The first thing I remember is the boy with red hair sitting behind me. My parents had warned me that the flight to Israel was very long, so when I see him get on the EL AL plane, I am sure that we will become fast friends. We never speak.
Every Jew has a personal relationship with Israel. My family’s five-week trip to the Jewish homeland, now almost-35-years ago, marked the beginning of mine. Come see it — the way it was then, and how it looks today — through my eyes:
We are here in the heart of summer, the hot season for an overall hot climate, and my parents make sure bodies of water are always close by. I am excited because I am allowed to hold a lit candle as we wade through the waist-high water in Hezekiah’s Tunnel; we swim in a pool on the way to Kibbutz Lavi near Tiberias, but I swallow some of the water and am sick for the next week; my dad frantically rinses the salt water out of my eye after I lose my balance trying to float in the Dead Sea; I sit on a large rock in Ein Gedi, which my mom tells me is a small sliver of the Garden of Eden, though it’s hard to imagine Eden can measure up. And virtually every day ends in the outdoor pool of the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel where we are staying.
I make friends with a teenage chasid (he was a full-on adult from my perspective) at the Kotel on Tisha b’Av, and at one point he puts a tallit over my head so I can perform the priestly blessings — I have no idea what this is — alongside my father and brother. Another time, while waiting for my mother and sisters outside of Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, an Arab teenager and I bond (photos from the era confirm that I was adorable at that age) over our mutual love for Michael Jackson.
Three years later we return and learn it’s no longer safe to walk to the Kotel through the Arab shuk, an ominous sign of what’s to come in the next three decades. Milk is available in cartons, not the incredibly impractical bags from our first visit, and now Frosted Flakes and other American name-brand cereals are available.
We are still sobbing on the way to the airport, having just said goodbye to my brother, who is staying behind for his gap year in yeshiva. I am too young to understand, but I later realize this is the day our family dynamic, intact for 18 years to that point (though I was part of it for less than a dozen) changed forever — it marked the last time the six of us would live under the same roof for longer than a summer.
Several years later, now in high school, I’m back and shocked to find Jerusalem’s ultra-modern Malcha Mall. It is the first time I use a gumball machine — the gum was kosher, as was the food at Pizza Hut, where I order four slices. Then I order two more. In the midst of what should have been a joyful Purim celebration, Baruch Goldstein desecrates the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron by opening fire on dozens of Palestinian Muslims, killing 29 and injuring more than 100 others. The next night there is an earsplitting thunderclap. My first thought is that the noise is a bomb in retaliation for the shooting.
Now a high school senior, landing in Israel has never felt so good as we embarked from Poland after March of the Living. I squeeze as much as I can into that week — a quick visit to the yeshiva I would attend the following year, a date in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, a short stay in Safed, a city so dusty that my constant sneezing prevents me from appreciating its historical significance as the birthplace of Kabbalah.
I nearly cause an international incident: While riding the elevator at the Laromme hotel, now the Inbal, the door opens and then-U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, on a diplomatic mission to Israel, is staring at me. So are two Secret Service agents, their handguns aimed at my chest. I freeze and the doors close.
Early on during my gap year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorizes the creation of a new door to exit the Western Wall Tunnels, which, for reasons I’m still not entirely clear on, is the impetus for prolonged Arab riots and violence. My days are spent studying the Talmud, and I work harder than I will in college. My brother, now living in Israel, gets married that year. Every Friday, before heading to wherever I will stay for Shabbat, I eat at the Sbarro on Jaffa Road, the same pizza shop where a suicide bomber will murder 15 people four years later.
I’m back during winter break from college, and my brother’s family — by now they have two children — is living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a new development on a hill between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Their home is large, but with more construction vehicles in the city than residents and virtually no commercial activity, I question their decision to leave the excitement of Jerusalem. I walk the aisles of an Office Max a short drive away, but most of the shelves are empty, the limited merchandise a far cry from the chain’s American counterparts.
A long time passes, and when I finally return I am a husband and a father. I eat at a restaurant in the outdoor Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, a shopping center that did not exist when I was last here. The menu is an iPad, and customers peruse the merchandise at the Tommy Hilfiger store a few doors down. I pass a bodega that sells Axe Body Spray and Paul Mitchell hair products. Jaffa Road is closed to cars, and now a trolley car transports pedestrians up and down the street. Ramat Beit Shemesh is thriving.
The fear I used to feel each time I stepped onto a bus seems irrational.
I hand a dollar to a woman begging on the stairs to the Kotel and she offers me a bracha. My wife is in the early stages of pregnancy and I ask the woman to pray for a healthy baby. Now in April 2018, my 4-year-old daughter asks me to hold her hand until she falls asleep.
Israel, my lifelong friend, how can you be 70 when, even as I age, you seem younger and more beautiful each day?