The hands of my kibbutz-made watch move slowly, seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. I tiredly work the math in my head as I pace forward in patient blinks at customs; it is sometime past seven here, and mid-afternoon in Israel.
I notice a lone suitcase ahead of me, two women behind me ask if it is mine. We wave down a security guard and he promptly takes it into his custody. A kerchiefed middle-aged woman ahead of me startlingly asks “where did my bag go?” as I try to make contact with the fleeting security guard. She distressfully pursues him, abandoning her post, despite the droves of travelers she gives up her place for; the line is too thick and too constant to save a spot. And in the forefront of grumpy thoughts, I think to myself, “at Ben Gurion they would’ve detonated that case by now, lady.”
Taylor Swift smiles at me from an advertisement, with emboldened letters that seem to strain,
welcome to New York.
The solemn Atlantic skies burst through the terminal windows painting the rooms and its faces gray. I follow the attractive figure of a young woman practicing yoga one terminal away. She seems careless, in wanderlust. She is on her way to the next adventure; the past’s oblivion. I feel like I’ve been assigned to a mundane return that is mandatory. I am overwhelmed, planning out my next exodus.
A taxi driver catches the sight of my hand as I cumbersomely shoulder my overweight luggage into his backseat.
“The airport. …Ben Gurion airport.”
He raises two fingers, “yes I know.”
The two fingers then reach for the volume knob on the radio.
Being a backseat passenger is a bliss I have almost forgotten. It is even more enhanced that I can gaze at this curious lifestyle I aspire to.
I see the morning life I fell in love with, described in book pages I had read years ago. Israelis are certainly awake earlier than most Americans, I feel, and the consistent sunshine at such early hours is a mirage to this cliché. Black-shirted, freshly showered beatniks are having a post-workout espresso in the hidden coffee shops that can be found at the base of Bauhaus apartments. An old woman walking her numerous dogs; perhaps some are her neighbors? Confident young business people in animated conversations and old retired war buddies enjoying a jog. And it’s only Sunday; the first day of the week.
An impassioned Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in his famous Boston-accented Hebrew on air, accompanied by irritated commentators whose voices rise and fall like the sudden ramps and curving freeways the taxi drives through, custom to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, as I believe Elie Wiesel best described her, “a city that is constantly growing in successive maelstroms of fury and joy.”
The fury of freak traffic started by a man making a food delivery with hazards on, the joy of a young green-bereted recruit kissing her brown-bereted Golani boyfriend. The fury of emergency vehicles constantly driving with lights on in case of a terror attack, the joy of an expatriate in a kippah on cell phone talking with his child abroad.
Fury and joy— a reminder the two can never be alone, nor separate.
The cab driver asks me, again, “AC or window?” It must be routine. “Window is good.”
We come up to Ben Gurion’s security gate. A man with a sharp jaw and Oakley radars covering his focused glare wields a TAR-21, finger disciplined over the trigger, ready for a confrontation with a non-stopping vehicle. As of late, a popular terrorist tactic, the act of ramming vehicles into checkpoints and highly-populated pedestrian centers, has Israelis and soldiers on high-guard. The numerous deaths that have transpired from this disgusting act in the past two months makes this soldier’s stone-cold tact look pious.
A woman questions the cab driver, then questions me. I give her my passport, and she smiles at me, as if trying to mimic my photograph. “What are you doing here?” “Volunteers for Israel, I’m meeting my group.”
We enter without a hitch.
Ben Gurion International is busier than when I had initially arrived a week prior. The Arrivals Hall, when I had first arrived, was anti-climactically placid; it’s tall concrete pillars standing alone, and vast floor space unused. Now, a diverse flag of people gathers, families of a different story standing naked in the refuge of a Jewish dream willed.
Aware that I am going to be living on a base for a week, I withdraw a modest amount of shekels from an ATM. I purchase a phone, and am given my first Israeli number; a blonde speaking in rapid fire Hebrew to one of her customers switches over to California-accented English as she issues me an old Nokia.
