Family Matters: Do I Look Worried?
The post-high-school trip to Israel is a rite of passage for a child learning to live away from home, and no less so for a parent learning to let go.
I sat at the computer and tracked my daughter Shira’s flight to Israel, watching online as the white line arced from New York over the Atlantic Ocean, then closer and closer to Tel Aviv as the day progressed.
Her plane had departed four hours late, and it was still in the air at the scheduled landing time. I couldn’t do much but be riveted by the exact moment it would land and I would feel my heart at one with my daughter’s.
Shira, 18, was Israel-bound on a pre-college program, Nativ (path, in Hebrew), sponsored by United Synagogue Youth. She was to spend half the year studying at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the second half doing community service in Beersheva.
She left in a red shirt and black pants, with straightened hair and a beautiful smile. Two weeks earlier we had argued over how much it was costing to prepare and send her off. (We did nothing but shop for almost a week. You’d think Israel was in the middle of a desert.) Then something changed, and before she left we spent an almost perfect week together, sitting in the sun, walking and running at the track, watching videos until the early morning hours.
With everything I did for Shira, I thought about how it was the last time I’d do it for a while: “This is the last smoothie I’ll make for her—what will I do with the rest of the frozen strawberries I had bought on sale?” and “This is the last Shabbat I’ll spend with her.”
She asked me not to cry when I left, but I couldn’t promise. “I’m not dying,” she said. “I’ll see you soon.” When it was time to say goodbye at the hotel where the kids were gathered before they left for the airport, I hugged her tightly. She looked happy chatting with her friends, and I told her so.
“I don’t want to go,” she corrected me. I wanted to reply, “Then stay. Stay with me.” But instead I said, “It’s normal.”
“Just go quickly,” she said. I turned and left, letting the tears flow.
“Aw, she’s crying,” I heard the concierge say. “Are you okay, hon?” I shook my head no and cried half the way home on the New Jersey Turnpike. I wanted to run back and hold her one more time, my Shira, all grown up and yet so vulnerable. But I knew I had to let her go.
Who said letting go of a kid after high school is like putting them on a school bus for the first time? I think it’s worse.
Somehow, four months passed, the distance eased by e-mail and cell phones. I remembered back 25 years, when I was in Israel for a year: Then, technology took the form of cassette tapes I sent home to my parents every few weeks to let them know how I was doing. How lucky I was to hear Shira’s voice so often. She told me about her dorm and her classes. She told me about the amazing home hospitality in Israel, how wherever she went for Shabbat she could get an invitation for dinner or lunch.
Still, when we talked, I didn’t always understand her frustrations and, if I did, how much could I do about them long distance?
“Mom, all my clothes are ruined,” she once complained. “They are stuck in the washing machine and it’s full of water and not working.” The program participants are not allowed to take buses for security reasons, and though they are given a stipend to cover cab costs, I often heard, “I just had to spend another 20 shekels on a cab from Hebrew U. and now I’m broke.”
I saved some of her descriptive e-mails for posterity, remembering that my father saved his father’s letters to him from India when he was studying in New York.
I arranged to visit shira during the December break, packing an extra-large suitcase with items she asked to be replenished. When we see each other, it’s impossible to separate us for several minutes: We stick to each other like two halves of an Oreo. She shows me her room; the family pictures she has tacked on the wall; her new yellow-and-blue bedspread; the closet in which she has arranged her clothes neatly, by color; the laptop on her desk side by side with her roommate’s. She shows me the pictures she has taken with her new digital camera, her visual diary. It is Hanukka, and she can’t stop taking pictures of the tables of hanukkiyot (there must be at least 50) in my hotel lobby, entranced by the colors of the candles and the multiplicity of flames.
I can’t help but remember the last time we were in Israel together. She was only 6. I recall pointing out the scenery to her from the window of a rented car, and her dismissive reply: “When I grow up I’ll think it’s nice. But when I’m a child it’s not so nice.”
