Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Les Retrouvailles

11 a.m. Wednesday May 7th, 2008

The siren starts up simultaneously on the screen of my grandmother's over-stretched widescreen television and outside. The entire country is standing still for one minute in commemoration of the fallen soldiers and terrorist attack victims since 1948 -- people stop their cars, stop work, stop whatever it is that they are doing to stand in silence, their hands clasped by their sides. There are twenty-two thousand three-hundred and forty seven dead to be remembered but one minute feels like so much longer as I contemplate the meaning of what I am doing. My mother's hand is on my shoulder, my grandmother is holding my elbow. Our three generations standing together. We share drooping eyelids when we're tired and a similar smile. I wonder how many families are gathered at that moment with a specific loved one in mind?

Unfortunately, Israel does sad very well. The amount of songs written by and about the dead is overwhelming. For the past 16 hours, it has been all about visiting graves, offering support to parents and siblings of the dead, about realizing how the rest of us move on with our lives, how we leave the grieving families to cope with their losses on their own.

I remember the moment I decided to move to Israel. At age seventeen, a couple of months before graduation, I went on the March of the Living with high school. We had spent six days in Poland traveling from concentration camp to concentration camp and had arrived in Israel for ten days in order to celebrate Remembrance Day and Independence Day.

Every year, as the siren of remembrance winds down, the day transitions into Independence Day, the celebration of the creation of the state of Israel. We go from sad to happy, from introspective to celebratory.

If it sounds a bit confusing (read: schizophrenic), it feels it.

Back in high school, in the front of the seniors' bus, I had never experienced it before. During Remembrance day, I cried a few times. The songs on the radio were so heartfelt so different from the commercial, melancholic ballads I was used to singing along to as I lamented my lonely or broken heart. Unlike the love songs I played back home, these were songs about brothers losing brothers, about women waiting for soldiers to return, about men writing home from wars asking about their children and their mothers, about sons assuring their parents that nothing would happen to them on the battlefield and apologizing in advance if anything did.

A song came on about a man who goes back to his kibbutz after having been away for twenty years. At first glance, nothing has changed. He sees the faded, hand-written cardboard signs pointing visotors to a wedding that took place recently, two horses are standing by the fig tree ... "But where are the children I played with?" he asks, "who took them away from me?"

The song described my feelings about Israel so perfectly -- not politically, but rather the feeling of being in Israel, the scents, the ambiance. It was not about Israel in the same way as the old Zionist ballads that I grew up with were: this was not an idealistic song but rather a song about going home. In the simplest, most concrete way in which we come and knock on the door that was once so familiar but is no longer because we grown up, we are no longer the innocent children we once were.

As with all big moments, details come back when I think of the song. I remember looking out the window of the bus; we were coming down a hill and the pine trees around us were thick, green, lush. Behind me, my classmates were giggling about something. The air was heavy in that enclosed, recycled way. Next to me, the cute security guard with the bottle-cork curly hair was trying to tell me about the writer of the song.

Before the trip to Poland, I had been told by my father that the only way I would be able to go to college was if I lived at his house -- a nightmare scenario at best.

I had been trying to figure out what my best option would be, how I could go to university without needing to stay with my dad.

By the time the song ended, I had made up my mind: I was going to study in Israel.

I had never been especially interested in the State of Israel. My school was blindly Zionist in the way that many diaspora Jews are -- if you're not pro-Israel, if you dare to question or criticise, you're obviously an anti-semite. After moving to Jerusalem in nineteen ninety-four, however, I quickly discovered how large the gap is between the idealised Holy Land and the reality of the State of Israel.

As the siren winds down to mark the end of the Day of Remembrance, the radio to which many Israelis (and especially my mother) are glued goes from tragic to giddy with excitement; the media's tone changes and so should our mood.

Now that we have paid our respects to the dead, suddenly, it's about celebrating the miracle of the existence of Israel, the State of the Jews that so many prayed for for centuries and generations. "If I forget thee Jerusalem, it will be like forgetting my right hand," my ancestors prayed. "Next year in Jerusalem," we say.

