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Childhood Memories of a Year in Israel, Followed by a Lifetime in Exile

Right after Tisha B’Av in 1979, my family left Israel—and splintered into pieces. Despite my hopes, I never made it back.

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(Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)
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There are men who leave you for another woman, and there are men who leave you for a man. Then there are those who dump you for God.

The summer of 1978, my family left Pennsylvania and made aliyah. Our stay would last just one year. It might have been the worst year of my parents’ lives. But from my perspective, that year was idyllic, the last time when I lived a life untempered by worry or care.

In the merkaz klita—absorption center for new immigrants—in Ramat Aviv, my twin sister and I, age 3, roamed the hallways and courtyards in a pack with a half-dozen kids, all of us bedecked with Tembel hats and sandalim. Together, we tried out Hebrew phrases, ate leben for breakfast and chocolate-spread sandwiches at 10 a.m. We visited the South Africans with the pet turtle and clustered in the rec room to watch old episodes of Star Trek in the evening.

When we left the absorption center after several months, our family headed to a flat in Haifa, high in the hills. After my parents unpacked our boxes, we romped on our old, familiar leather couch and rocked in the rocking chair that we’d last seen in Pennsylvania. My sister and I enrolled in school and began to pick up Hebrew in earnest. We bought our first pets—two goldfish—from an Arab-owned store and made friends with the son of one of my father’s co-workers. My sister and I gleefully rode our tricycles on the patio and admired the view, which included a wide swath of the city below. In warm weather, the gardener would let us put on bathing suits and splash under the hose as he watered the terraced lawn.

My mother’s parents visited, laden with gifts from the United States. Grandpa bargained in Druze villages, trading pocket calculators and digital watches for sundresses, tablecloths, and jewelry. Grandma made us tea parties. Our guests included Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Superman, Batman, and my father, freshly arrived from work. My father’s aunt and uncle—who were Baha’i—visited as well. They took us to Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens, where my sister and I struggled to climb all the steps with our short legs and played peek-a-boo among the palm trees.

One day, our father appeared with a bright yellow Citroën. Owning a car seemed like a sign that we had settled in Israel for good. But not long after this, our parents told us that they planned to separate and divorce.

Then my father added, “And we’re leaving Israel.”

Returning to the United States was their only option, as Israel had (and continues to have) no secular divorce available, and they had married in front of a justice of the peace prior to their Jewish wedding. Mommy, my sister, and I boarded a flight to the United States. Daddy stayed behind, promising to follow us after selling off our belongings and wrapping up a project at work.

Just a few days after Tisha B’Av in 1979, my idyll had come to an end, and I began my life of exile.

***

Tisha B’Av marks the conclusion of the Three Weeks, the saddest season of the Jewish calendar, a time when rabbis prohibit celebrating weddings, receiving haircuts, listening to live music, and other public expressions of joy. Book-ended by two fasts— the 17th of Tammuz (June 25 this year) and Tisha B’Av (July 16 this year)—this period commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as many other historic tragedies. The theme of exile permeates the Three Weeks, a time to mourn the loss of the Temple and renew our desire for its return.

But there’s still one place where we can commune with the divine much as we did in the Temple: the mikdash me’at, the “Temple in miniature” that is synonymous with the Jewish home. Not just any Jewish home—a Jewish home that contains a husband and wife who live in peace, love, and accord. In such a home, G-d’s presence, known as the Shechinah, dwells. Through such a home, rabbis tell us, blessing flows into the world.

In my personal exile in 1979, I lost both the land of Israel and my mikdash me’at in one fell swoop.

After I returned to the United States with my mother and my sister, my father disappeared. When he finally showed up months later, he was dressed head-to-toe in shades of red, orange, and mulberry and had draped a wooden-bead necklace around his neck from which dangled a framed picture of his guru. Daddy had become a follower of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh after sitting beside a devotee on a bus in Jerusalem after the rest of us had left. He now called himself by a Hindi name and eschewed all evidence of his formerly Jewish life. Who was this strange man with Daddy’s face? His appearance and demeanor belonged to someone else, not a person we knew and loved.

The amicable divorce my parents had planned back in Israel transformed into a big, ugly mess. Their custody battle dragged out for years. Not long after our last, monthlong visit with him in 1982, my father left the country again, this time for Europe. I have not seen him since.

As I grew up, I romanticized my time in Israel. My parents’ contentious divorce, the unshakable feeling that I didn’t belong in my American public school, years of financial hardship in a single-parent household—all these woes occurred after I left the country. I desperately wanted to go back. I told people I was a Zionist; though what I really believed in was that returning to Israel would fix everything that had gone wrong in my life.

As my sister and I approached the summer before senior year of high school, an opportunity presented itself: Our youth group traveled to Israel every summer with teens aged 16 to 18. But leafing through the pamphlets and itineraries (Catch mincha at the Kotel! Hike to Masada! Fire a gun in boot camp! Snorkel in Eilat and ride a camel, all in one day!), an uncomfortable feeling settled on me.

“What’s wrong?” my sister asked.

“It’s so … touristy.” I didn’t want to hop from one place to the next. I wanted to see Israel as its residents did.

My sister secured a scholarship, renewed her passport, and left. Hemming and hawing, I missed the deadline and stayed home.

College came and went. Then graduate school. My advisers would have applauded a trip to Mali or Senegal, or anywhere exotic enough to merit anthropological fieldwork, but not to Israel, which they saw as too Western.

Struggling with a pile of student-loan debt after completing my Master’s degree, I worked full-time trying to dig myself out. I couldn’t afford to take a vacation within the United States, let alone one to an overseas destination. Taglit-Birthright appeared too late for me: By the time the organization sent its first cohort to Israel, I was nearly 25 years old and celebrating my engagement to my husband.

Of course, we didn’t need an organized tour to go to Israel. Before we decided to marry, my now-husband asked, “Would you be willing to make aliyah?” He hadn’t been to Israel since the summer he turned 13, but as the child of an Israeli, he was technically a citizen. Until this point, financial stresses had prevented him from returning, much as they had for me.

“Sure,” I replied. “But I want to find out more before making any commitments.”

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Childhood Memories of a Year in Israel, Followed by a Lifetime in Exile

Right after Tisha B’Av in 1979, my family left Israel—and splintered into pieces. Despite my hopes, I never made it back.