That’s what people say when I tell them where I’m flying to. I have a mother, brother, and sister here and I have been flying to Jerusalem twice a year for some 20 years now. The coronavirus crimped that somewhat, but on the other hand, when Zen Peacemakers was involved in the Middle East, it was common for me to fly here a lot more frequently, though not to be with family. I taught all kinds of things then.
Now when I get here, famlly’s almost all I do. I don’t go to theater or to hear music, I take little advantage of being in a big city. I see few friends and do little gift shopping in the Old City. At times find myself in a mall where I buy a white turtleneck for my mother and a turquoise sweater for myself against the cold. I go out to lots of restaurants and cafes. We’re Jewish; meetings involve food and good coffee.
I rarely visit the Wailing Wall and am not allowed onto the Temple Mount or Al Aqsa Mosque, only open to Muslims. When given the chance, I still love to drive out into the desert and hike up and down canyons or take walks in nature around the city, but that hasn’t happened lately.
Family is a big deal here. As I write this, I can hear my sister teaching English on the phone to a client and saying happily: “Oh, he arrived yesterday? How exciting!” Who arrived? Maybe the woman’s son, maybe a brother. My sister is not just teaching her the word exciting; she’s resonating with it. People here have relatives all over the world and there’s great joy when they come together.
The airport is closed to outsiders now due to the virus, but ordinarily, landing in Israel means getting your luggage and emerging into a crowd waving balloons and flowers and children rushing by you to hug grandparents, or else a couple locked in a passionate embrace, oblivious to everyone else around them.
The joke about flying to Israel Christmas time is this: The plane lands and is rolling on the runway towards the gate when the pilot makes the following announcement: “For those of you on your feet—Happy Hanukah. For those of you in your seats—Merry Christmas.”
It’s understood that those people standing in the aisles before the plane docks, heading towards the exit, breaking every rule they can on their rush out of the plane to see their loved ones, are Israelis. The ones still sitting lawfully, waiting for the plane to be at the gate and the Fasten Seatbelts sign to go off, are Christian pilgrims.
So how do I spend these shortest days of the year here? Bearing witness to the simplest things:
A cup of morning espresso with one of my brother-in-law’s fabulous cookies (he’s a topnotch baker);
shopping with my sister at her favorite dog supply store and marveling at the price of dog treats;
stopping at night for a good hot chocolate on the way home from seeing my mother;
walking Molly down narrow alleys and yes, picking up dog poop because this is a city after all, not the woods where I live;
talking to my brother about family matters in a loud, packed restaurant where every ten minutes the waiters hold a raucous celebration of a customer’s birthday with loud Eastern music, big whipped cream-topped brownies and colorful sombreros (the mix of Western and Middle Eastern cultures here is a hoot);
smelling the breads in my sister’s favorite bread store;
watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind with her (You never saw it? I don’t care about X-Files, how could you not see this?).
They’re present to me, and I’m present to them. Last night I sat back on a Barcalounger and took in the white roses on the table, the warmth of the gas stone, the hot soup ladled into bowls, and let myself completely inhale that sense of safety and comfort, of being cared for, of being with family.
For many years it wasn’t this way, and I leaned early on to take care of myself, become self-reliant, do without when necessary. It firmed up my backbone and made me strong and independent. I appreciate all those things. At the same time, I’m grateful that at a later age I was given the chance to rediscover family and to surrender to connection and relationship that for so many years I found suspect.
What do I go back to tonight? The companionship of a housemate, Henry the chihuahua up on his back legs meerkat-like, barking nonstop, while Aussie mewls a happy welcome, friends reaching out from a distance..
And also, aloneness. If I’m not careful, fear can blanket me. Instead, I will go to meet it, befriend aloneness, make it a dear companion. Feel safe and comfortable with it, as I do now just hours before leaving.
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