August 18, 2019

Israel of the Heart

I stood on a wobbly paddleboard in the Mediterranean Sea in my pajamas, feet apart, arms at my sides, trying to balance. The water was gentle, warm and clear off the coast of Tel Aviv — far calmer than the Pacific in Los Angeles, where I live. It was my first time in Israel. I was jet-lagged but excited — or as excited as one can be after a 10-hour redeye from New York before the first cup of coffee. I’d woken at 8, slipped on my flip-flops and headed to the hotel restaurant before dressing, propelled as if by an ancient biblical force to try Israeli salad for breakfast.

Israeli salad — chopped tomatoes and cucumbers soaked in lemon — is ubiquitous in this nation of citrus and vines. It turns out it’s also awesome, or shaveh in Hebrew, as the omelet chef told me, sprinkling feta over eggs. “ ‘Shaveh’ means ‘equal,’ but also ‘awesome.’ ” Each word in Hebrew contains layers of meaning, with its three-letter root relating it to all others with the same root. Awesome connects to equal. Equal relates to beautiful, as I later learned. One cannot call something beautiful unless its inside and outside somehow match. Beauty requires a connection between the surface and the soul.

Despite being Jewish and having worked for a decade as a travel writer in my 30s, it never had occurred to me to travel to Israel before. It hadn’t seemed personally relevant or essential. Also, it sounded dangerous. But since moving to Los Angeles from New York five years ago, I’ve become increasingly moved by religion, as improbable as this may seem. Or perhaps it’s probable. SoCal is the font of so many spiritual movements; perhaps getting excited by the religion into which I was born is a natural reaction to life on the West Coast. When I was invited to join a mom’s empowerment trip to Israel in the fall, organized by AISH LA and the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (now called Momentum), I found myself eager to go.

I realized that first morning at the hotel that I had a lot more energy for travel back in my globe-trotting 30s. I hunched over my coffee cup in a torpor, suddenly longing to be back in my 20s or 30s, when I was perky, youthful and more beautiful on the surface; when a stranger might stop to talk to me on the street just because; when everything felt possible and new; and when a foreign trip could change my life.

“My experience also mattered.”

After salad and coffee, I felt slightly more energized. Touching the Mediterranean Sea felt like what had to happen next, even before dressing and buying walking shoes for the group trip I’d join later. I poured another cup of coffee and carried it with me through the hotel lobby, across the highway and down the stone stairs to the beach. The beachfront was hushed, serene. A group of elementary school kids played volleyball on the sand. I heard the whack of the ball and the shout of instruction in Hebrew over the quiet breeze. Tel Aviv is an urban beach with a vacation feel a little like Santa Monica or even a city in the Caribbean. But it’s also heavier. You can feel the weight of history under the light, clear air. 

A row of showerheads stood at the sand’s edge. An old man was rinsing his feet, holding onto a metal pipe for stability. He was burly and stooped, dressed in bathing trunks. A few strands of white hair were combed over his skull. Hearing the flap of my shoes, he looked up as I approached. His light-brown eyes shone from behind a sea of wrinkles. He smiled and said something in Hebrew. When I stared blankly, he stepped closer. “It’s hot,” he said, in heavily accented English.

“Oh. Yes,” I said.

“Where you are from?” he asked. His own mother was from Russia, he told me, and his father from Italy. He looked like anyone’s Jewish grandfather back in the States. He’s probably a Holocaust survivor, I thought. “Are you married?” he asked. When an older man with an intense gaze and cracked teeth asks if you’re married, there’s really only one right answer, even if you’re divorced as I am. 

“Yes,” I said.

“Kids?”

“Yes. I have one son.”

“How old?”

“He’s 10.” I smiled, thinking about my son, back home with his dad. Ten is such a great age. At 10, my son is fun, interested in everything but not too busy with his own friends to want to spend time with me. On the phone the night before, he’d looked at the map of the world in his bedroom. “Can you see Tunisia?” he’d asked.

“Ten! You are young!” The old man bent forward to kiss me on both cheeks, hands on my face, just as my Russian great-aunts, Auntie Rene and Auntie Syl, had done years ago. They’d hold my face in a two-handed grip as if I, like too many others, might slip away.

“I wanted to touch the sea. I took his blessing, and the luck, and headed toward the water. Near the shore, two women were doing yoga on paddleboards lashed to a floating dock.”

