Israel was the first foreign country I visited, in 1980, four months after I was born. Although my Jewish-ish parents didn’t take my brother and me to temple, I went to the Holy Land six more times before I turned 20 to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my dad’s old army buddies. I hadn’t been back since, at age 19, I decided once and for all that a land of war was no place for vacation. I had the inkling at 16, on Kibbutz Tziv’on in the north of Israel, near Lebanon. We were visiting friends, barbequing in the backyard, when I thought I heard explosions in the distance.
“What was that?!” I asked, alarmed.
“That’s just bombs falling over the border,” our hosts assured us, blowing it off. “It’s normal.” They continued the conversation nonchalantly.
“Wait a second,” I said, quieting my family and looking around, wide-eyed. “It’s normal to hear bombs falling on Lebanon while you eat dinner?”
“They’re not falling on Lebanon,” my abba corrected me. “It’s the demilitarized zone.”
My father’s explanation didn’t make it any easier for me to accept. It made me uncomfortable to be outside, eating shish kebab, while bombs fell ten miles away. At that moment, I realized I had descended from progenitors who lived in a land of constant conflict where each generation sends the next to war. I was grateful my father had left Israel at 21, after army duty that included the 6-Day War, and that subsequently I was born in New York. In my opinion, rats and muggings are preferable to rockets and mortars.
Giving in to familial pressure, I returned to Israel once more after that. I didn’t decide to go back until 15 years later, with my husband. My safta (Hebrew for grandmother) had been inviting us for years.
Safta Hanna was born in Jerusalem in 1927, in Britishmandated Palestine, and has lived in Israel pretty much ever since, except for a few stints in the United States earning various degrees. She joined the Haganah during World War II and smuggled European Jewish refugees up the beach like in Exodus, and in 1948 she drove what she calls a “tank” as part of a convoy supplying besieged Jerusalem. The armored vehicle she refers to was really a halftrack, which she rode in while pregnant with my dad.
Yep, that’s right: my safta, expecting her first child, carried a weapon and fought for Israel, putting two young lives at risk. Her husband, my dad’s father, had already been killed in the same conflict, before she gave birth. She likes to tell the story of herself as a young mother, when my dad was a toddler, living in a facility for widowed women with Natalie Portman’s grandmother, Manya Portman.
“Natalie is pretty, but Manya is the real beauty in that family,” Safta said once as we walked by an ad featuring Natalie on Madison Avenue.
“And she took her grandmother’s name, Portman. Her real last name is Herschlog.”
Despite these and other fascinating tales of Safta’s life building the state of Israel with Ben Gurion, I wasn’t convinced that I needed to travel to a war zone to visit her.
“I’ll pay all your expenses,” she inveigled in her letters, as if money was the reason I had stayed away. Though I explained it to her, Safta wouldn’t accept that I chose not to spend my time in a place where war was just around the corner. Here in San Diego we see and hear combat preparations, but the neighboring countries are not our enemies.
“Ach, it’s such an American point of view,” Safta scolded me once. My own mother, born in New Jersey, agreed. In my family, war is no excuse for not visiting.
“Statistically,” my dad likes to say, “going to Israel is no more dangerous than getting into a car.” But to me the principle of putting oneself in a known path of destruction, just for vacation, seems anathema to survival. Furthermore, it seemed strange to me that the people who claimed to love me were encouraging — nay, enabling me to visit a war zone. I deeply offended my uncle when I cited Israel’s “war with the neighbors” as the reason I would not attend my cousins’ weddings in Jerusalem. Tact is not a family trait.
So, in April 2014, when I got yet another letter from Safta Hanna beckoning us to her homeland, I said no again. Twice. My husband suggested, gently, that I should go, considering her advanced age and the fact that it might be my last chance. He was right, of course. Thus began the plan to visit — in the words of Homer Simpson —“a war zone with no pork, in a desert with no casinos!” “The Gavidors have surrendered,” I informed my mother of our trip to Israel. She laughed, understanding that I had been worn down by the ironclad nagging of our family’s tank-driving, O.G. Jewish grandmother.
As if to prove my point of staying away for 15 years, another Israel-Gaza war broke out in June 2014. It went on for eight weeks. We watched, glued to the television, as Hamas fired rockets and Israel carried out airstrikes. Then went the ground troops into Gaza, to destroy tunnels Hamas had bored into Israeli territory. Weirdly, airline ticket prices didn’t drop, even when the Federal Aviation Association prohibited U.S. flights from entering Israeli airspace for 48 hours due to rockets flying near the outer limits of Ben Gurion airport. Iron Dome intercepted them, of course, while El Al continued to operate. Safta kept mum. 24 hours in to what would become the final ceasefire of “Operation Iron Edge,” I finally bought our tickets. I figured the odds of another conflict breaking out soon were way down.
