As I entered the tiny matchbox apartment, where my wife and her three siblings were raised, I was greeted by Elana’s mother Esther, and within minutes amazing scents were permeating the atmosphere as she began to prepare dinner. I took a small nap and woke up to a feast. I began to eat and eat and eat, not realizing that that this was just the first course. Due to my exhaustion and cultural insensitivity, I never made it to the second or third course, but excused myself and passed out from jet-leg.
Leaving the table in the middle of the meal wasn’t the best way to endear myself to my Middle Eastern in-laws, who live by a centuries-old code of customs and manners that without bating an eye, I broke.
The movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding had not come out yet, but when it did several years later, Elana and I could not help but see ourselves in that movie. It was identical. Her relatives could easily stand up against the family of Toula Portokalos, the Greek character in the movie… even to the point of Elana’s brothers tricking me into saying ridiculous things in Moroccan or Hebrew for everyone’s entertainment. And to their credit, they never made me feel bad for my rudeness.
I awoke from my jet-lagged induced coma at 3 AM. Elana and Sharon, our two-year-old, were also awake. Elana said, “Let’s take a walk.” I thought she was crazy. From the outside it looked like I was in Harlem; how could it be safe to walk around at 3 AM? And yet it was as peaceful a place as I had ever been. What I learned was that in Israel, just because an area is run down and poor doesn’t mean that the culture is or that it is a high crime area.
On Friday evening everything stopped. All the stores closed by 4 PM, children were released early from school and most of the traffic came to a halt by evening. Men prepared to pray at the synagogue, while the women prepared a Sabbath feast.
I walked with my brothers in law to their synagogue. I was in another world. Because religious Jews do not drive on the Sabbath, there is always a synagogue within walking distance no matter where you live. Synagogue styles are based on the culture from which you came.
This was my first time in a Sephardic synagogue. Sephardic Jews are the darker skinned Middle Eastern Jews, who fled Spain in the Middle Ages during the inquisitions. They settled in countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Yemen.
I am Ashkenazi—that means my family came from Eastern Europe and I have the pale white skin to prove it. The cultures are very different. Sephardic culture is much more lively and celebratory. Mishel and Shlomo greeted the other men with two kisses, most of whom were also small shop owners who came from Morocco. We returned home to a Moroccan banquet!
Touring the Holy Land
The next two weeks were amazing. We left Sharon with Safta (Grandma), rented a car and drove down to Eilat in the south. Long before GPS, the map showed us a short cut. As the road became less and less of a road, I became concerned. After about thirty minutes I felt like we were driving on a dirt path in the middle of nowhere. It was getting dark outside. Then we stumbled upon four Arab men. I was terrified. They would surely kill these two Jews in the middle of the desert and no one would ever know!
In reality they were very helpful and told us that if we just continued, the path would become a road again—and they were right. And isn’t life just like that? You choose a road (career, spouse, etc) only to question it when the road gets bumpy. I really felt God told me she was the one… Well, then hang in there. The road will get smoother.
We headed back up through Jerusalem from Eilat and all the way up to Metulla, bordering Lebanon. I climbed Masada, prayed at the Western Wall, hiked in David’s hiding place, En Gedi, swam in the Red and Med Seas, floated in the Dead Sea and water skied on the Sea of Galilee (noting that I was not the first to walk on these waters!). I sipped Turkish coffee in rundown cafes and met some of the most interesting characters—just like Thomas Friedman described.
We ate falafel and hummus and an amazing light doughy cheese thing called ziva. I devoured the most delicious fried St. Peter’s fish on the shores of the Galilee.
In Israel, Everyone Has A Story
In Jaffa we met an older couple—Holocaust survivors. We sat mesmerized as they told us their story. You see, in Israel, virtually everyone has a story. Fruma, my Hebrew tutor arrived in 1947 when she was just one. Her mother returned from Siberia after the war to Poland, where she unsuccessfully searched for any surviving family members. She did however meet another survivor and they were married and immigrated to British Mandate Palestine (Israel). A year later the nation was born.
Others have stories of clandestine immigration on secret boats as the British sought to keep Jews from entering Israel at the very time Hitler was slaughtering Jews. Thousands of Yemenites left a primitive culture that lacked basic electricity, for the new nation of Israel. When El Al jets flew them to Israel, they got cold. So they started a fire! Everyone here has a story.
A Country of ME’s
I grew up with ADHD. That meant that I could neither focus nor sit still and was always looking to make a joke. I graduated high school with a 1.7 GPA, having scored 300 on the grammar section of my SATs! I spent my whole life listening to people tell me to grow up, act my age, settle down and be mature. However when I came to Israel I found a people that laughed in the face of terrorism, lived life aggressively to the fullest and seemed to have a collective short attention span—I found my people.
I fell in love with the country—both the landscape and the community. I knew I would one day live here and hoped it would be soon. Any fears that I had had in the past melted away in the realization that this was the Jewish homeland—not just because Ezekiel saw a vision of dry bones coming to life, but because I was home. God said that He would draw his people back to Zion (Ez. 36:24) and I felt like there were magnets in this place gripping my feet.
Getting on that TWA 747 was one of the most painful things I have ever done. Elana and Sharon stayed two more weeks with her family. As I sat by myself on the plane I started to weep uncontrollably. How could I leave this country? I felt like a young man feels when he meets his true love and then has to be separated from her for a season. My heart ached. When would I come back? The thought of going back to Maryland and selling radio advertising was killing me.
When could I be united with this land and these people permanently? I was ruined for Israel. My eyes had been opened and my worldview enlarged. Nothing would be the same.