A Different Kind of Exodus
In my house, Israel was a source of personal pride. First of all, there was the Israeli relative who went on to receive a Nobel Prize. Later I learned that he was A) Not related to us by blood, and B) Had lived in Boston since early childhood. Still, the family fable had great brag power.
Then there was our supposed relationship to the first chief rabbi of Israel, who A) Turned out not to be the chief rabbi of Israel, but rather the first chief rabbi of Jerusalem in pre-state Palestine, and B) Was probably related by marriage only (his third or his fourth wife??)—also good for brag value.
We had family in Israel and we felt inextricably linked with that country’s fortunes. My parents were always going off to Israel Bond dinners. But no one ever thought to actually LIVE there.
That was for poor people, refugees—people who were escaping persecution and had nowhere else to go. Not for normal middle class American Jews./em>
But then I read Exodus, by Leon Uris, and got the bug: I had to come to Israel. I just had to.
Later on, when I talked to my expatriate American friends about how they happened to get the bug for Israel, overwhelmingly, all the women said it was that book.
It was those characters, angular red-haired Jordana and the godlike Ari Ben Canaan. It was the tragedy and heroism of Dov Landau and Karen Hansen Clement. It was that carpet of flowers that made Kitty gasp for breath, those flowers referred to in the book as Blood of the Maccabees.
It was stuff to thrill a teenage girl’s heart: heady and addictive. I could read that book cover to cover and then read it all over again without pausing to come up for (literary) air. Not to mention the movie with the impossibly handsome Paul Newman in the role of Ari. To watch him smoke a cigarette was to reach a new level of teenage nirvana.
I decided I didn’t want to wait to graduate high school. I wanted to come to Israel RIGHT NOW.
My mother said no. She said I had to finish high school.
It wasn’t fair.
I wanted to be in Israel so badly I did my final two years of high school in a single year. The longing to be in Israel was so strong it was like an ache under my skin, pulsing and nagging at me all day, every day. I could not rest. At night, I dreamed of citrus groves and desert heat.
At last the day came. We landed. Disregarding the machine oil and the smell, I kissed the tarmac.
A flower of joy bloomed in my heart. At last, at last, sang my heart. You are HERE.
It didn’t matter that my luggage had been incorrectly marked by the porter in Pittsburgh so that it went to Boston via Israel instead of the other way around.
I didn’t have a single change of clothes. But I was in a state of complete and total happiness.
The sky had a different quality, the color more lucid and blue than any sky I’d ever seen. At night, the stars seemed closer. I thought I could reach up and pull one down to sparkle in my hands with holy light. I imagined there were no boundaries between earth and sky, but that these were somehow one unit, enveloping in a holy caress the people who lived between them.
And today, 33 years on? I am every bit in love with Israel as I was back then at the starry-eyed age of 18. I love Israel and would never live elsewhere.
It doesn’t matter that my Hebrew skills are poor to nil. I work in a virtual office for an U.S.-based car donation charity, and I manage.
It doesn’t matter that my life is less materially rich than it would have been had I stayed in the States. I can live without the kidney-shaped pool and trips to the Bahamas.
What does matter is the holiness of the sky and the earth, the fact that I can recite the Latin names of all the flowers in Judea where I live, and the knowledge that for every four cubits I walk, I earn a mitzvah. I can visit the Kotel any time I want.
My children are growing up in holiness, in their own land, never to be strangers, never the token Jews who don’t go to school on the High Holidays, whose holidays are mentioned second.
My story is not the Leon Uris story, but a story of a wholly different kind. My story is every bit as compelling as Exodus and is a perfectly real Exodus of another sort. It’s the story I create with my family in the land, each and every day.
It’s the story of my people coming home.
Varda Epstein is a writer in love with Israel, a mother of 12, and a grandmother, too. When not battling the trolls, Varda is a parent education expert and writer at Kars4kids, a Guidestar gold medal charity.