I feel like indulging in sweet nostalgia. You know, the kind that bars the bitterness that came after, the kind that transports you to happier times before the fall. And now, now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are upon us (the “big” Jewish holidays), I am thinking of Israel, and the years I lived there, especially the time when I first got there, before I realized that this would be my home for more than seventeen years, when it was still the place of my first young-adult discoveries.
The First Morning
It was February, so I was surprised to wake to the sound of birds outside my window. I peeked between the curtains, unsure what I would see, after all, I had arrived at the hotel in the middle of the night after an eleven-hour flight and I hadn’t seen anything. In fact, I had no idea where I was, except somewhere in Israel.
Pulling back the curtains, using them as a shield since I was naked (my bright red backpack with my things for my year’s journey had been lost), I was confronted with the brightness of a morning sun streaming in through the leaves and branches of a huge tree, a tree that blocked the entire window in all its green glory. And when I looked up, through the green leaves I could see a radiant sky-blue sky. Oh, the glory of springtime in the middle of what was supposed to be winter. I had left Buffalo in the middle of my fourth cold, murky December there, and two months later I left New York in the middle of the slushy, steel-colored winters of my childhood and youth. But now, now I woke to a brilliant Israeli morning, and it was only six o’clock.
I was a twenty-year-old college graduate starting on my grand adventure. I closed my eyes and listened to the incessant calling of those birds and felt the warmth of the sun and the coolness of the tree, and I found myself coming to life.
The drive to the kibbutz where I was to live in a work-study program for six months was a journey in every sense of the word. The kibbutz was at the southern tip of Lake Kinneret (in English it is usually called the Sea of Galilee); the drive took us from the populous Tel Aviv area (I discovered this from a more alert passenger) through the Jezreel Valley. I was driven there, along with seven others, by a driver from the government department that ran the work-study program. We were headed to different kibbutzim in the area. (More on life on a communal farm in another posting.)
As much as I tried to stay awake on the drive, I fell asleep. Car rides, even fifteen minute ones, generally lull me to sleep; that is unless I am driving.
I awoke to another unforgettable sound: sheep bleating. I woke up because the car had stopped, and the car had stopped because a shepherd (yes, they really do herd sheep) was crossing the road with his flock. We waited patiently while the sheep got to the other side and we all looked at each other, aware, finally, that we were not in America any more.
The vision of Israel that I had in my mind was of desert. I expected to see sand every where, or at the very least for everything to be in shades of beige. But when I looked up from the mass of sheep I almost gasped: there was a verdant carpet of rectangles of green laid out all across the valley that we looked down upon. It was truly a glorious sight.
It was truly an awakening in the modern/ancient land of my ancestors; what a glorious sight and feeling. As I beheld the view, my mind beckoned forth the Holocaust stories and Israeli pioneer stories that I had practically fed on from the moment in December when I decided that I would start my world travels in Israel.
The drive went slowly as we dropped passenger after passenger off at the kibbutzim they would be calling home for the next six months. Mine, of course, was the last one on the route. But that way I got to drive through the Jezreel Valley and then down toward the Kinneret (as it’s called in Israel) and past the ancient city of Tiberias, and over a tributary of the Jordan River where I saw people in white robes standing (later I was to find out that this is the site where many Christian pilgrims to the holy land get baptized), past a burned out Syrian tank on the side of the road (I found this out later), past banana trees (I also found this out later, how would a city girl know what a banana tree is?) on either side of the road, and then into the kibbutz that I would happily call home for six months.
And the first person who met me there was the hyper-active director of the program who ushered me into a room full of well-worn clothes to replace my missing ones (which would arrive three days later by taxi from the airport after my backpack had been found). And my new life had begun. I thought it was symbolic that I came practically naked, only me, to meet my new experience, to partake, finally, in my life.
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