A Fortress Called Home
After sixty years of Israel’s statehood, shouldn’t Jews feel safe there?
As a child in Houston, safe within the miniature shtetl of my grandparents’ bayou-side home, I never felt my life was in danger because I was Jewish. I felt comfortable as a Jewish Texan and could easily have waved a Texas flag which bore a Star of David instead of the Lone Star. But more than ten years ago, by the time I decided to move to Israel, I knew Jewish had trumped Texan. Now I’m the mother of two Israeli-born sons, Tom and Guy, and I’m astounded, because last month during Pesach they cornered me and asked me if I’m really Jewish. “But you don’t know anything,” Tom told me after the Seder. “You just make up the words to the songs.” Then Guy added, “And you never went to the army. And you don’t even know how old Israel is going to be.”
“Sixty,” I said.
“No,” Guy said. “Fifty-ten. After fifty-nine comes fifty-ten.”
On Israel’s fifty-tenth birthday, from the window of our Tel Aviv apartment, the boys and I watched the Israeli Air Force flex its muscles with a celebratory air show. Tom and Guy saw a few planes swooping over the Mediterranean and then went back to something more interesting—their Sony PlayStation. I’d been curious to see Tom’s reaction to Independence Day, since the message he’d brought home from school after two months of back-to-back holiday studies had surprised me. After learning about Purim, Passover, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Memorial Day, this is what Tom said: “Everybody wants to kill us. Haman, Pharaoh, Hitler, Arabs. Everybody wants to kill us.”
I can’t tell Tom he’s wrong. I do make up the words to songs in Hebrew (and in English). And I can’t lie to him and tell him that no one wants to kill Jews, nor do I want to diminish the suffering of our ancestors. But I had the notion that living in Israel I’d be passing on Jewish history and tradition to my children without the paranoia and fear my grandparents so expertly passed on to me.
My grandmother, Bashy, a Lithuanian immigrant, told me gentiles were dangerous, which meant I had to be suspicious of nearly everyone in Houston. But at Bashy’s house, I felt safe, not just because she had a number of locks on the front door, but because her father Rocky (my great-grandfather) lived there too. Rocky was 5 feet tall, over one hundred years old, had no teeth, and no larynx, but I thought he was the fiercest man in the world. He had blue eyes, white hair, and long ears with soft, paper-thin earlobes that I loved to touch. He was always awake before me in the mornings, and in the afternoons when he seemed to be napping in his lawn chair outside the house, I knew he wasn’t really asleep. I’d seen him jump up in a split second, raise his chair over his head as a weapon and go after a trespasser. In the early 1980s, with Rocky and Bashy on high alert in our middle-class Houston neighborhood, I never worried for a minute that we’d fall victim to a pogrom.
After Rocky’s death, Bashy no longer had to cook and grind food for her toothless father, so she had more free time for me and for hysteria. Each evening when mosquitoes began to swarm at the screen door and the day changed from unbearably-hot-and-muggy to dark-unbearably-hot-and-muggy, Bashy closed her windows. She drew her living-room curtains tight so the roaming non-Jewish criminal she feared (who had blood dripping from his head) would not see us—or worse, smell Bashy’s cooking—and try to come in and steal our food. She kept her valuable jewelry in a safety deposit box in the bank, and we made regular trips there to check on it. Since she was under constant (though imaginary) threat, Bashy hid things around the house too, and nothing was where you’d expect it to be. Her stockings were under the cushion of a pea-green leather chair. Her glass jam-making jars were in the hallway closet beside her shoes. Inside the shoes themselves she hid cash, and silver forks and spoons. And then one day I found that she’d hidden an arsenal of guns beneath flowered bed sheets.
The guns did not belong to Bashy. A fire had destroyed the home of my gun-collecting Texan cousins. They’d managed to rescue their valuable weaponry from the burning house and needed to store it all while they searched for a new residence. Bashy never said no to family, so the guns ended up in the room that had been Rocky’s.
I spent a lot of hours peeking at the guns under the flowered sheets. Looking back with an adult’s perspective, I know those guns should never have been within my reach. But Bashy couldn’t think about them since something much more worrisome was going on. My father had unwittingly turned her kitchen into a deathtrap when he bought her a microwave oven which she was sure could explode spontaneously. Bashy made me terrified of the microwave too, so I avoided it. The guns, I knew, were harmless as long as I didn’t pull a trigger.
Bashy had gotten rid of Rocky’s bed and painted the walls of his former room pink, but the room still contained remnants of him, like a stack of old siddurim and the blue bag that held his tefillin. Beside them lay the guns: tiny guns, guns with long nozzles, guns in zippered cases, brown guns and silver guns. Though I was nervous, sometimes I touched them. What I learned quickly was that thirty guns at my fingertips didn’t make me feel nearly as safe as I had when Rocky occupied the room—a sure sign that my heart wasn’t in Texas. I finished high school, went straight to Israel, and fell in love with a blue-eyed Israeli soldier whose strength (along with the two guns he carried) made me feel very safe indeed.
I married the soldier, and bore Israeli sons only to find out that, ironically, Tom feels more threatened as a Jew in Israel than I did in Houston. It’s true that Tom and Guy’s muscular, former paratrooper father can’t provide protection like a voiceless centenarian with an aluminum lawn chair. And even worse, Bashy’s foolproof weapon for subduing goyim—a bottle of whiskey—is useless against non-drinking Hamas. But I’d hoped that in Israel, being Jewish would be part of my sons’ identities without being an issue. I had also hoped they would be at least twelve before they began to think that I don’t know anything. Since it’s started early, I can only be grateful that while my tendency to say things that sound like Hebrew words may embarrass them, and that they may have occasional dramatic revelations that the world is against us, they forget about both quickly, as is often the case with kids. Tom segued in seconds from “everyone wants to kill us” to kicking a soccer ball against the wall and shouting “Goal!” But I’m still thinking about what he said, because it hits me at my core, and makes me think this: Israel is my grandparents’ house, a tiny defensive spot amid a world of others, so it’s no wonder I feel comfortable here. But for Tom and Guy I don’t want them to think they’re in Israel because the rest of the world hates them. Sixty years into statehood Israel should not be their sanctuary or fortress. It should just be home.