My mother's father, Bernard Olenberg, was born in Poland as one of four sons. He came to America in 1923 with the help of his oldest brother, Frank, who had left Europe thirteen years earlier in search of a better life. The third brother, Simcha, was a Zionist who decided to move to Palestine. The fourth and youngest brother, Meir, never made it out of Poland. He perished in the Holocaust, as did his parents, three sisters and their spouses and children, as well as much of my father's family. On that side of my heritage, the few who survived also ended up either in America or in the land that is now Israel.
It feels almost like a toss of historical dice decided which of my generation would be born in America, and which in Israel. Israel, therefore, feels as much like home to me as the United States.
My fiancé, Jean-Paul Des Pres, does not share the same history or attachment to Israel. He is of French Canadian and Midwestern descent, and although I met him at Brandeis and his father, Terrence Des Pres, wrote a famous book about the Holocaust, The Survivor: Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, Jean-Paul is not Jewish. He will never share the cultural attachment I have to Israel. He still would be interested in going, however, because he values my heritage. But Jean-Paul is afraid to fly. So I am coming to terms with the fact that my fiancé might never travel with me to the Promised Land.
I visited Israel for the first time when I was twenty-two for a brief two weeks, then took part in the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) program six years later in 1991. WUJS, designed for young people who are considering moving to Israel, offers a six month ulpan, or Hebrew course, and then helps participants find a job for another six months. The program is located in Arad, a small town cradled by the dramatic, dry desert beauty of the Negev. During my tenure there I hiked with the group in the mountains near the southern resort of Eilat, traveled north on a trip to the Galilee and visited the artistic enclave of Safed. Each trip made me feel somehow connected to the land and its history, and each place taught me more about the the Jewish culture and people. I began to understand that as a Jewish person, I was a part of something much deeper and larger than I had experienced before.
I also began to relate to my own culture in a new way. After my family moved away from New York City when I was six, I grew up in a rural Christian community in upstate New York and was always an outsider, the only Jewish kid in class. Living in Israel for a year gave me the very new experience of being in the majority. Stores, schools and banks were closed on holidays that I celebrated. I even looked physically like many of the people around me (brown curly hair, brown eyes).
Countless weekends were spent with my uncle Simcha's daughter Ilana and her children, my second cousins, in a residential neighborhood of Tel Aviv. On many Friday nights I sat at the Shabbat table trying to grasp as much of their rapid Hebrew as I could. Having grown up the daughter of a Holocaust survivor with a very small family tree, it was comforting to belong, and to feel that I had extended family who accepted me without question.
After six months, armed with basic conversational Hebrew, I rented a small apartment in the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem and lived there for the remainder of my year abroad. Every day I took the bus to the center of town and worked at a small desktop publishing office run by a Modern Orthodox American couple who had moved to Israel, or "made aliyah." This was before so many people were afraid to take an Israeli bus.
After my year on WUJS I returned to the States and re-entered American life. Time passed. Violence returned to Israel and tourism dwindled, then took time to recover. I returned once for a brief visit to see my family nine years ago, but have not been back since. My closest Israeli cousin, Simcha's granddaughter Hagit, now has two children whom I've never even met.
In America, I have many things. My immediate family is here. Jean-Paul is here. I have a job, a home and three cats. I speak the language and feel comfortable in the culture. I like baseball, and I tear up at the national anthem. As the child and grandchild of immigrants, I feel proud to be an American.
Still, I do not intrinsically feel connected to this land the way I did in Israel. I feel actually somewhat disconnected because so much of my family is far away. I have to take a personal day on Yom Kippur and call in sick for Rosh Hashanah. I love the United States, and in many ways my heart is here. But my heart is also there.
In the last year I've been feeling more and more that it's time to go back--and I would love nothing more than to take that long journey with my partner in life. I want to show him the beautiful country that I left behind, walk the streets of the old city surrounded by Jerusalem stone and introduce Jean-Paul to the family that I know will always be ready with hummus and barekas (pastries) set out on the table. I want him to understand and experience the part of me that can answer a question in Hebrew (much more rusty than it used to be) and that feels at home in a place where I actually have relatives, and where a lot of people look like me and share my holidays. It's a part of me and my culture that he has never seen.
Just once, I'd like to sit with him at the edge of the Ramon Crater in the Negev, where my cousins took me to hike at a place called Ein Saronim. I have always gone back to that place in my mind as my “quiet place.” I'd like Jean-Paul to feel that very special peace that was in the silence there, in that place where greater peace is so elusive.
Yet I know that Jean-Paul will probably never come with me to Israel. He told me once that if he could just close his eyes and somehow be there, he'd love to go. But it took me a year just to get him to fly to my “other” second home, Colorado. If a four-hour plane ride to Denver was tough, I don't think nine or ten hours packed like sardines on El Al is in the cards. It makes me sad to think that we might never share a visit to a place that is such a big part of me, my family and my history. The next time I visit Israel, I will probably be traveling alone.
On the other hand, Jean-Paul was born in St. Louis. His mother is a brilliant artist and I can't draw a thing. His father grew up with little money in rural Missouri and sometimes hunted squirrels for dinner. These are aspects of life that have contributed to who Jean-Paul is that I will never experience.
Maybe that's okay. We have come together anyway, two people from different histories and cultures who have arrived at the same time in the same place. Maybe we can appreciate each other's histories without ever having lived them and can explore what we need to about ourselves both with and without the other by our side.