A crumpled up map of the city of Jerusalem. A ticket from the Israel Museum. A black and red card for my favorite falafel place in Jaffa. A guide to the tunnels under the Western Wall. A pinkly pale and gray shell I found on the beach in Herzliya.
These smudged, damp, and crinkled remnants of our adventures gently spill out of my new turquoise made-in-Israel bag like the fine grains of Dead Sea salt that scattered on the bathroom floor from my bathing suit this evening.
It’s almost over, our vacation. And I wish it wasn’t.
Don’t be sad it’s over, I tell myself as we traipse around the market, hug my brother goodbye, watch the video montage at my son’s bar mitzvah party. Be glad it happened.
We celebrated my son’s bar mitzvah. At the Western Wall. With more family and friends than I knew we had in Israel. We watched our kids play and love and laugh with cousins they had never met, in Hebrew they had never spoken. We went north to the Kinneret, south to the Dead Sea, rode camels, picked onions, shopped like locals, and drove like them too (it’s all about who honks first!). We ate and drank with friends from today and long ago, reconnected with family on the beach, in restaurants, the kibbutz, their homes. They opened their arms and their hearts so big and so wide, and held the six of us closer and tighter than ever.
We heard sirens. And found ourselves in bomb shelters. At any time of the day or night, and anywhere. We pulled the car over but didn’t know we were supposed to get out. We sheltered ourselves in restaurant kitchens, protected rooms, hotel ballrooms. We heard the frightening booms of Iron Dome interceptions and saw the smoke trails in the sky when we went back outside. My cousin found a piece of shrapnel near his house.
We were questioned and blessed and thanked and hugged for being here during a war. For celebrating a bar mitzvah here during a war. A wonderfully loud and bossy woman grabbed my son in the line at Mini Israel and kissed him forcefully on the cheeks when she heard our traveling story. My boy is not a kisser. He is not a hugger. He offers me the top of his head–not even his cheek–when he says goodnight. But he hugged this stranger right back.
“That you will have many blessings,” she said over and over.
I don’t want to leave. I feel closer to Israel than ever. But it’s almost over, our vacation. I laugh with the kids as they delightedly smear mud on their bodies at the lowest point on earth, and I feel low. And sad.
Be glad it happened, I whisper as my eyes well. But I can’t wipe the tears away because my hands are full of mineral-rich mud.
I am glad it happened. Not the war, of course not the war. But everything else. My children are unfazed by rockets and screaming sirens. They understand more about their heritage and their people than I wanted them to learn right now or in this way.
My fingers feel the softened, torn tickets for the cable car up Masada. We met a Torah scribe at the top, who sits amongst the ancient ruins in an air-conditioned cave behind a glass door, and scripts the Torah. With a white-feathered quill. On the finest parchment. He wrote our Hebrew names with that quill, on a scrap of that parchment, in beautifully formed letters, and then blessed our family. I almost forgot to breathe.
I am sad it’s over, but so happy it happened. We love Israel, all of us, in more ways than I could have ever imagined.
Read part 1 and part 2 of Nicki and her family’s wartime vacation in Israel here.
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