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My family had been planning the Sicily trip for years. Before I left for my spring semester abroad in London during my junior year of college, I was aware that I would not be flying home to the States after the term ended, but that I would instead be flying “home,” to Sicily.
Halfway through my semester in London, and as excited as ever for my Sicilian homecoming, I accepted a position with the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) to lead an organized trip to Israel for American teens. The trip was scheduled to begin several weeks after I was to return home from Sicily.
The prospect of visiting two homelands in one summer convinced me that I would have to choose--that one would inevitably win out, and prove more fulfilling than the other. Something about this competition didn't seem fair, but the proximity of the trips forced comparison, subconsciously or not. Game on.
Marineo, a small, quiet, and dignified town twenty minutes southeast of Palermo, rose above the valley to provide sweeping views of the surrounding vineyards and villages. I had only heard my grandmother speak of the place once or twice; her parents had been born there, and immigrated to the U.S. as young newlyweds. My grandmother was later born and raised in the equally small town of Lodi, New Jersey, where hundreds of other Sicilian immigrants (many from Marineo itself) raised their children. There, she raised my mother, who later raised me only a town away.
On that sunny and slightly humid morning, the van carrying the eight members of my family chugged up the dirt mountain roads. Shopkeepers leaned over half-doors and curious residents gathered on their balconies to see the “Meri-cans.” Our guide spoke with passersby and helped us to locate my great-grandmother's house, where my grandmother's second cousins still lived. By the time we found them, the whole neighborhood seemed to know who we were.
My grandmother's strained Sicilian carried us through the visit, and we communicated through broken translations over a tray of fresh pastries. Our cousins dug up old photographs of deceased relatives who had visited previously, which arrayed the dining room table in a scrapbook-like manner. No, not just the table, but the whole room appeared as a living scrapbook--three generations worth of descendants in the land of their origin, milling over photographs and old postcards, the connection to our past fully realized. I sat, smiled and munched on the pastries. I watched my grandmother reconnect with cousins she hadn't seen in over thirty years. This ease--this strong sense of home--surfaced as I walked up and down the narrow stairways in my great-grandmother's house, even though I could hardly understand the conversations in the dining room. This essential moment in my family's history would later prove the definitive moment of the trip.
I spent several weeks in the States before digging up my passport once again--this time, to enter Prague. The “From Generation to Generation” trip began here, in a formerly vibrant Jewish community, and followed the path of 20th century history. We would later walk through Auschwitz-Birkenau, and eventually, make our pilgrimage to the Land.
Nine days into our trip, the campers and staff appeared equally drained--emotionally and physically--thanks to the rigorous schedule and less-than-appetizing Eastern European cuisine. Perhaps it was just because we were primed for revitalization at our lowest point, but walking off the plane in Tel Aviv was like CPR for our souls. My kids got down on their knees and kissed the tarmac; I, a little less sure of my connection to Israel, watched from afar.
The next morning, our bus wound through the Judean hills, hugging the sides of the mountain and nearly colliding with what I would soon learn were drivers even crazier than those from my year-round residence of Boston. We pulled off at a random part of the road that seemed to be elevated from its surroundings. At this point, the kids had not yet seen the Old City, and in order to make the moment dramatic, they were told to shut their eyes, join hands, and walk off the bus together. As a first-timer myself, I swallowed my counselor-dignity and joined them. Together, blind, we snaked through some underbrush and finally reached a clearing.
“Open your eyes,” said another staff member. We did, all at once, and the history of thousands of years stared back at us. Some kids smiled, others were silent. I cried. I don't know why I cried, but I lost it. At that moment of unadulterated emotion, I'm not sure if my tears expressed a release of the past week's depressing activities, the relief of finally reaching Israel, or the intensity of encountering Jerusalem for the first time. A mixture of all three, perhaps.
Game over. It wasn't until this first “ah-hah moment” in Israel that I realized my homeland pilgrimages could not be compared. Nor even juxtaposed. One, a land that bred my ethnic roots; the other, a land pulsing with my spiritual roots. In Sicily, I met blood relatives; in Israel, spiritual kin. Certainly, my lack of a Catholic upbringing did not hinder my experience of Sicily. Likewise, my lack of Israeli relatives did not lessen my connection to that land.
The more I consider these pilgrimages, the more I am able to separate the ethnic and the spiritual experience. Sicily--the land of my heritage, birthplace of the foods I was raised on and taught to cook, birthplace of an entire half of my family, was best experienced just like that--with my family. Israel--the source of my religion, my spiritual being, and yet a land so diverse itself--was best experienced alone, on an individual journey.
Realizing what some may consider a “double identity” as a Sicilian Jew became effortless at the end of last summer, when all I wanted to do was to turn both planes back around, and visit again.