Saturday, June 18, 2011

I'm Home

I'm Home. Now, that's a title with a double entendre if I've ever heard one. Was my arrival in Israel reason for exclaiming "I'm home!"? Or was it my return to Zeke and Indianapolis that inspired me to breathe a sigh of relief and say "I'm home!"?

Two weeks ago I heartily joined in the applause when the plane touched down in Israel. I was so excited to be back that I pushed through the crowd exiting the plane to get out that much quicker. It was clear from the moment I exited the gate that the country had changed in the 15 years since I had last visited, 16 years since I had lived there. Ben Gurion Airport, once a dusty, third-world-kind of place where planes happened to take off from, was now an impressive gateway to a thriving country.

I took the train north to Nahariya, a 90-minute trip that allowed me to survey the country from the comfort of my seat. I was intrigued by the graffiti on our way into Tel Aviv that was scrawled in English. Gleaming high rises, too many to count, had mushroomed since I had last been in Tel Aviv. In fact, that mushrooming isn't reserved for Tel Aviv alone. It is everywhere. I saw new high rises in various stages of construction along the coast, on the rims of cities and on the outskirts of towns. No matter where I looked, orange cranes soared into the sky. The recession dominating the news and our lives in the United States seemed to be worlds away.

My first foray into Nahariya later that evening was not a pleasant one. I was eager to get out and explore the main street of this coastal town. I wanted to fall in love with the place. Instead, I felt threatened by the dark men hanging out on the street, shouting at one another in groups, sipping coffee in cafes and smoking in front of storefronts. I was afraid that if I stopped for too long, I would be approached by a sleazy guy in cheap clothes and false charm. So I kept moving. The storefronts are forever stuck in the 50s. The fashions are tawdry. Window displays look tired and dusty. Falaffel stands smell oily. Flies buzzing around the vegetables and birds pecking at the pita bread turned my stomach. How could I have ever called such an awful place home?

The next morning I arose with the sun and dashed out of the hotel for a run along the beach. The Mediterranean Sea is so magnificent and the early morning air is as fresh as one would want it to first. As I ran up the coast toward Lebanon, I encountered a whole range of odors. Yes, there was the salty smell of the sea. Pleasant wafts of a flowering bush of some sort punctuated the sea smell and then, on occasion, the putrid odor of sewage would overcome everything else.

If I kept my eyes peeled above the ground and in the direction of the sea, the view was breathtaking. If I looked at the beach to my left or the buildings to my right, I was reminded that not all of Israel is sparkly and new. The beaches are strewn with trash and dog feces. The lack of respect for nature and public spaces baffles me. So much beauty is spoiled by trash and unnecessarily so. There are trash cans along the beach every 20 feet. Nobody uses them.

To the right I found tangled up security fences and the kind of buildings I will always associate with Israel.

These buildings are boxy apartment complexes with shuttered windows festooned with lines of wash. The patchy stucco surfaces - darkened over time in some places and simply missing in others - are crisscrossed by loosely hung wires of all sorts. As unattractive as these buildings are, they are so familiar to me from every town I have visited in Israel. They all seem to have been thrown up in haste to house refugees and Zionists flooding the country 60 years ago.

The warm feelings for this country I once called home were slow in coming. The trickle began with that first breakfast after my run. The hotel had laid out a colorful spread of luscious tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, avocado slices (!!! who can afford avocados in such abundance?) feta and the infamous Israeli "white cheese," tangy labane, hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, olives and a variety of homemade breads and pastries. I love Israeli breakfasts! I ate everything and washed it all down with the ubiquitous cup of Nescafe with milk and sugar. It was food that began to melt away my apprehensions.

The warm feelings continued to spread because of the wonderful people I met through my colleagues at Partnership 2000. These meetings were my reason for being in Israel two days before the rest of the group of artists arrived for the artists' residency program. My new friends' exuberance for life in Israel is typical of what I have experienced with most Israelis. They love their country. Yes, Israelis argue and bicker incessantly about politics and even the most mundane of topics. To the uninitiated, it always sounds like they are shouting at one another and are generally pissed off. Israelis, in general, are passionate people. They love their country fiercely. They are proud of what they have built - which was very apparent as I was feted about the Indianapolis Partnership region of the Western Galilee - and they live life with gusto. The familiarity of Israeli-style passion was oddly comforting.

The warm feelings became secure for the rest of the trip and probably for my lifetime as my mind wrapped around the cadence of Hebrew. In short time I was understanding conversations. By the end of my first full day in Israel, I was speaking Hebrew again just as well - or as poorly - as I did 16 years ago. Despite everything I wrote above about the disappointments I first experienced, I understand in my heart why I can still call Israel home. With two passports in my name, I take pride and find comfort in having two emotional and spiritual homes.

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