I remember it like this:
It was the turn of the century. There was an uprising. I had just learned how to read.
It was an odd time to take children to Israel. The country had become a bloody backdrop against which cafes and buses exploded, flinging scraps of human flesh into the air.
We played inside. We soaked in the stinging waters of the Dead Sea. During the trip as I remember it, my Dad called every day, weeping. “Don’t let them go outside!” he cried. “Don’t take them to Jerusalem! Please, don’t take the bus!” One day, ignoring my dad’s repeated over-the-phone pleas, my mother took us to the old city of Jerusalem, where we crowded into the shadow of the giant wall.
Israel, I thought. A place so important, you take your children even though it might kill them.
My mother gets very upset when I tell the story this way. No, she says. That is not how it happened. We were far outside of Jerusalem. I was there for a business trip, not for a vacation. The sea was beautiful. Nobody cried.
“How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” asks Psalm 137. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you.”
Back then I was considered a big reader. Now I am considered a big TV watcher. When I was a reader, people would say of me, “She’s such a reader!” implying that the omnipresence of a book in my hand indicated depths of intellect. Nobody speaks as warmly about a TV watcher. I haven’t changed, though — I require constant stories, like an IV drip.
And I couldn’t stop going to Israel.
A local Jewish philanthropy offered such a big grant for a teen summer program that it was cheaper to go for six weeks then stay home and do swim team. The girl seated next to me on our El-Al flight told me her entire life story. She also described her relationship to God, and demonstrated her talent of removing body hair with a piece of thread.
We drove to a Bedouin village and were shut up in a room with a group of Arab teenagers for three days, instructed to “have a conversation.”
A tall Israeli boy, who had been silent for the duration of the trip, translated each American’s comment from English to Hebrew, and then a Bedouin teenager translated it into Arabic. When the Arabic response was translated into Hebrew, the boy turned it into English. And again, and again, until he was taken to a hospital for dehydration.
On the last night of the trip I sat on a cliff over the Dead Sea, and looked down at the land. I thought of my favorite story about Moses, the foundling prince and accidental murderer with a secret identity, who tries to turn down a job offer from a bush.
One hot day, decades into a hike across a giant wilderness, with all the water gone and his sister’s corpse warm and covered in flies, Moses hits a rock with a stick. Like a parent having gleefully located an excuse to put the kids to bed early, God informs Moses that his journey has been asymptotic.
On the final page of the Torah, God takes Moses up to the top of a mountain on the border, to look over into Israel. “This is the land that I swore to your ancestors,” God tells Moses. “I will assign it to your offspring.” He adds, unnecessarily, “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.” What a maniac, I thought, when I first read the exchange, in elementary school. Immediately after this, Moses dies.
Sunbeams crept over the Judean Hills, the smell of salt rose from the sea, and tear-soaked teenagers said goodbye, tuning iPod shuffles to their saddest songs. I came home from Israel, and perceived myself to no longer have much in common with my closest friends.
I went to college. “We are sending you to college to learn how to think,” my parents were fond of saying. I thought about Israel.
The tiny number of Jews embedded in anti-Israel activity on campus claimed the moral high ground. But they seemed oddly bloodthirsty in their desire to see Israeli Jews wandering, impoverished, through what had been their homeland.
Their pro-Israel sparring partners — mirthless, and often elegantly racist — were, of course, unjoinable.
On Birthright in December, it sleeted on our Tevas. “What do you think is the most important thing to pass down to your children?” our tour guide asked. “Jewelry,” said a boy from Michigan. We stared up at the stars that coated the sky over the desert like sesame seeds on a bagel. Another girl, also named Jenny, was bit by a feral cat.
Everyone came down with a hacking cough and a runny nose. Our security guard, fresh out of the IDF, took to walking around with a roll of toilet paper on the holster of his gun. “Let’s play a game where we say what animal we would be if we were animals,” said Derrick, the small, hair-gelled ringleader of our bus, when I pointed out the concrete wall slicing up the country, just out the window. “Jenny would be an ant.” I made a mental note to seduce his best friend on the rooftop of a hostel in Tel Aviv, overlooking a gas station. By then we were so sick that when we kissed, we accidentally exchange cough drops.
I tried to forget Israel.
That old hangnail, I told myself. All that wet cheese and waxy chocolate they’re so proud of. Let them keep electing felonious rulers, see if I care. In Israel, most showers aren’t even separated from the rest of the bathroom. At the end of your shower you take a sort of mop and move the water from the places it has splashed around the bathroom into the nadir where the drain sits. Once, I showered in the home of a member of the Israeli parliament. She also had this design in her bathroom.