Now she is grown up, and I am still pointing out the landscape. This time, however, she delights in the velvet-blue Jerusalem sky that the Tower of David pierces like an arrow to heaven, the walls lit up from below; the panoramic view of the Judean Hills from Mount Scopus. Now when I gush over archaeological finds from the First Temple period, she nods enthusiastically.
At the Cardo in the Old City, the ancient Roman street that has been turned into shops and art galleries, I snap her picture leaning over a high, stone-enclosed window through which you can look down into the original level. I picture the same photo in my mind from 12 years ago: She was wearing a green checked dress, and her legs didn’t reach the ground.
Some things haven’t changed. She still complains about the hundreds of steps in the Old City.
Shopping now ranks high on the list of things to do together. We scout the stores on Ben Yehuda Street and tiny stalls on side streets for silky cotton tops, wrap skirts, earrings, scarves that are all the rage and gifts for family back home.
We bargain in the Arab shuk, laughing when a shop owner calls out, “Hi, let’s make a deal.” We buy a drum that neither of us knows how to play and a Hebrew U. sweatshirt in a snazzy green. She dazzles me with her bargaining skills, sharpened by managing her own budget.
And we eat. she relishes the israeli version of frozen yogurt, choosing strawberries, raspberries, kiwi and mango from an array of frozen fruit, which are then churned and swirled together with a packet of yogurt.
We try the sweet potato soup at a café and return three times in the same week to savor it. When I am not meeting her for a meal I get falafel in a laffa (a thick pocketless pita) with chips (French fries), pickles, the works—half for five shekels, which is a little over a dollar, and a whole for ten—and I am in heaven.
I am not here to be a tourist. I help Shira with her laundry and study Talmud with her; I take her for a blood test for her upcoming community service with Magen David Adom; we work at a soup kitchen together. We try to flag down a cab from Hebrew University late at night for a reasonable fare, and after a frustrating half-hour’s wait in the cold Jerusalem air, I understand what her phone calls were all about. Best, I can visualize her in all her surroundings. We even take a bus ride to Beersheva to visit a Bedouin friend, so now I will be able to picture where she will be when the second half of the program begins.
We get manicures that chip because the polish doesn’t dry until the next day, but decide we are going to laugh about it in the future (Remember that manicure that never dried?). In the time I find myself alone, I wander, enjoying a free art exhibition at the old Bezalel Academy of Art and Design building, marveling at the menoras atop numerous buildings; photographing a lemon tree that seems out of place in the midst of a mostly stone Jerusalem neighborhood; lying down on a park bench and reveling in an unseasonably warm winter’s day; rubbing the thistles of redolent lavender bushes between my fingers. I visit the magnificent Supreme Court building and the new Menachem Begin Heritage Center Museum.
I wish I could say Shabbat arrived peacefully, but as close as Shira and I are, we are still mother and daughter—with all the angst that implies. Apologies and the uplifting harmony at a Kabbalat Shabbat heal our arguments. The next night, New Year’s descends on Ben Yehuda Street, which is mobbed. The Nativ coordinators leave a message on Shira’s cell phone telling her to be careful, but there are no specific warnings or forbidden areas. We see friends who have made aliya. They don’t know her well, but invite her for a Shabbat in Efrat. As she puts the number into her cell phone, I think about how shy she used to be.
Back at the hotel, we roll up a towel, pretend it’s the ball in Times Square and drop it. It’s so silly but who cares? We share a miniature bottle of chocolate Curaçao liqueur that I brought with me (the drinking age in Israel is 18). After midnight, she meets her friends and is out until 3 A.M. I can’t sleep, not just because of jet lag, but because she is suddenly not near me.
I realize how hard it has been for her to balance being with me, spending time with her friends and studying for her finals. As nice as it may be to have me around, she admits that for the past four months she has enjoyed the freedom of not having anyone tell her what to do. I’ll spare you my emotions as the taxi to the airport pulls away, but I console myself with her words to me before I leave: that despite all the compromises she had to make for us to spend time together, she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
One more thought flits through my mind: She will be home in five months. But who’s counting?