Here I am, in Israel once again.
The words hit me at different times: When the United Airlines Dreamliner flies over the line dividing land from water over the Mediterranean; when the highway begins its circuitous climb up the mountains to Jerusalem; when I walk Molly, my sister’s Anatolian Shepherd, down narrow alleyways rimmed by trees that don’t lose their leaves, as ours have in New England, and instead arch over the paths, creating arboreal tunnels in the middle of a dense city.
That’s when I know I’m here, the place where I was born.
It isn’t home, though I have family here. And while I’ll be glad to go back when it’s time for me to return to the US, I’ve lacked a strong sense of home all my life. Maybe because we were immigrants, maybe because we moved around a lot.
That lack stands out in this part of the world, where entire tribes and nations plant their flags in certain soil, call it home, and fight it out for generations. People take pride in living in the same homes their parents lived in. When a young Palestinian man marries, it is not uncommon for his family to add another floor to their house so that he can move in there with his wife and raise a family. Compare that to most American families, where it’s a given that children will not only leave their parents’ home but also their home town or city, even settle down in the other side of the country.
Home here often transcends generations. People point to olive trees planted four generations ago, a particular rock where a grandfather liked to sit, a garden, a grove of trees. Maybe home is made up of stories.
It feels quiet here. First, it’s raining. Winter has begun and the dark comes early. In addition, Bibi Netanyahu is no longer prime minister. Things feel more muted, like they did when Donald Trump left the White House. Less drama, less posing and haranguing.
I saw my mother for a short time last night after landing, and soon will go to be with her again.
“For how long?” my sister asks, trying to schedule things so that she could come to pick me up.
“A couple of hours?”
“What will you talk about all that time?”
It’s true, there isn’t much to talk about. She’ll point to the very big house still being built across the street and wonder when classes will begin. She’s sure it’s a university and maybe she could go there to take a course or two. It’s not a university; in fact, I was just told that Jerry Seinfeld is having a house built on that street, so maybe Jerry Seinfeld will live across the street from my mother.
She won’t be impressed. “Is he Jewish?” she’ll ask. For her, it will continue to be a university and she’ll wonder when the students will come.
We’ll go through the details of her life—her remaining brother, her grandchildren. After that we’ll run out of things to talk about, mostly because she can’t follow news, pandemic, or economy. She’s never understood my life and has no memory of Bernie, though she liked him. In the past she took up 90% of our airtime; she loved to talk about herself. Now she has nothing to report.
My sister is right, we’ll run out of things to talk about very soon. Instead we’ll sit down quietly, interrupted only by the same eternal questions about food: “Did you eat something?” “Are you hungry?” “Should we have lunch?” (it’s evening).
Swapna Santosh, her Indian caregiver, will bring me a glass of soda and occasionally hover in the doorway to see if we need anything. She lives there but stays out of the way when we come. She’s almost 42 and always beautiful. Her own family and child are back in India and she supports them with the money she earns taking care of my mother.
She, too, isn’t home. But whenever I see her I feel connected to that family of villagers in central India, far from the big city, the father and mother who farm the land, the husband who worked in Qatar to make money but is now back in India, jobless though he’s a licensed electrician, and the little girl that never sees her mother.
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