Awakening My Israel Gene

For a writer, knowing you have to write something can be a mixed blessing. The urge to fill a page with gleaming rhetoric and prolific phrases can be quite motivating at times, and yet … there are other times when it can be downright intimidating. It is with much trepidation I begin this piece.

By all accounts there should be a million words rushing forward to describe my first trip to Israel. So much seen and felt, a lifetime of expectations achieved.

As a baby boomer I shared the experience with my fellow boomers of filling coin-cards in Sunday school with a clear understanding of our responsibilities toward the modern Jewish State. Our nickels and dimes would plant forests and help Israel grow and prosper. It was as natural to us as breathing, and we held a vested interest in this historical effort.

norma arrives in israel.
It took the entire 70 yeas or Israel’s existence as a modern country for Norma to finally arrive.

Israel For The First Time

So recently when I found myself walking out of the plane and stepping foot on Israeli ground for the first time, I was both emotional and strangely at home; not quite certain what or how to feel. Although waiting in line to get through customs tested my ardor, I remained in a sleep-deprived coma of disbelief that I was actually standing on sacred soil.

norma at the airport

When my friend Ari showed up at the airport and we headed to his cousin’s home for Shabbat dinner, it felt so natural I really did not think anything unusual about the evening. Yes, I thought this is Shabbat in an Israeli home, but the table filled with every food you could possibly imagine and the warm entreaties to eat, eat, eat seemed as familiar as the sunshine.

family meal

Having the good fortune to have my friend Ari along on my journey made the experience more unique. His American-Israel dual citizenship affords him a perspective I could not achieve. I see and feel American, he both. I gazed at a landscape in Tel Aviv and saw what reminded me of Central Park South, while he saw the IDF GHQ offices in the building where he had served.

Still I waited to feel the explosion of excitement I was certain would arise and overwhelm me, but it was all so normal, it felt odd.

Breakfast

The next morning after I had checked into my hotel in Jerusalem, I began my day with an Israeli breakfast. No lack of calories here. My first response was that I was having one of those diet dreams, as I perused the endless buffet of items from eggs, salads, breads and cheeses to cereals, desserts and pastries as far as the eye could see. Aha, I thought, thank Goodness I brought elastic waist pants along.

Awakening My Israel Gene 1
“Bibi’s Fan Club” – breakfast in Israel
From Kenya to the UK, Canada to Indonesia

After I had ingested enough calories to sustain me for a month, I headed for the Old City and the Western Wall, or as I continued to refer to it from my childhood, the Wailing Wall. I was corrected many times by Ari who reminded me we are not “wailing” any longer, thus the name no longer applies. Yet feeling certain I would be wailing at the wall, the moniker felt appropriate.

I traversed cobblestone streets past endless cubicles filled with Jewish and Christian paraphernalia, as Arab merchants shouted pleas to enter and buy and then insults when I did not comply with their wishes.

walking up the hills of jerusalem.
Walking up the hills of Jerusalem, Monique from Indonesia, Norma from the USA and Pucci from the Philippines
[Miracles do happen, as the emphasis is on “walking!”]

The Wall

I wandered until suddenly in front of my eyes was a flight of steps leading to the Wall. I numbly moved ahead uncertain how or if I would feel.

Standing at the top of the steps leading down to the wall is a panoramic view that is at once breathtaking and quite surreal. Is it real or a picture? Am I really here or simply watching a video taken by a friend who had previously visited?

I descended at a snail’s pace, staring at the wall, waiting for the emotional rush I had always expected and envisioned, but instead there was numbness, almost disbelief akin to shock.

I grew closer. When I got to the wall I placed my hand upon the ancient stone expecting a charge of electricity; still nothing. I prayed and attempted to place my prayer into the overflowing crevices in the wall, then backed away dropping down onto one of the chairs. I stared for some time then walked up and prayed again. It was very hot and I was feeling grateful to be in the shade when suddenly a river of emotion washed over me. I fought it back, afraid I might flood the entire area with a river of tears.

This is how I managed my emotions the entire trip, holding back tears refusing to go to a place so deep inside it might overwhelm and consume me totally.