The old man brushed my hair out of my eyes, then motioned toward my hand. He turned over his own palm to show me the lines. He wanted to read my palm. I gave him my hand. He looked at my palm, his brow furrowed in confusion. “You should have two kids,” he said, touching the two parallel lines below my pinky. “See? Two kids. You should have two.”

“I know,” I said. I sighed. The weight of my own world rushed back to me. I’d been in Israel less than 12 hours and this stranger had noticed a major fact of my life I have not been able to reconcile, to settle into and feel centered about. I’d wanted two kids my whole life and assumed I’d have them, “You’re right,” I said, nodding. “I should have two.”

“What happened?”

How to explain? Two miscarriages, fertility treatments and finally, in vitro fertilization. The IVF had worked the first time and we’d had our son. We’d also had 21 embryos left, frozen, waiting to be defrosted into at least one more child. Or two, statistically speaking. We’d felt no rush. Sure, we were older, but we had so many embryos. Then, the marriage began to falter. We’d implanted a handful of the remaining embryos in the midst of the emotional chop. One had begun to develop, then stopped, aborting itself one chilly night, leaving me clutching my knees to my chest in pain and disappointment. Then, my husband and I separated. We tried again for another child with our remaining embryos — why not? Sure, we’d gotten the order wrong; usually, you have your two children first, then you divorce. But five years later, who would care which life event had preceded which?

That transfer didn’t take, either. Then there were none: no more embryos and no more husband. No more time. We’d split up when I was 46, used our remaining embryos at 47. Now, six years later, standing on the beach in Tel Aviv, I was single and over 50. I’d aged out of fertility by pretty much everyone’s estimation.

“What happened?” the stranger — or was he a distant relative? — asked again. “Did one die?”

I looked at him, this community forefather. His explanation for my tiny little family suddenly seemed like the truest one. “Yes,” I said, nodding. “That’s what happened. One died.”

He kissed me again, with the intense focus of bestowing a blessing. “You want to get coffee?”

I wanted to touch the sea. I took his blessing, and the luck, and headed toward the water. Near the shore, two women were doing yoga on paddleboards lashed to a floating dock. I loved yoga and paddle-boarding! I located the paddleboard vendor reclining in a folding chair on the sand, talking to a super-fit woman in a long-sleeved performance bathing suit. She had the thick, dark, shaveh hair that’s also ubiquitous in Israel.

“It’s 100 shekels to rent a board,” the vendor told me. “But I’ll give it to you for 50 if you just want to go for a short time.”

I hesitated, motioning down at the sleepwear I was still wearing: black, drawstring cotton pants and a pale-blue tank top.

“Pajamas are good,” the woman said in that insistent Israeli way. “You should do it.”

I pulled the wide board into the sea, climbed on top and paddled out, rocking a bit over the water. I’d paddle-boarded back home, at Marina del Rey. The ocean there is frigid and choppy, cut through with boat traffic. Snaggletooth sea lions rear up inches from your board, threatening to topple you.

The sea here was different. It was quiet, calm, and had a mystical feeling. I faced away from the land, toward Tunisia, reached up for the sky in a sun salutation, then folded over, placing my hands on the board. The water was so clear, I could see a school of small black fish curving under my board. I closed my eyes, feeling the board roll over the waves.

“This is Israel. The center of three religions, a land lanced by history, buoyed by miracles. Anything could happen. I could slip out of my reality and into another,” I thought. If any place makes you think reality might bend in a flash, it’s Israel. I could stand up into another era, a different storyline, a better life — one with two kids, a successful marriage, a better house and more love.

The board pitched and I lost my balance. I grabbed onto the board, banging my ankle as my legs slid into the sea. I scrambled back up, pajamas soaked, and lay flat for a moment, breathing heavily. Another reality could be a whole lot worse, I realized with startling clarity. Something different could be truly terrible, if you don’t get to choose.

I was aware of Israel as a haven for refugees, survivors of so many things. People suffer in the U.S., too. Back home, I’d just spent time with immigrant moms at the Adelanto Detention Center in the high desert, indefinitely incarcerated, away from their children in a private, for-profit prison because they lacked the right paperwork for legal entry into the U.S. yet couldn’t farm enough food to feed their kids in their own countries. My relatives, too, had lacked the right paperwork in country after country, century after century, and had the laws and boundaries changed on them at will. That could have been me. In Israel, it felt possible, and very dangerous, to give back what I have for a chance at another roll.