“Would you like to see any sights?” I asked my husband as we began to prepare. “Because I’ve been all up and down that place,” I declared curmudgeonly, “and I don’t really need to see any of it again.”
I had hiked the Golan Heights through the Jordan River to the valley below, swam in the Kinneret (otherwise known as the Sea of Galilee), wrote a note to God at the Wailing Wall, and beheld the stone slab where the body of Jesus was anointed before being buried in the adjacent tomb. I had floated in the Dead Sea and covered myself in its healing muck, and I had even been awakened by the call to prayer throughout Jerusalem when it was time for Muslims to kneel and face Mecca. I had ridden a camel. Like, a few times. But if my husband was interested, I was willing to do it again. As a U.S. Marine, he had deployed to the first Gulf War in 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s SCUD missiles hit Tel Aviv. He had been to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, but not Israel.
“Well, maybe just the Dome of the Rock,” he said.
“Yeah, been there, when I was 13,” I said, recalling my trip there with Safta. The Dome of the Rock, built in the year 691, is the gold-topped building that defines the skyline of Jerusalem. Along with Al-Aqsa mosque, the Dome of the Rock sits atop the Temple Mount, where ancient Jews built their first and second temples, both destroyed long ago. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all consider the spot sacred, but only followers of Islam pray there. Safta took me to see it in 1993, after King Hussein of Jordan had just finished a renovation of the dome with 80 kilos of gold. He got the needed $8.2 million by selling his London flat.
According to the agreement reached in 1967, the Jordanians have custodial control of the Temple Mount, which Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, along with the mosques that occupy it. Israelis are in charge of security. Access is limited, or at times completely restricted, depending on how things are going. Muslims are allowed to pray there at certain hours, while Jews and tourists can visit at other times; an arrangement made much more complicated by the fact that Israel and the Palestinian territories observe different schedules for Daylight Savings Time.
Before my visit to the Dome when I was 13, Safta insisted I put on a dress. With pants underneath and a scarf wrapped around my head. It was August and it was 100 degrees.
“Safta, are you crazy?” I protested while putting my jeans on, thinking the answer was “yes.”
“For the Muslims you have to be covered,” she said with accented annoyance, coaxing me into my heavy clothes. On the way out, I checked my outfit in the mirror. My reflection appeared to me like the teenaged Muslim girls I’d seen walking, in tight groups, on the streets of Jerusalem. As Safta and I walked up the ramp to the Temple Mount, two female Israeli soldiers working security greeted us and patted us down. One checked my waistband and under my arms while the other tried her best to feel around Safta’s folds. They wore full olive drab, schvitzing in long sleeves and pants. When they finished searching us for weapons and Jewish religious paraphernalia (forbidden on the Temple Mount), they waved us along with their rifles. The girls eyed me enviously, glaring at my clothes. I was wearing a dress and pants, not a uniform, and I wasn’t property of the Israeli Defense Force.
When we reached the top of the ramp, it was high afternoon, in between prayer times. The spacious Temple Mount plaza was almost deserted. As we prepared to enter the Dome of the Rock, I finally understood why, despite making me cover every inch of flesh between ankle and neck, Safta had allowed me to wear sandals: we had to wash our feet before entering the mosque, according to custom. We slipped off our shoes and put our feet under the provided faucets. Precious water — a scarcity in the region — trickled over our toes, making us clean enough to set foot in the Noble Sanctuary.
Inside, with my bare feet on the rug, I looked up. Amid the swirling patterned tile, gilded surfaces, and intricate windows, I scanned for signs of the god who had made this place a point of contention for three major religions. I didn’t see him anywhere, and any spiritual experience I might have had was interrupted by the thought of all the other bare toes that had been on that carpet.
In October 2014, when I visited with my husband, we were able to gaze at the golden dome from many vantage points, except inside: the Israelis had closed the Temple Mount for Sukkot, a festive Jewish holiday that brings hordes to the Old City. But we did visit the Wailing Wall, and we walked the Stations of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa, which winds through what is now the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Men with donkey carts and kids with soccer balls went about their way as we walked where Jesus purportedly walked on his way to crucifixion.