I sit, meet Lars, and after a few hours I am united with my congregation of young volunteers for the first time. Not one American in my group; a Dutchman, Hungarian, Japanese-Australian, and a French girl. This is home.
I stand at the pinnacle of the Citadel hostel, taking in my last views of ancient Jerusalem. An amazingly crimson horizon burns in the presence of a gold haze bathing the city in its unique twilight. I am the only one awake at 05:40, weary travelers with disheveled hair peeking out from a rainbow of neon sleeping bags on the roof’s floor around me. I don’t want to leave.
I haul my weighty rucksack of belongings toward Sha’ar Shekem station near the Damascus Gate (Sha’ar Shekem— “Damascus Gate”) as a muezzin’s voice hauntingly carries from a minaret tower. Another faraway crier joins him. Another. The cadence of voices in minor Arab key breaks the dusky morning with a sunrise the color of smelted gold.
The weekend hangovers from Shavuot’s intense celebrating are apparent aboard this quiet and sparsely occupied train. A soldier of the Kfir Brigade stares a thousand yards into the ugly multi-colored conundrum that is the empty seat across from him. Is he, too, suffering the consequence of drinking one too many Goldstars with his buddies, relishing the sabbath-breaking East Jerusalem night life? Or is he shouldering the final stretches of an intense, short-lived service with a combat brigade? His black M-16 with nickel-colored scars, worn camouflage beret, purple bruises beneath his eyelids and three diagonal bars on his shoulder sleeve suggests the latter. It’s an attractive sight; I would be in a sore bliss if I were him.
Jerusalem Central Bus Station is more lively– but not the chaos from a few days prior. A man selling teffilin gestures towards me as I wait in line at the information booth to confirm my ride back to Tel Aviv.
I feel a piece of myself missing as I see the valley of Jerusalem slowly fade from view. Har HaMenukhot, a famous hillside cemetery established as a result of the 1948 Jordanian Occupation, rendering all other Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem inaccessible for the next nineteen years, is the final landmark I pass before experiencing Highway 1’s famous countryside aboard this Egged bus.
As I watch the stone graves shrink and fade, and the beautiful funeral cypresses standing in formation, perpetually watching over the silent rows, I silently, intensely, promise to myself that once I return to this city that has stolen my heart, it will be for good, just like the ones resting upon that hill.
I stare at the cold-colored ceiling of my barracks as the AC rattles over the snores of my American-Israeli madrikh, or group leader. My thoughts are haunting me. I have gone too deep, again.
I am in the country of my dreams, yet I am alone.
I am able to connect with people here, and I love them. I feel a love for them that lights a happiness, unknotting a marred spirit worried of how it would be perceived, accepted. I accept them. They accept me, my dreams. But would my dreams I have worked so long for in America be unchallenging to the average soldier? I mull on my lack of initiative and wisdom. I am by definition a child in my development as a dual-citizen, as a Jew. I am too remote, too behind to contribute to the world; not even the sum of my life’s vigor will contribute one iota to this world abroad, than what the average sabra can do in this country. I then notice the absence by my side; too many years of ruffled sheets where a responsive mind and soul should lie.
Where are you? Who are you? Ma shmek? T’gadi li.
Remember that love, remember the dream. Rise with that hot Judean morning light; feel the powerful blast of the shower head, shave my whiskered jaw with the blade; cuff my fatigues, lace up my boots, and work.
Fury and joy.
Somewhere about Rabin Square, I wait to meet a friend for coffee. I gaze at the monolithic, iron, upended tetrahedron that sits in the middle of this public square of Tel Aviv; residents leisurely sit beneath and around it.
Beyond the monument sits the aged, unassuming City Hall, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. I am greeted by an ecstatic furry black lab, taking leaps on and off the marble bench that forms the base of this great monument, hopping on again, zig-zagging as it sniffs around, just as curious of this place as I am.
