In addition to my other quirks, I’m a collector of unlikely keepsakes. Discarded books and buttons. Small, slightly damaged gewgaws, the vintage afterthoughts on a yard sale table. But my favorite collectables sit in a tin on the kitchen shelf: the coins and marbles and other flotsam — a guitar pick and a Rummikub tile among them — that I’ve plucked from the ground while out walking.
It took me a long time to understand what compels me to gather these lost and cast-off items. The truth is, I can’t look at them without wondering whether they are mourned or forgotten, without thinking they have a kind of soul imprinted by the lives they’ve touched. After all, objects are the props in our human dramas. How can I leave them there when they must have stories to tell?
This never felt more poignant than it did during my recent trip to Israel, where I’d gone to visit my son who is learning in a yeshiva near Jerusalem. Something seizes me when I’m there, a powerful need to cover as much holy ground as my feet can manage. I walked from neighborhood to neighborhood, as if I were making a present-day aliyat haregel, the ancient ritual of going up to Jerusalem on foot for the Jewish festivals.
En route, I found a scattering of agurot coins on the pavement and a charm bracelet in the sand, a heartbreaking discovery I made while retrieving a map that had slipped from my hands. I had been so busy seeing the country through multiple sets of eyes — my own and the former owners of some of the lost treasures I’d already found — I was surprised I’d noticed anything in my path at all.
I was my son’s age when I came to study in Israel decades ago, yet I vividly recall the excitement of living there — feeling independent in such a beautiful, sacred place, while filling my head with postcard images and memories. I resolved to make aliya, to set down roots and raise a family where the biblical and the modern meet beneath the Mediterranean sun. But as the saying goes, life happened, and I made a circuitous route back to New Jersey instead, landing 41.1 miles from where I grew up.
I’ve been to Israel on many occasions since my year abroad. It is where I feel most at home in my own skin. This time, though, I arrived with the longings of my 18-year-old self in tow. My son indulged me that nostalgia, and together we checked out my long-ago haunts. Meanwhile, he opened the window onto his own experience as it continues to unfold, flooding me with pride at the way he’s found his footing.
One of our excursions led us to the ancient port city of Yafo, where we took in the view of the sea and roamed the stalls of the flea market, with its mix of worn household items, vintage finds, and touristy tchotchkes. After a few rounds of mandatory bargaining, I emerged from the shuk with a heavy old key. Of course, there was no way to know its provenance or to which door it gave entry, but it felt right in my hand — a bit of history as the perfect souvenir.
We continued on foot, exploring several neighborhoods of Tel Aviv on the way to the Carmel Market. Once, as we walked single-file along a narrow street, the sounds of traffic halted our conversation, and in that pause I looked down for an instant and was pleased to discover a damaged house key on the ground. I tucked it into my bag and rushed to catch up with my son.
Back in the States, I removed the two keys from my suitcase and placed them together on a shelf. Still enchanted by their symmetry, I began to imagine the human dramas from which they emerged, the tales of people losing and finding their way. I continue to wonder how they will feature in mine.
“My heart is in the East,” wrote the poet Yehuda Halevi, but for now, I am in the West. Still, our stories are works in progress. We can dream, and we can pray our lives will take us where we long to be. Until then, I’m grateful to have those keys to remind me that a door across the ocean is open when I’m ready to go.