Though I now live in the diaspora, as I sat next to my mother watching hour after hour of interviews with grieving families -- dating all the way back to the 1948 War of Independence -- I felt that familiar pressurized melancholy pour into me like hot wine after skiing. It's not exactly like suffocating, but it's close. Oxygen becomes less available as I come face to face with the unavoidable reality here: I could go buy a phone card or a bottle of water, I could go to my favorite restaurant, or go sit on the beach in Tel Aviv -- and explode...

When you live here, you learn to live with it. Only since I moved away have I become more aware of the undercurrent that never quite disappears, like a tickle in my throat or a nagging feeling that I've forgotten something important. You internalize it, because thinking about death twenty-four-seven can drive a person mad.

As a tourist, I am hyper-aware that in Israel, the only way to visit a friendly country is by getting on a plane. People are more aggressive, sharper, as if they want to make the best use of every single second; people get shot over beach chairs (no joke, this actually happened) and road rage may as well be the national sport. On the flip side, however, is the wonderful Middle Eastern warmth. If you sneeze in the street, strangers will say "Bless you," market vendors will give you extra produce and if you haggle respectfully, the transaction will end with a handshake even if you are the winner.

When D and I moved to London, I was delighted to discover the Lebanese Deli on the corner of our street. The guys at David's Deli are exactly the kinds of people that I miss: warm, welcoming, full of humour and compassion -- not to mention their fabulous hummus and other Middle Eastern deliciousness. One day, not too long after we'd arrived, D had gone out to buy some groceries. We were on the phone when he mentioned that although he was out of cash, he really wanted a cup of coffee. I told him to go to David's.
"But I don't have any money," D said.
"Tell them you'll pay later. They're from the Middle East, it'll be no problem." I assured him.

I was right. D came home happy, his caffeine fix satisfied, and ecstatic that we were already part of the neighborhood. It's the Middle Eastern way -- on all sides of this horrendous conflict.

Independence Day is problematic for people like me. As the granddaughter of the Holocaust generation, "Never Forget" has been imprinted in my brain with the same vigour as the need for a Jewish State.

Separate from my grandparents, however, I can not believe how we, the Jews, as victims of generations of persecution, after everything our people has gone through, can oppress another people. Like the transition from remembrance to celebrating independence, we have gone from victim to perpetrators, from attacked to aggressors.

And yet, because army service is mandatory, I have cousins whom I wouldn't imagine hurting a fly who elect to do their three-year army service in elite fighting units; left-wing, progressive friends who serve their obligatory month of reserve duty in Gaza or Hebron. When it comes to the existence of the State of Israel, the general consensus is that it's a miracle that the country has survived as long as it has, that it only takes one moment of taking our eye off the ball for Israel to be wiped off the map by one or many of our neighbours who would like nothing more.

This is a country built on fear. There is no grey here. It is all black and white.

I wasn't supposed to be here right now. I was supposed to be in Laos, wandering around waterfalls and canals, looking at dolphins and enjoying long, leisurely, catch-up lunches made up of strange foods and great stories with my lovely friend, J from Koh Pan Ngan.

Instead, here I am, in Haifa, ostensibly to plan my wedding. The real reason I came early was because I wanted to be with my mother who, after sixteen years, has separated from her boyfriend. I came to offer her my love and support. But that is only part of it, I now realize: after sixteen years, I have come to find my mother again, to meet the woman I remember who disappeared so long ago, to get to know who she is, who she has become, and introduce myself to her with a new level of honesty, who I am and have become.

Relationships are tricky, and as I plan my wedding, the yin and yang of this is not lost on me.

I never got along with my mother's boyfriend. We didn't like each other much, and he made very clear that I was not welcome in his house, regardless of the fact that it was my mother's as well. As a result, I moved away from Israel, possibly earlier than I would have wanted to. Living in New York, I worked many jobs I detested, in part because I needed to succeed -- there would be nowhere to go if I didn't. When I met D, I was often gripped by fear: what would I do if he and I broke up?

Ironically, traveling around Southeast Asia, as I met more and more wonderful single women, beautiful female souls who were free to do what they liked, go where they liked when they liked, I started questioning my decision to get married. I had always been so mistrusting of marriage, what had changed? Was I marrying him out of fear? If we weren't together, what would I be doing?

I went through a rough, emotionally exhausting yet necessary period of questioning. What was it that I wanted?