Shabbat Lunch

At the Wall my friend Chaya met me to take me to her home for Shabbat lunch. She and her husband Ronnie had made Aliyah to Israel over 14 years before. Walking in the Old City like a Jewish mountain goat and arriving alive without suffering a heart attack from what seemed like thousands of steps and hills seemed like a miracle, but of course I was in the place where they happen regularly, so why be surprised?

Sharing an incredible Shabbat meal with friends as though no time at all had passed, I felt blessed. I was feeling blessed every minute, every second I was there. Yes, there is a lot of food, we are Jewish, it is who we are so get over it.

I did not absorb all the emotion until I returned home and finally allowed myself to open the floodgates. Being there and close to tears most of the time, I needed to process what I felt.

Was it that I was a Jew coming home at last?

Wading in the Dead Sea

Was it walking through Yad Vashem and channeling the cries and pain of my grandmother and aunt in the camps or wading gleefully in the Dead Sea?

i am healed at the dead sea
At the Dead (“Salt”) Sea
“I am healed!”

Was it standing on a mountain overlooking the ancient city of Jericho that Joshua had fought to capture, but now had been given away so we could no longer enter without risking our lives?

Was it a sense of pride gazing over palm trees and orchards at what my people had created in a desert?

Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus

Or the sight of Jerusalem from Mt. Scopus? Swelling with emotion and pride and a tie to the past that tugs at one’s heart so profoundly?

temple mount from mount scopus
The Temple Mount as viewed from Mount Scopus.

Our visit to a solar company creating products to light and modernize Africa?

The incredible work in Tel Aviv’s tech center including a new tiny module that can see for the blind?

Was it a sense of loss for everything that had gone before and those with whom I could never share this joyous moment?

Was it how amazing it felt to see my Christian friends tearful and overcome with emotion as they experienced the Jewish State?

Or finally understanding why there is a battle for Israel that raises such enormous emotional levels in people throughout the world?

Shedding Tears

Perhaps it was simply that inside us all there is an Israel gene lying dormant to be truly awakened when we step foot on its land. A land where history disappears and we meander through Biblical times as easily as Moses or Jesus who return to stroll beside us.

We all felt, we all shed tears, we all knew we were in a blessed place. No matter Jewish or Christian, we shared a unique bond recognizing what we were witnessing and experiencing.

Israel is real. Trite to say perhaps, but also the most real we may ever feel. Emotions are heightened and there is vibrancy, a special lens through which our eyes see brighter, clearer and enhanced somehow.

I feel especially lucky to have been able to witness that it is not just a Jewish feeling, but transcends and encompasses the human race in its entirety. The Judeo-Christian world sharing this special time with wonderful new friends from all over the world like Pucci from Manila, Monique from Jakarta, Chris now living and working in Israel, Margaret from Kenya or Sylvia from Spain; everyone on the trip felt the same emotions. Fellow travelers so anxious to engage about their own personal Israel experience.

That magnetic pull of history, an ancient legacy of love, hate, war, peace and hope. We all belong to the State of Israel and the State of Israel belongs in us all.

An Ethiopian Israeli preparing a Hungarian baked specialty inside the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv.
An Ethiopian Israeli preparing a Hungarian baked specialty inside the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, where several years ago a homicide bomber blew himself up for 70 virgins in heaven

Next Year in Jerusalem

The Jewish people inherited the right to guard and protect its borders, to defend our homeland – this amazing paradise – from invading armies as we have done so throughout our history and will continue. Seeing soldiers with innocent young faces armed and prepared to give their lives for this ancient and charismatic land saddens and warms us at once.

It is our charge and our destiny, one the Jewish people embrace with joy and rapture.

We do not visit Israel; we all go home to Israel. Once you understand this, you really never leave her borders.

And may we all say, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”

i am coming back - next year in jerusalem
“I am coming back!”
“Next year in Jerusalem!”

Norma Zager is a Jewish woman who lives in the USA.

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counterpoint from home.

Israel and the United States are interrelated – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counterpoint” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.