When I was 14, my father got sick and died. It was a sad time and my dad really suffered for the entire year that he was ill. My family walked on eggs that year trying to avoid unpleasantries and side-stepping the terrible reality of illness and death. Of course pretending that things are fine when they’re not rarely works. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t wait to get out of my house.
A month after his death, when I was in 10th grade, there was a school assembly. The speaker was a 12th grader who had spent the previous year as a foreign exchange student. He was sent to Iceland and managed to learn Icelandic fluently, and he spoke about seeing and doing lots of interesting things and eating lots of fish. Always filled with a sense of adventure, I was all ears (except for the fish part). When I came home that afternoon, I told my mom, “I know what I want to do next year! I want to become a foreign exchange student!”
Looking back, it was an incredibly insensitive thing to say to my mom, because it meant she’d be left all alone in her grief. But my mom felt it would be good for me to get out of our very sad house, and she was receptive to the idea. There was one condition, though: I couldn’t go through the foreign exchange program the student in my school had participated in, because the students didn’t have any say as to what country they’d be sent to, and my mother didn’t want me going just anywhere. “You can do this on one condition,” she said. “You can go if it’s Israel.” (I’m in awe of her sacrifice and selflessness. Unfortunately I could not appreciate it then.)
I think that we were both surprised by this utterance. Other than collecting sheets of dimes every week at Sunday School for the Jewish National Fund, which used these donations for buying trees for planting in Israel, neither my mother nor I had any connection to Israel. The only Hebrew we spoke was the blessing over wine and challah. We had never been to Israel and had no plans to go. “At least I know you’ll be well taken care of in Israel,” my mother reasoned. “It’s the Land of Jewish Mothers.”
Truthfully, Israel meant nothing to me. For me it was about the adventure. It could have been Tasmania, Japan or Timbuktu and I would have been equally excited.
And so we parted tearfully a few months later at LAX, and I flew by myself to Israel, where I’d attend a public high school in Haifa, and live with an adoptive Israeli family.
Practically from the first moment, despite my lack of language skills, I was enamored of Israel. It was like my soul knew it was home. The kids in my class accepted me as part of the gang. Our class of 11th graders was very close and we spent every spare moment together as a group, both in school and out. After several months of sitting like a catatonic dummy in school, I woke up one morning speaking fluent Hebrew. The family I lived with was great. I was outspoken and highly opinionated (some things never change!) and not afraid to disagree with their love of Nixon (“the best friend Israel ever had,” according to the head of that household – – and this was during Watergate!), and be frustrated by their anal-retentive obsession with order (they were of good German Jewish stock, and it was a cultural thing; my inherent go-with-the-flow spontaneity and inherent messiness aggravated them to no end). But somehow we made it work and I became very close with my younger “sister” who was only a year younger than me.
It was the best year of my teenaged life. I knew that someday, somehow, I would be back in Israel – – permanently.
But life happens. Although I always dreamed of Israel, I managed to lose touch with my adoptive family. About five or six years later before correspondence ceased entirely I heard that my younger “sister” was engaged. I remember her writing that she was upset with her future husband’s last name, that it sounded like “giraffe.” After that we lost touch completely.
Over the years I tried doing searches on the Internet to locate her, but was not successful. But now that we’ve been in Israel for a month, I suddenly had an urge to try to reach her. It’s been 45 years, and her parents were not young even back then, so I assumed they were no longer living. How to remember my “younger sister’s” married name?
Suddenly, deep from my subconscious, I remembered that snippet about her not liking her married name because it sounded like the Hebrew word for giraffe. So I wrote out the word in Hebrew, and then started changing some of the letters. When I came up with names that sounded like they could be Hebrew last names, I started doing searches on Facebook. And suddenly, there she was! I recognized her immediately.
But here’s the amazing part. She no longer lived in Haifa – – she lives in a small village in the Galilee that is only 3 miles from me! I mean, what are the chances?
She didn’t respond to my Facebook message and the phone number I got online was disconnected. There was only one way to resolve it: I would knock on her door.
I drove the 5 minutes to her village, and stopped the first person I saw to ask for directions to her house. I figured that because it was a small place, everyone knows everyone else, and I was right. I walked to her house and knocked on the door with a great sense of anticipation. When she answered the door she looked at me haltingly and inquisitively for a long time. I did not say anything. But ultimately she did not recognize me.
When I identified myself, she threw me into a long, hard embrace and wouldn’t let me go. She introduced me to her husband and showed me pictures of her family. Her older sister lives a few streets away and so we started walking to her sister’s house, too.
“This is so weird,” she said between hugs. “After so many years . . . just two days ago I mentioned your name to my sister and we wondered what became of you!”
It was clearly Divine Providence. We were meant to find one another at this particular time.
“There is something you should know,” she said. “My sister’s son was killed in combat in the Second Lebanon War 11 years ago. He was 24.” I was devastated to hear this. The family had worked hard to ensure their son, brother, nephew and cousin would never be forgotten. They built a magnificent amphitheatre in his name, where community events, concerts, and even weddings take place. They have lined a pathway with sculptures and mementos that personify aspects of his short but incredible life. And the village boys’ basketball team is named for him – – his father never misses attending a game.
As we sat in the older sister’s home, reliving the past, I was overcome with emotion. Forty-five years! We laughed and cried together, and hugged many times. Although as adults we remain very different people in terms of our lifestyles, religious observance, political affiliations, etc – – the things that unite us override the things that divide us.
As it says in Psalm 133, “Hineh ma tov umana’im – shevet achim gam yachad.” How good and how pleasant it is for brothers (and sisters) to sit together!