My son was 2 years old and we were living in the West Village. I wasn’t sure the city was the right place to bring up this kid. Maybe another kid, my yet-to-be-born daughter, for instance. But not him. He was and has always been a physically active kid. The only running around he could do was at the playground.
My husband was born on a kibbutz in Israel. He had always described his childhood in idyllic terms, with loads of freedom and activities and nature. He was the person at the Central Park petting zoo who could coax the cow out of the shed. He knew which fruits and vegetables were in season, when. His parents still lived there along with his sister and her children. And while I was not Israeli, or for that matter, even Jewish, I longed for the community and family life he described.
We took the 11-hour plane trip and arrived on the kibbutz. Instantly, my son and I were in love. On the kibbutz I watched him run around excitedly from person to person. Kibbutznik men are generally a loving bunch and were a constant source of entertainment for my young social son. And I? I was relaxed. On that visit, for the first time since my son was born, I could let my guard down. On an Israeli kibbutz, just 15 miles from the Lebanese border, I found peace.
A plan shaped. Why not move to Israel and make aliyah? We were slowly being priced out of Manhattan. Life on the kibbutz was certainly much cheaper and my husband could continue traveling, only he would leave me in a place where I had familial support. I was up for adventure. I’d never lived overseas before but had always wanted to. Visiting the kibbutz I saw loving grandparents, cousins, cousins of cousins, aunt, uncles. And so, we packed up our West Village apartment, stored our things, and headed for Israel.
My son, who understood both English and Hebrew but barely spoke either, attended the kibbutz ganon (preschool). There he made fast friends with his cousin Hillely and another boy named Yotam. He began speaking too, exclusively in Hebrew. At first progress was slow and I could keep up. Ani rotseh shokolad (I want chocolate). OK, I could wrap my head around that. While he was in the ganon, I studied Hebrew in ulpan (intensive Hebrew immersion course) with about 10 Russians and several English-speaking spouses and loved ones of Israelis.
My Hebrew improved. If the Russians had a big incentive to learn Hebrew and make a new life for themselves, I also had a big incentive: my son. My husband was spending three weeks at a time in New York, working. This left me alone with a willful little boy who had a whole arsenal of Hebrew words that I didn’t.
He would wake me up in the night, shouting, SMICHA! Ani rotseh SMICHA. And I would think smicha? Smicha? Smile? Happy? Then finally: blanket. Quickly, I learned all the words for the animals and foods he liked and to this day I can speak perfect Hebrew…to any 3-year-old Israeli.
My son was growing up. He spoke no English but had loads of friends, both small and big. He was popular and happy. “Shalom, Mohammed!” he’d shout to one of the men on a tractor. “Shalom, Ofer!” he’d shout to the man in charge of the chicken house who drove his APV all around the kibbutz. Ethan liked to visit the cows at the dairy farm, like all the 3-year-olds. We would feed them hay and talk to them. At the ganon, they would take a long walk or tiyool before naptime. Regardless of weather, that little group of 2- and 3-year-old children could be seen trooping through the kibbutz, to the wadi, the cowshed, and the chicken house. They would return from their trip filthy dirty with their pockets stuffed with leaves and seeds. He was a sunny little boy. He bloomed. Gan Eden, they called it. The kibbutz was the garden of Eden.
I cannot say I was entirely blooming. It was difficult to make friends in a place where the default was always Hebrew. Kibbutzniks are shy of strangers. My Hebrew did not take off. Those three weeks at a time that my husband was gone were difficult for us. It was also painful to see the kibbutz fall into disrepair. It had been privatized years ago, meaning everyone had to work for their own wages, and people squabbled over petty things. I felt stuck in such a small community and had difficulty finding my place.
After a little less than a year on the kibbutz, we started to think about returning to the United States.
Our re-entry into American society was rocky. My son spoke Hebrew to everyone he saw, just as he had at the kibbutz, but with mixed results. It took us some time to find a community that felt like the one we had left. Luckily, we did. My son barely remembers those years.
Three years after we left, we returned for a visit. We had an infant daughter. Ethan was 5 years old now and understood Hebrew perfectly, but didn’t speak it much. We tried to jog his memory but those memories had vanished into photographs and the anecdotes we told him. Loss and memory live on in the body, however, and as we left the kibbutz after a week long vacation, my son turned in his car seat and peered out at his grandmother’s small apartment disappearing into the dark. He began to weep as I have never heard him, saying through his sobs: “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
But I did.