Originally published in The Times of Israel, on September 5, 2014
We spend much of Thursday at Marshall’s.
“What do you think?” I ask you, frowning. “Here. Add up these numbers.” I read you the measurements of the cute red wheelie bag, and you punch the figures into your phone.
“It comes to forty-four, Mom. Perfect!” Perfect for El Al, that is. Height plus width plus depth, the dimensions of your carry-on luggage may not exceed forty-five inches.
“That’s great, sweetie!” I say cheerfully, and we wheel it to the cashier. One more thing we can cross off the list.
Truthfully, I am in complete denial. In a few days, you will be flying to Israel, where you will spend your gap year at a seminary in Jerusalem. Any other year, I would merely be crying my eyes out because my little girl is all grown up. But this year, I am riven with anxiety.
You know why. Rockets are falling. All over Israel, civilians are running for bomb shelters. Palestinians in East Jerusalem neighborhoods are rioting. Hamas is gleefully warning of terrorist attacks and targeting Ben Gurion airport. And let’s not forget that anti-Jewish sentiment is raging worldwide at a level not seen since 1945.
So, along with shopping for knee-length skirts and arguing over how many pairs of shoes you should take, I find myself questioning my sanity. What kind of a parent sends their petted, beloved child into a war zone?
We are stuffing fifteen pairs of shoes into a rolling duffel. I fret that the pocket on the side of the bag takes the dimensions to sixty-five, a full three inches over the limit. So, we don’t put anything in the pocket. Again, I tell you, “This is your opportunity to meet Jews from all over the world, from far-away cities, countries and continents. Walk the land, immerse yourself in the culture, say yes to new experiences, see amazing sights you can never see here. I want you to fall in love with Israel.” But inside my mind, I am screaming, Stay with the group! Don’t go anywhere by yourself! Let people know where you are at all times! Don’t get in a taxi! Don’t get on a bus! Don’t talk to strangers! These words buzz at the back of my brain, desperate to get out, like a fly batting itself against a closed window.
Finally, we’re done shopping. We’ve bought all those American products that cost twice as much if you buy them in Israel. The book you were supposed to read over the summer has been downloaded onto a Kindle. The pretty new sheets you picked out for your dorm room will be delivered to your apartment building, as will your Israeli sim card. We stuff in a travel clock and a travel mug, a leather diary for recording your thoughts, a set of machzors, summer and winter wardrobes, a sleeping bag for camping trips, shoes for hiking through deserts and rivers.
Time to zip up your bags. I sit on the duffel to smush all the extra air out of it, and look, now your Uggs will fit. I watch as you, my lovely, bright, capable daughter, hoist the heavy bag in your graceful arms and step on the scale. It weighs forty-eight pounds, just below the regimented fifty. I exult, “Great! Now you can take your gluten-free noodles!” Privately, I’m thinking, Is it too late to pull out and just go straight to college?
When you go out to buy Luna bars, I troll the Israeli news sites, worrying myself sick over each new development. I gaze at the map of the Middle East, at the tiny sliver that is Israel, registering anew how it is dwarfed by the surrounding Arab countries, a tiny island of hope, progressive thinking and democracy in a region of pitiless religious fanaticism. This is tearing me apart. Are we doing the right thing?
After I graduated high school, I went on Hachshara, a year-long Bnei Akiva program focusing on kibbutz, hiking, Jewish history and Torah learning. Torah V’Avodah. It was a year that changed my life.
I collected eggs from furious chickens. I washed mud from potatoes the size of shoes. I shook the soil from peanut plants and turned them over to dry in the sun. I walked the walls of the Old City. I shopped for shirts in the Arab shuk. With a pickaxe and then a brush, I excavated the floor of a Herodian palace in Jericho. I discovered that I had claustrophobia by crawling through caves. I fell madly and irrevocably in love with the undulating wilderness of the Judean desert. I listened with astonishment as our Morah Derech planted us before a plain surrounded by rolling hills and described the battles that took place there thousands of years earlier, battles fought by King David, the Maccabees, and more recently, the Israeli Army. I read Stephen King and Kurt Vonnegut. I read Leon Uris’s Exodus. I read The Source. God help me, I read Portnoy’s Complaint. I picked apples, I stood before purple fields of cotton swaying with the breeze, I climbed through the ruins of ancient synagogues and Roman ports. I lived with Jews from New York, Texas, Mexico and California. I hung out with Jews from England, France, Africa, Sweden, Norway, India, Ireland.
It was, without a doubt, one of the most intense, important and formative years of my life. And despite my logical, well-founded, and rational fears, I want you to have these experiences, too. We may live in New Jersey, but Israel is our homeland, our past and our future.
At last, the bags are checked. The El Al terminal at JFK is filled with throngs of happy teenagers and their parents. I wonder, are they worried too? You wave hello to girls who pass, girls in pajamas, girls hugging teddy bears, girls you knows from school, or camp, or the volunteer ambulance corps, or shul. I smile, smile, smile. If I don’t smile, I will burst into tears.
You see, I am just now realizing, that in addition to whatever is going on in Israel, a chapter in our lives is coming to an end. You are boarding that plane as my little girl. By the time you return to us a year from now, you will have become an independent woman.
You would be embarrassed if you knew I was writing all this down, so I am typing it while you are still airborne, soaring through the skies over Europe. I wish for you a year of growth. I wish for you a year of insights, of marvelous experiences, deep friendships, and unforgettable sights. I wish for you a year of learning and laughter. But mostly, I find, I wish for you a year of peace.