And still. Time passed, and I did not forget.
I wanted to see the red flowers that bloom in the south in springtime, so we got in my boyfriend’s parents’ car and drove out of Jerusalem to a field. There were no flowers in the field. We sat in silence for two hours, followed by a two-hour fight. After a while we tired of fighting, so we lay in the grass, and stared up at the sky.
I hadn’t been eating since landing in the country. At first I believed that my need for food had simply been replaced by a need to be around my boyfriend. Then I got hungry. I found this humiliating. Skewering food into your mouth and chomping on it, in front of another person? Triggering the process of digestion? You thought you were doing something grander than that animal part of you that always demands more, but no! We are in an ancient land, but I am still an infant, with an infant’s infinite needs.
We got back in the car and drove further south. Finding no flowers there, we turned to make our way back to Jerusalem. But as the sun slipped toward the horizon, the tires slid into the soft earth of the recently flooded dirt paths, and we were stuck on an obscure road,with no cell phone service, and night had fallen.
Right next to Gaza, I say when I tell the story, though we were probably not close to Gaza in any meaningful way.
Prior to this day trip, my boyfriend had been reading to me out loud every night from an Israeli novel, translating it into English as he went along, just like he translated from English to Hebrew when we were teenagers six years ago in the Bedouin village. The idea of the book had captured my imagination; it had been published only in Hebrew, and my boyfriend spoke to me about it feelingly. Part-play, part-psychology text, part-love story – you’ve never read a book like this, he promised.
Like looking through a keyhole into a garden, I could hold the book in my hand, flip through its pages, and sound out its words, but I couldn’t read the story without him. The story was about a beautiful young American woman who falls in love with an Israeli man when they’re both on a high school summer program. “She reminds me of you,” he said.
The book was right there, but not really — the thing in my hand was just the story’s container. When the end of my trip approached and it became clear we wouldn’t be able to finish the story, I begged my boyfriend to spoil the ending. “Oh,” he said. “He rapes and murders her.”
I thought about that conversation as we stood shivering on the dark and muddy road. “He…rapes? And murders her?” My boyfriend — a person so gentle, he wouldn’t snap the petals off a flower — confirmed it. I had said that I didn’t understand why he had encouraged both of us to draw such a deep connection between our relationship and that of a fictional Israeli rapist-murderer and his American victim. He had been able to give no answer, and I felt the divisions between us run deeper than ever. He flits between languages, I am oafishly monolingual. His plot point is my worst nightmare, and the backdrop of my family vacation is his generation’s war.
We pushed the car, fruitlessly. We dug into the earth around the tires with our hands. And then, a group of Israeli teens appeared through the trees, joyriding an ATV. They looped a chain to the front of the car, hoisted us to the main road, and sent us, muddy and shaking with relief, on our way.
A few years later I reached out to an Israeli translations house to ask if they ever translated into English the novel my boyfriend had been reading me. Their polite no was wounding. Even though I know how the story ends, I wanted to read it for myself.
Recently, I asked my sister if she remembers going to Israel during the Second Intifada, and if Dad called crying every day and begged us not to take the bus.
“I don’t remember the bus,” she said. She remembers our grandma calling to say, “If you go, I will lie down in front of the airplane.”
You know, they say — It’s just incredible. Your whole life you don’t quite belong. You were the only Jewish kid in your whole school. Your whole town. You never fit in. And then you come home. The sand and the sparkling sea. The warm hummus, and the tangled nests of sour candy where the flies burrow in the open-air markets. And the language that you don’t really speak or read. And the screeching voice of the world. And the culture of cutting in line and no term limits and raising children in cramped apartments just outside a war zone. And the spray of pebbles on Baruch Goldstein’s headstone is constantly replenished, and so is the new generation of veterans.
But the cucumbers are really fresh! They have real flavor — not like in the states.
When I was a child, stories were home. Now they are a foreign land. They were so good that I couldn’t eat. So good that I would read them, even if they might kill me. The story of a book – or a person, or a land – could thrill me out of my own life and my own body. Now that feeling eludes me. I read the wrong words and I feel winded, like flinging the doors open at a party, just as you remember all the reasons you should have stayed home.
Jerusalem, if I forget you! Jerusalem, where my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, my sentences reduced, vocabulary reduced from a whole pomegranate to a single seed. When I sing of Jerusalem, I don’t sing from a foreign land, I sing of a foreign land.
I am torn down to my foundations already, in Jerusalem. I am more than prepared to lie down and weep. I am destroyed, to be rebuilt again and again.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny
Confessions Of A Millennial Jew Who Loves Israel