? All I can come up with is, “because if we don’t, we will miss our flight.” So we all hurry up.
Orli Santo’s column appears the first week of the month.