A few weeks after I graduated from college at twenty, unable to think of what I wanted to do with my English degree and my desire to write but not actually doing any writing, and unable to wear one of those padded suits and string ties that were de rigor for professional women in those days, I took off for my version of a Grand Tour. I lived on a kibbutz in Israel for six months and then travelled in England, Scotland and Ireland for a month before returning to New York.
It was in a college dorm in London where the shape of my life was to find form. As I took a bottle of juice out of the sink which I had transformed into a refrigerator by filling it with cold water, the following thought bubble entered my head: “If I am not going to live near my family [I always knew I would live someplace other than where I grew up], then I am going to live someplace where my living there gives meaning to my life.” And with that my decision to move to Israel came into being.
What’s especially interesting is that my being the dunce in Hebrew classes when I was growing up did not sway me from this decision. For years of twice-a-week Hebrew school classes I was able to retain the ability to read five letters and two words: abba, father, and beit, house. I had friends who aced the aleph-bet, and who had gone on trips to Israel in a kind of perhaps-preparation for moving there if they so desired and if their parents so desired for them, but me, no preparation.
The only reason why I even went on the six-month trip there was because I was too scared and nervous to go to Europe on my own, and this would give me six months without worrying about where to sleep and where to go. I figured that I would find someone to travel with on the kibbutz, or, if I was lucky, someone from Australia with whom I could live back in Australia. (Every since I saw the movie Walkabout I thought that Australia would become my home territory.)
So there I was, at 21 deciding to become a citizen of a country I barely knew and where I didn’t know anybody beyond the acquaintance level. But I did know that I was pushing my life past the “me” expectations that were bogging me down. I was afraid of losing myself in a life devoted to acquisitions and days filled with inconsequential actions and thoughts, I yearned for meaning. Unable to figure out how to create the meaning myself, I did the next best thing and boarded a plane. I found meaning in every word uttered in an ancient language that created a bond going back millennia and in every path traversed that had been the site of defeats and celebrations still remembered. I created myself in a place that comforted me as much as it distressed me.
Growing up in New York City was wonderful, but the experience of living in Israel was different. It really did force me out of myself and my interests (which New York certainly doesn’t do, if anything, it forces you deeper into yourself), and made me see life as a community activity, or rather life as requiring community.
Maybe this is what people experience when they move to their family’s “old country.” They become aware of a duality: self and continuity. This is surely what I needed, and once again long for. But now, now that I am back in the states I don’t expect to act on my wanderlust again, I need to find a way to bring that feeling into my life—and my daughters’.
It’s not just in the foods or the holidays; it’s in a sense of self that is unmasked. Maybe that’s it, being clear that who you are is not just you, it is you as the latest version of those who have come before and who have unwittingly participated in forming you. It is seeing the self as a variation, not a unique model, that brings comfort and the ability to truly create, or to create truly.