“You have to know what’s best about a place (and a person) to understand it. Then, if you feel changes must be made, you have an ideal to point toward.”

I stood up slowly and moved through another sun salutation, holding firm.

Later, I joined 200 women from around the globe for an eight-day spiritual sprint through Israel — the land and the story — organized to encourage Jewish mothers to bring more Jewish practices and values into their homes. The trip was organized and heavily subsidized by AISH and Momentum. The Israeli government recently joined as a sponsor. It’s like Birthright for Moms.

“It’s like propaganda,” said a friend in L.A., also Jewish, a woman deeply concerned with social justice and actively involved in a synagogue and immigrant rights in the U.S. She’s also concerned about nationalism and intolerance in modern Israel. “They want you to be a Zionist. I hope you’re going with a critical eye.”

“Nooo,” I’d said. “I’m going with open eyes.” This was my first time in Israel; of course, I wanted to see what those who love it had to show me. You have to know what’s best about a place (and a person) to understand it. Then, if you feel changes must be made, you have an ideal to point toward.

Forty of us from L.A. rode in a bus from the beach to Independence Hall, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. We spent hours sitting on padded chairs in hotel banquet rooms for lengthy lectures on Jewish values: generosity and courage, gratitude and learning, keeping a peaceful home. Two stars of the Orthodox women’s lecture circuit led these talks: Nili Couzens and Adrienne Gold — both smart, inspiring Americans-turned-Israelis. I took copious notes.

You have to thank God for your lacks, Couzens insisted from the stage. She was wearing a floor-length skirt and a modest-yet-fashionable green blouse that matched her green eyes. It’s your lacks, your deficiencies, that provide a partner with an opportunity to give. Giving to others is what brings the greatest joy.”

“Your lacks also propel you to reach toward God,” Couzens said. “Your lacks give you a reason to pray for something. God, too, wants to have a relationship with us.”

We saw the sites, trekked after tour guides and bobbed in the Dead Sea. Everyone was moved all the time. On Friday, we were in Jerusalem. We walked slowly down to the Western Wall through the narrow streets of the Old City, holding onto railings to avoid slipping over cobblestones worn smooth over the years, squeezing ourselves against buildings any time a car wanted to pass. On the huge plaza in front of the wall, a hundred teenagers in sweatshirts and tennis shoes were singing Israeli songs, jumping up and down and clapping. They waved Israeli flags, whirling about in a circle across the stones. They had their arms draped over one another’s shoulders and they shouted with an amazing freedom — the voices of being young, being safe and of being at home in Israel.

We all stopped to take videos, wiping our eyes. We moved down the sloped plaza toward the wall. The Western Wall, actually the remains of a platform on which the last temple of the ancient Israelites stood, has horizontal chinks on its face, and pigeons and doves nesting on ledges. Pale-green air plants sprout from the stone, cascading down.

Religious women wearing headscarves and long skirts were praying. Others sat on plastic chairs scattered about, with prayer books in their hands. Our group walked past to the wall itself. I found a free spot among the women and placed my hand on the stone alongside everyone else. I felt self-conscious, like a character enacting a well-worn scene, a meme. Cue the iPhone. Yet, my experience also mattered. I stood with one hand on the Western Wall and thought about my own life.

We’d been told the traditional Jewish way to pray is to praise God, ask for what you want, then thank God. Standing in Jerusalem, I thought about what to ask. What did I want, really? What would I most deeply like to change? Looking at my own life from that great distance, it looked pretty good. Pretty beautiful. Shaveh. My sunny home. My funny child. My kind co-parent to whom I’d once tried to be married. We’d adjusted our relationship to one that enables us to have a peaceful home (or homes).

If I could pray for anything and have it come true, I realized, I’d pray to hold onto what I have — to grip it in both hands and not let it slip away. I’d pray for my life to continue as is.

On my first-ever trip to Israel, standing at the Western Wall in a whirl of other women’s tears, the truest prayer I could conjure up was one of thanks for what I have.

For information about the Momentum mom’s trip to Israel (or the dad’s trip) visit the website.


Wendy Paris is a writer living in Los Angeles. She is the author of “Splitopia: Dispatches from Today’s Good Divorce and How to Part Well” and the co-author of “Buy the Change You Want to See: Use Your Purchasing Power to Make the World a Better Place.”