I sit and process my final days in Israel. I have tackled and achieved a long-awaiting promise to myself, and have overstepped an intimidating boundary. What is next? How do I join the Paratroopers from here? What sacrifice do I need to make? I know a great one awaits.
The energy that comes with my newfound confidence and love, is like a marvelously prolonged coffee high. I am unstoppable; I have touched ground, now I need to plant my focus here completely, even if it tests my individuality. If I lose who I am in my dream, the chances are great that I shall find myself again here. That sacrifice I am at least willing to make.
I stand and wander toward a grouping of trees.
“Nu, hello?” My friend ambushes me from behind, and I am surprised to find someone like me, at least physically, standing there; completely Jewish, completely Israeli, but completely Eastern European. I shout her name and hug her, and we begin walking in the way of the streets. How to talk with an acquaintance you have known for a long time, but have never met until now?
For those in Israel, it comes easily.
“How long have you been growing them?”
“Well, since I was a child.”
“And how old are you?”
“I am twenty-two.”
“Brendan? I’m Benjamin.”
The handsomely dressed man and I shake hands, as a silently sporadic scene of pillow-smuggling and seat-reclining takes place around us abroad El Al Flight 9. Benjamin’s side curls are what attracted my attention toward him, despite seeing hundreds in the past three weeks. And although I may not be able to achieve his length for decades, I think to myself, my children may look just like him as young adults. I entertain more thoughts of the future to get my mind off of the departure.
The long moments before takeoff, the black of night; Star of David on the wingtip, the thrust of being taxi’ed down through the tarmac; the anticipation of take-off; the roar, the lift, airborne.
I watch the confusing horizons shift and sway; a dim view of the many white apartments, as minute as salt-mines; the brilliant desert sky, distant diamonds in the close vacuum of space.
Tel Aviv bids her seductive farewell; my neck hurts as I strain to make contact with its disappearing lights, an ominous Mediterranean blackness now escorting us below.
When my eyes meet the lonely islands of Nova Scotia ten hours later, I cannot fall back asleep. We descend two hours later into the swampy marshlands and crowded brown brick apartments of New York City. Benjamin’s glossy, tired eyes carry a childhood’s wonder. I know that he is home; his clean accent and destination is a dead giveaway that he is a New York City Jew; although we are away from the Land, he has a solid refuge to keep his spirits up. I feel solemn, almost victim. Something is taken away from me, but I try to not exude the ridiculous thoughts that ravage me. It’s time to see my family, and better now, I know where I belong.
Minnesota, as I can best describe the place, is like a crushing Red Sea, racing toward me as I stand on the last dry stretch of the floor. And I realize that it is not an optimistic image, but believe me; I am.
I have learned the great opportunity and spirit that encompasses my faraway home; I can counter the accusations of delusion with this true experience. Israel is greater a place than I had dreamed it would be. And I intend on returning to it, I intend to reach as high as I can in my coming Army service and make as great a contribution to the land and its people as I am physically and mentally able.
And, I have a newfound desire to heal it; its apparent divide, and ancient wounds that keep breaking and bleeding with every new incident.
The evening is fresh as I run past the gold dome of Saint Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church on Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. I remember the true Greek Orthodox monks I saw in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; their incense-waving walk and dark beards. I am underwhelmed by the small size of this church’s dome, but inspired by the architecture I know exists six-thousand miles away.
I scale the final stretches of a sixteen kilometer run, the morning run of Matkal commandos. I feel the sinews of my hot muscles bending and fraying, as burning salty perspiration runs into my eyes. The sweat on my back has made my shirt as heavy as a coat; my lungs pulsate sorely as I take in and shove out air.
I recount the fighters who have preserved the land in its genesis; the boys who suffered like me, but with the intense weight of ammunition on their backs and machine guns in their wiry arms, bullet wounds and broken ribs.
I smile to myself while I pant. This is nothing.
The hum of heavy aircraft echoes through the summer air as I watch two C-130’s approach the airport for a landing.