My mother's decision to separate from her boyfriend at exactly the same time added to the intensity of my questions. One of the first things she said to me was that now that she was on her own, she wanted me and my brother to have a home. It became clear that for the first time in sixteen years, I would have a place to go. If D and I ever did break up, for the first time in my adult life, I would have a place to go.

D and I had decided before I left for Thailand that we would meet in Bangkok. He had told me a lot about his trips there years back, and had even set the beginning of his second novel in one of the city's many markets. As the date of his arrival approached, my confusion rose. This was my journey, and though I was excited to see him and had missed him terribly, I wasn't completely ready to share it with him just yet.

When he walked out of the arrivals hall in Suvarnabhumi airport, my heart did a little jump and twirl. D and I had talked and talked, I had cried rivers and lakes, but seeing him, coming face to face again was very different from the disconnected voice on the other side of my cellphone telling me he loved me.

I had arrived from Chiang Mai about three hours earlier and had had enough time to position myself strategically in front of the exit so that I could look backpacker-chic and gorgeous when D walked out. In my mind, I would catch his eye immediately and he would make his way towards me, pushing his trolley a la Hollywood at its worst. All the torturous questioniong of the previous days and weeks would be forgotten as I would throw my arms around him and he would hold me tight. I had even warned him to brush his teeth!

What actually happened was that D marched out seeing nothing and nobody, wearing his LA look -- sunglasses and beads of sweat. He didn't even turn his head and instead made his way in the opposite direction of where I was perfectly positioned, as if he knew where he was going. I hesitated for a few seconds: should I let him keep going until he turned around? I had, after all, taken much care, to look as good as I possibly could, sitting cross-legged and barefoot in true traveler fashion, with my loose-fitting, low-cut tank top draped just so. There was no way, however, sexy perfection be damned. I jumped up and rushed after him.

D's self-assurance ran out relatively quickly and I was able to catch up with him easily. We laughed at his "astronaut moment" before he took me into his arms. Our meeting was anything but what I had imagined. Was I surprised? Of course not. Amused would be a better way of putting it -- it was D and I in a nutshell: my planning of every stupid, unimportant detail expunged by D's oblivion.

When we first got engaged, I told D that I wanted to get married in Israel. In addition to being generally uncomfortable with the idea, especially as he had never visited the country, D was worried that none of our friends would come. After waffling between the UK and the US, for weeks and months, I agreed that New York would be the best compromise. We booked the venue, I bought my FAB-U-LOUS dress, we started talking to prospective caterers, etc. As far as we were concerned, everything was falling into place.

Then, last November, D and I spent a few weeks in Israel. In Jerusalem, I took him to meet G, one of my favorite people from the Jewish community of El Salvador. G and my grandmother have been friends since the nineteen-forties.

I showed D the lovely garden at the back of G's house.
"This is where I always dreamt of getting married," I told him.
He nodded as he does when he's not sure what to say.
"Now that you've been to Israel," I couldn't restrain myself, "would you have considered having our wedding here?"
"Yes," he said.

Later that day, as we drove towards the Dead Sea, we talked about it more at length. By the time we watched the desert turn pink at sunset, we had decided to tie that damned confusing knot exactly where we were when something had started to finally make sense...

I have to admit that I showed D the best parts of Israel: the people I love, the beautiful hills of the Judean desert, the sunsets over the ocean. We didn't go to Bethlehem or the refugee camp where I used to work, or Ramallah. Though he did glimpse the horrendous segragation wall (by accident) and the difference between East and West Jerusalem which is impossible to miss, it is not the same as going through check points and experiencing life in Deheisheh or Hebron first-hand.

As long as you restrict yourself to Israeli areas, it is relatively easy to ignore the conflict much in the same was that many people visit exotic countries and spend their time in luxury resorts without venturing out to see how the locals live.

There are small reminders here and there: guards who check your purse at the entrance to supermarkets and restaurants, commemoration plaques in places where buses have been blown up, adolescent soldiers with huge machine guns strapped to their backs. This is nothing compared to what Palestinians face on a daily basis. On the other side of that terrible wall, it is impossible to forget what is actually going on.

D and I had a wonderful week together in Bangkok. We talked, we reconnected, we starting planning our wedding in earnest with the clarity that comes after so much questioning. He is arriving in Israel this week for meetings with event producers, tastings with possible caterers, and general ironing out of wedding details.

