It came up early in our relationship, my wife Jordana’s (Jo’s) unabashed love of Israel. It’s not that I didn’t like Israel, or have an appreciation for her history, tradition and culture. After all, as a Jew, mine and Israel’s story are intrinsically linked together, tethered like the threads of a bed sheet. If pulled too far apart, I would lose the fabric of my family, the bonds of religion and the sense of shared community that dates back centuries. That said, my love and appreciation of Israel didn’t always come so easily. I visited Israel growing up, and even spent time there studying abroad during a gap year before college. But, I don’t feel it in my bones like Jo does. Or, at least I didn’t used to.
“To fully understand me, you need to understand my love of Israel,” she said matter-of-factly, on our second date.
It seemed a little early to talk about a topic so deeply personal, but that was just how our relationship was naturally developing. I tried to sweep the topic away by agreeing lightly, but she saw right through me.
“Yea, Israel’s dope,” I noted, wisely, before gulping down some wine.
She waited, as though I was going to follow up, but that was all I could muster.
“Is that all?”
“Well…”, I started hesitantly, “I like Israel, too. I’m just not sure I…love Israel.”
And just like that, the mood had soured. I tried quickly to change subjects. Maybe she wanted some blueberry bombs like we downed the week before? No dice. I hope I didn’t just screw this up, I thought, knowing full well it was entirely possible. Clearly, Jordana was in a slightly different place in her life. Having dated most of Upper Manhattan by that point, she knew exactly what she wanted. More importantly, what she didn’t. I would have to think quick.
“I could be…convinced,” as though it was something learned like a new skill, or an old practice I could pick back up.
“Tell me about the first time you fell in love with Israel,” I offered.
“It was during a High School trip. I discovered more about myself during my time in Israel than I did during all of high school combined. I knew then and there Israel was going to a be huge part of my life.”
“Maybe I never had that exact experience. But, if we go there together, it might be different.”
“You’ll go with me?”
“Betach!”, I blurted with self-satisfaction. It means of course in Hebrew, and despite many years of Jewish, private school education, one of the roughly 25 words I know.
Even after all the late-night conversations, I hadn’t realized the full extent of Jo’s love of Israel until the Gaza War broke out the summer of 2014. We were in the middle of watching Netflix on her couch when I first heard the alarm blaring from her phone.
“What the hell is that?” I yelled, startled.
“Oh no,” she muttered under her breath, visually upset. “There’s another rocket going off in Israel.”
“Wow, sorry,” I offered meekly. “That sucks,” I said, hopelessly.
It was an undeniable act of empathy; Jordana momentarily putting herself in the shoes of Israeli citizens six thousand miles away, doing her best to offer thoughts and prayers during a tumultuous time of need. Sometimes, I secretly hoped she would just get Google Alerts instead of the alarm, which served as a constant conversation stopper (and starter) every day for twelve weeks straight. But, I couldn’t help better appreciate who she was, and felt ever closer to Jo over that summer. Her concern was contagious, exacerbated by the fact that she had a lot of close family in Israel in harm’s way. Thankfully, despite many casualties on both sides, no one we knew was injured or killed. While it’s sometimes hard to remember specific details about our first summer together, Jordana’s dedication to Israel, and ache for the land is something I will always remember.
From that moment on, Jordana planted the seed for my giving Israel another chance, looking at it through a different lens than I had previously. Still, there were so many countries I wanted to go I had never been, prior to doubling (and tripling) back on places I’ve been before. As our relationship progressed, we were lucky to travel across the globe together on a few separate occasions, always chasing something unfamiliar, a singular experience uniquely different from the world we grew up in. But, Jordana was always quick to remind me about her adoration of Israel, and how she grew up going there at least once a year. Intellectually, she understood that everyone experiences Israel differently, and that I may not feel the same way she did. But, emotionally, she still tried to exert her influence, transfuse her spirituality into my bloodstream. After a few years (and several thousand pleas later), I finally caved, and committed to making the next trip, during the summer of 2016, our first pilgrimage to the Holy Land together.
Given our social circle, and how many of our friends had been to Israel several times over, it was the perfect trip to crowd source. Not only had most traveled there before, everyone had both an emotional connection to the land and thought that only he or she knew how to do it right. Or, more accurately, how to do it like the locals do. The perfect shawarma laffa at a little hole in the wall off a side street in Jerusalem, the all-night Tel Aviv club that plays deep house and serves breakfast at 6am. But, the beauty of Israel, I would soon learn, is there is no one way to experience her. There’s a seat for every tachat.