How a childhood in Tel Aviv differs from one in Houston
My best friend, Rachel, is a top-notch endocrinologist at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. At her encouragement, in the midst of the war between Israel and Hezbollah, I went to see a trauma healer. The healer, Itai, works through talk, flower essences, and massage. His Tel Aviv office is fully booked, and he gave me an appointment only because he knows and likes Rachel. “I can tell how stressed you are,” Rachel said. “Itai will be great for you. He has a gift. He knows things about you that you don’t even know yourself.”
When Rachel first told me about the healer, I laughed him off. And I still wasn’t quite sure why I’d decided to see him now. But I had two good clues: I was barely sleeping at night and I had no appetite. Maybe seeing a healer was a way of admitting to myself that since the war broke out and my husband went to reserve duty, leaving me alone with our two young sons, life had become difficult.
I’d received many wonderful offers from family and friends in America to come spend time with them, but as tempting as a quiet American suburb was when compared to the threat of Hezbollah missiles, I didn’t budge. Ten years ago, after graduating from college, I made Israel my home. Though I now felt far from calm here, this was the place I wanted to be, and I couldn’t bring myself to leave. My biggest step since the war began was crossing Tel Aviv to see the healer.
At first, I was disappointed. Itai, a small, barefoot man with peach-colored hair, seemed nothing but irritated at me. “Your husband went to the army. You’re alone with your kids. These are not reasons to come to me,” he said. “This is not trauma.”
“Wait. Listen,” I said. “That’s just part of it. I have had real trauma.”
But then I got angry. The war was traumatic. And I was tired of hearing Israelis say, “there’s nothing to do about it. In war, there are deaths.” I had heard this stoic acceptance from the cashier in the supermarket, from the pharmacist, from my son’s camp counselor, and even from my husband. I couldn’t swallow it, or go along with the masses who called the war “just” and tolerated its consequences. I would willingly admit to being a kvetch, but I wasn’t whining. I just couldn’t stop myself from saying this time was difficult, scary, and most of all sad. Every hour I listened to the news on the radio and heard about the dead, the injured, the exploded missiles, the ones in flight. And I feared those still to come.
In the early days of the war, an electrician came to my apartment to fix a broken socket in the kitchen. When I mentioned I was afraid of being home alone with my sons during wartime, he said, “What’s the problem? If you hear a siren, stand in the middle of the building, away from the windows.” He said it as if he were saying “if you’re thirsty, drink some water.” And the electrician, like most of the people around me, wasn’t really worried about missiles falling on Tel Aviv. Itai, too, was among this majority. “Hezbollah won’t send missiles to Tel Aviv,” he said. “This is not something to worry about. Now tell me why you are here.”
My list of problems and anxieties was long. I decided to start with what I considered the general problem. “I have an imagination of disaster,” I said. “I always jump to the worst conclusions.”
“Why?” Itai asked.
“I’m sure it has something to do with my mom. She got sick when I was five, really sick.”
“Did she get better?”
Finally, I had said something Itai considered traumatic. “Just a minute,” he said. He turned to his computer and looked something up. “Five years old,” he said. “Five is the year when children become shy. You must know this. You are the mother of a five-year-old.”
My five-year-old, Tom, was anything but shy right now. Since my husband left for the army, Tom had been having tantrums, daily. At his summer camp, where a number of children from the north had come to escape the long days in bomb shelters, I saw boys throwing beach balls at each other and shouting “Katyusha,” a sight that made me think of my own childhood in Houston, where rockets were things we went to visit on school field trips to NASA. Tom could find Texas in his atlas, and at bedtime he liked to hear stories about my childhood. He knew all about my dog, George, who liked to swim in the bayou. He knew that my brother and I had a clubhouse in the backyard where no grown-ups were allowed. The stories I told Tom were nothing like the tales he was bringing home from summer camp.
Many of Tom’s stories, like the ones about Katyusha rockets falling in Eilat, and the war we were fighting with Egypt, were false. But the scariest stories, the ones about civilians getting killed in their homes on both sides of the border and the ones about Israeli soldiers dying, were true.
And Tom had seen his father put on a soldier’s uniform. I explained to him that Daddy was not going to Lebanon. He was being deployed in the West Bank which I called, with great irony, a safe place. I knew Tom couldn’t make sense of the geography. He was afraid, like any five-year-old whose father, out of the blue, put on an army uniform and disappeared, would be. And his fear was evident in his behavior. More than ever, he picked fights with his three-year-old brother, Guy. When Guy was playing, Tom took his toys. When Guy sat quietly watching TV, Tom put his feet on Guy’s head. One day when this happened, Guy leaped out of his bean bag. His eyes gleamed with revenge. He leaned over and bit Tom on the forearm. The parallels I drew between my sons’ fighting and Nasrallah and Olmert astounded me.
“He bit me,” Tom cried. “He started.”
“I didn’t start,” Guy screamed. “He started.”
I entered in my role as the UN. I strongly condemned both of their actions and told them, as I would have liked to tell Nasrallah and Olmert, “I don’t care who started. I want both of you to stop it, right now.” I told Tom to go to his bed and stay there. I told Guy to go to his bed and stay there. “If you can’t be nice, just stay away from each other,” I said.
“You keep to yourself, right,” Itai said. “You are shy?” He was absolutely right. I told myself he was an astute observer. My body language told him I was shy. I definitely had the signs of real, genuine trauma, he said. A part of me felt strangely pleased as I heard this. “You are shy because of your experience at age five,” he said. “In a way, you’re stuck there, just where you were when your mother got sick.” Itai said he could help me, but it would take time and a lot of work.
“Tell me something,” he said. “What about your own space? Do you feel a great need for your own space?” This was so accurate, I was almost too proud to admit it. “How do you know?” I asked. He smiled. “Your homework is to think about what having your own space means to you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just think about it,” Itai said.
Last year when my husband and I began plans for renovating the apartment we bought in Tel Aviv, I had only one architectural demand: “I want my own space,” I’d said. “It can be very small, but it has to be mine, only mine.”
What I settled for as my own space was a desk that measures 30 inches long. It’s stuck between a closet and a bathroom, and has enough room for a laptop and a book. There is even a corner for my cats to curl into.
I don’t know how Itai knew about this need of mine, but I do know I’m in the land of the prophets. As I do the homework Itai assigned to me, I write my life’s timeline in my mind—what happened at each age, and how one thing led to another. Each tiny vertical mark I make on the 33-year-long horizontal stretch brings me closer to understanding why I moved to Israel, why I want to raise my children here, and why despite all the bombings, all the reserve duty my husband does, and now this war, I’ve stayed here. Finally, the answer can’t be any clearer. A person needs her own space. So does a people.
A writer endeavors to learn exactly how ordinary people arrive at their systems of belief and disbelief