My mother and I are enjoying long walks, longer talks and spending time together in a way that we haven't for the past sixteen years.

Throughout the years, she told me her ex-boyfriend made her happy. I always used to ask her why her happiness had to mean my unhappiness, why he couldn't make the effort for us all to be happy together. I had always wanted her to find someone with whom to share her life and was devastated when that person turned out to be divisive rather than inclusive, jealous and possessive instead of the family-oriented. She could never answer me. Now, as I get to know her as an adult for the first time, things are clearer to me, the difference between the woman and the mother are easier to understand.

Every year on Bastille day, I call to wish my mother a happy birthday. Every year, her answer is the same:
"Thank you," she says, softly, "but every day is my birthday. Every day that I have my health, that you and your brother have your health is my birthday."
These days, that sentence is ringing truer than it ever has. I watch my mother get stronger by the day, even as she struggles with conflicting emotions and moments of deep sadness. I am inspired and excited to watch her grow as if every day she is being reborn, grateful that I can be here to share these precious moments with her and hoping that I am, in one way or another, helping her through it all.
"What a gift" she says about things big and small. And now, finally, I agree with her.

At this point in time, however, I can't help but see the parallel with this country and have faith that if the unfathomable, the unbelievable, the last thing I expected would ever happen can taken place in my tiny microcosm, it is possible on a larger scale: why can't we work towards cooperation instead of segregation, why does our safety have to come at such a high price for others?

These days I do, I really have hope...


The Middle East and Jewish History, both, are a bittersweet mixture of sadness and joy, sweet and savoury, tears and laughter. And so it goes with food as well. Spices like sumac and cinnamon add sweetnes to meat and other usually salty dishes.

One of my favorite Arab dishes is chicken stuffed with cinnamon rice. I remember enjoying it once in Bethlehem with my friend, Ziad. We had to sit in a specific part of the restaurant where women and men could eat together as it was a religious (Muslim), Hamas-owned place, a simple hole in the wall where the woman who cooked also served up the meal. That was more than ten years ago. Thinking of that rice, of the juicy chicken, I immediately conjure up the small, rotund woman under the white headscarf who brought out the silver plate, the darkness of the room contrasted by the brightness of the sun shining outside, and the sweet taste of the rice, the almonds, the cinnamon mixed in with the slightly dried-out chicken.

Since arriving, I haven't stopped cooking. Making up for the months away, I have baked gluten free bread and brownies, experimented with the red rice I enjoyed so much in Thailand, added newly discovered herbs and spices, like galangal root, to old favorites, invented salads...

My mother is my best customer! I love watching her face as she closes her eyes and raises her hand to her heart when she likes the taste of something. It's wonderful to see someone you love enjoying to such an extent.

Red rice with black currants was inspired by my surroundings, the home I lost and have found again, the warm safety of my family's embrace. Like this country, like my life, and because I don't follow recipes but rather make things up as I go along, there are no exact measurements.

1 part red rice to 2 parts water
black currants (dried)
zuchini (courgette), chopped very small
carrot, chopped very small
olive oil
sweet paprika
fresh cilantro
(optional: chilli powder)

Soak the currants in water for at least an hour.
Drain the currants but retain the water (it's wonderfully sweet and delicious, try it but be careful not to drink it all!)
In a pot, mix the currants in with the rice (I also soak the rice for a couple of hours beforehand, but I throw away that water), add a pinch of salt and the water. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, lower the heat. Allow to simmer until all the water has been absorbed (about 45 minutes, like regular brown rice).
In a separate pan, saute the zuchini and carrots in the olive oil on a very very low flame for about as long as it takes until the rice is ready. This allows the vegetables to cook very slowly and still retain a bit of crunch.
When the rice is ready, add cinnamon, sumac and sweet paprika to taste as well as additional salt, if desired.
Combine the rice and vegetables. Mix well. Add the currant water, raise the heat to medium and allow it all to cook together until the water has been absorbed. Stir often.
Garnish with fresh cilantro.

Because this dish is sweet, it pairs very well with roasted vegetables or greens sauteed with garlic. Pine nuts or almonds are also a good addition.

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