Along the Via Dolorosa we saw homes the Ottomans built during their 400-year stay in Jerusalem, from 1517– 1917. Palestinians still live in them today. On the stone façades, we saw spray-painted glyphs of the Haj in red, black, and green. These signs of distinction indicate that a worshipper who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca lives within. Our tour guide, Ruthie, pointed out that although they resemble graffiti, the pictographs are highly prestigious. We counted eight on one house, right across the street from the remains of the fort where it’s said the Romans read Jesus his sentence. A church stands there now.
A few steps down narrow cobblestone streets, passing by a surprising amount of litter for a place deemed holy, we entered the Souk. Pronounced like shoe with a “k,” the Souk is the Old City’s ancient covered market. I had been there several times with my family, shopping amid fragrant spices, baskets brimming with textiles, rugs stacked to the low ceilings, and merchants hawking jewelry to me, “the young lady.” On this trip I bought a few Jerusalem pottery pieces, hand-painted in the Armenian Quarter, for my coworkers. I also haggled for three rosaries for a Catholic friend. As the story goes, the rosaries are made of pits from olives that grow on the ancient trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus is said to have spent his last night before being arrested.
The Souk sits on the intersection of the Cardo and the Decumanus, roads from Roman times in Jerusalem. It straddles the borders of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian quarters. It’s a Holy Land miracle: somehow they all find a way to coexist when it comes to commercial enterprise. In fact, so trusting are the merchants that when it’s time to go pray, they simply place a stool in front of the stall to signify that it’s closed temporarily, without locking the doors or securing the merchandise. Ruthie cited the practice as evidence that Jerusalem is a “safe place” where people “get along.”
But, on October 22, the day after we left Israel, a Palestinian man, angry over earlier events that had damaged Al-Aqsa, drove his car into a crowd of Israelis at a Jerusalem bus stop and killed a three-month-old girl. We watched the report on television from our hotel room in Amsterdam, a stopover on our way home.
Two similar incidents occurred shortly after we returned to San Diego: Palestinian drivers killing or injuring Israeli pedestrians in Jerusalem. In the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot two Palestinian teenagers. Then came news of the killing of five rabbis in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s ultra-religious enclave, by Palestinians with a meat cleaver and an ax. While we were there, Ruthie had taken us down that neighborhood’s main drag to see the orthodox Jews all decked out in their holiday finery. We drove right by the synagogue where the murders would soon take place.
Just a few weeks before the most recent uptick in violence, we had been in places that were now on the news. We didn’t see physical evidence of Operation Iron Edge, but reminders of past wars dotted the landscape. Riding in my uncle’s car from Ben Gurion up the winding road to Jerusalem, we passed the burned-out skeletons of the halftracks Safta and her fellow fighters drove in ’48. They’ve been left on the side of the road all these years as a memorial. The tension was palpable.
One afternoon, while we looked out over the Old City from a vantage point in the Jewish Quarter, Ruthie told us that there was a feeling of freedom throughout Israel now that the war with Gaza was over.
“We are so happy,” she smiled, a facial expression we didn’t see much in Israel, gesturing to the crowds of holiday revelers. Ruthie was a classmate of my father’s, part of the first generation to grow up in Israel after it became a country. Their school, in a leafy Jerusalem neighborhood, was hit by rocket fire.
While she recounted in detail all the discord the region had seen throughout history, in the next breath she told us that she and other Israelis had the feeling that peaceful times would continue. Despite present and historical evidence to the contrary. This powerful delusion is how Israelis cope with quotidian life in the Holy Land where their presence is resented.
And that makes for some pretty grumpy inhabitants. On many occasions we received strange stares for saying “please” and “thank you,” in English or Hebrew, and pretty much any daily activity is grounds for discussion, if not argument.
Like crossing the street. One day, while waiting on a corner in Tel Aviv, an Israeli man turned to my husband and yelled, in English, pointing to the walk signal that had just turned yellow, “it’s not red, it’s not green, it’s NOTHING!” Leave it to an Israeli to have a strong negative opinion, which he feels compelled to share with a stranger, about a traffic light.
I think this culture of challenge has motivated Safta to stay and fight all these years, although she did have other options.
“I rose to the top of my department, in my field of study,” she reminded me as we sat in her living room overlooking the hills of Jerusalem. We had just talked about the fact that I have a master’s in writing and I work a day-job in retail.
“Yes, I know, Safta,” I sighed, experiencing a pang of something else that had discouraged me from schlepping halfway across the globe to see her: the gnawing Jewish guilt that finds its way into all our conversations.
“I had a job offer from the University of Hawaii, a very prestigious position. But I turned it down,” she said proudly, shaking her index finger at no one in particular.
“I didn’t want to stay in paradise. I wanted to come home — I wanted to come home to my country.