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Seven Days, Five Years

A week visiting my family in Israel

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“Israelis never accepted the birds as force majeure,” my Uncle Noam was telling me. “That’s the difference between the two countries. Obviously, when you’re dealing with birds and planes, there’s going to be some interference. But Israel has got one of the largest migratory bird patterns in the world—scratch that, we’ve got the largest. Half a billion birds fly through Israeli airspace yearly, there’s no way we could accept that as force majeure. We’re talking whole days of training wiped out because some bird gets caught in the engine. The pilot won’t be in any real danger because these planes have got more than one engine, but we’re talking millions of dollars here. So, we did what Israelis do. We didn’t look at it like force majeure. We looked it at like a problem with a solution. Now, what do birds fly with?”

“Thermals,” I guessed. It was five in the morning, the dawn’s pink light just creeping onto the hills near Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. I had landed half an hour earlier, and Noam had been there to pick me up and take me to my grandmother in Jerusalem. The vast majority of my family lives in Israel: My dad’s two brothers moved there in the late 1980s, and my paternal grandparents followed shortly. My mom’s an only child, and my dad’s two brothers, Noam and Yosef (all changed names), were fruitful and multiplied. Four kids for Noam, five for Yosef, and by October 2013 most of those kids had their own kids. With the scales weighted so heavily, trips to Israel had been part of the summer schedule since birth. My mom had always joked that going to Israel for us was like going to Cleveland, with what should have been a deeply spiritual journey actually a checklist of faces and names and updated files. Less-than-cool international vacations are hardly a real problem, although I once faked being scared of terrorism in an attempt to get out of it. Didn’t work.

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“Thermals, that’s right. So, we started to monitor the patterns of the thermals. You can use a Doppler radar—one of those big, golfball things, I’ll show you one when we pass it—to bounce light off the dust particles in a thermal, measure their speed. And once you detect speed, you can detect a pattern. And from there, you can just schedule flights around those patterns. We reduced the number of bird deaths by the thousands, eventually gave it over to the States. They call it BASH, or something like that.” This was the most interesting story Noam had ever told me, by which I mean to say I’ve always seen him as a sabra at the stereotype’s fullest—someone who had embraced the Israeli concept of toughness in its totality since he had moved there. A glad-handing ex-Top Gunner who mostly communicated via puns, catchphrases, and name-dropping, he was showing here a side of him I had never seen before: the focused problem-solver, moving in that most Air Force way—onward, onward toward the solution. Plus, he had picked me up from the airport at 4:30 a.m., the family’s workhorse.

The bird problems couldn’t last the whole car ride, so Noam started asking me about my writing career, specifically if I was interested in writing any stories about Israel’s status as “Start-Up Nation,” a phrase taken from a 2009 book about how Israel’s mandatory military service improves its high-tech sector. He wanted me to meet his friends at the big American companies. I ignored him, taking in the Israeli terrain. The trip between Ben Gurion and Jerusalem is only about 45 minutes, yet it is filled with grand plains, a hilly forest, and mid-size cities like Lod and Modi’in (74,000 counts as mid-size in a country of 8 million). You practically burst out of the airport into Tel Aviv, which always filled my father with such joy. More than anything, when we’d leave the airport as a family he’d always look for construction sites, especially cranes. He’d always point them out to me as proof that Israel would still be there when I grew up—a permanent homeland, or at least a permanent home away from home.

It hadn’t worked out that way. I went through all the standard Zionist training that any mainstream religious Jewish-American kid goes through: Israeli Army days at school (where the joke was that more kids knew the words to the Israeli national anthem than the American one); United Synagogue Youth after-school programs, including USY Pilgrimage; a summer tour of Israel and Spain, but despite my best efforts none of it stuck. Maybe it was my Asperger’s that kept me from getting a fully internalized sense of nationalism, maybe it was due to feeling occasionally suffocated: Once in high school, an abrasive rabbi broke up a meeting of the Save Darfur club, demanding we put our efforts on hold to help Israel instead. I eventually drifted toward a sort of agnosticism about the place, taking odd comfort in German Jews of the 1920s like Walter Rathenau who had declared the Diaspora their homeland. It hadn’t worked out so great for them, but still! I settled on a sort of liberal Zionism, which I would define as sending my parents a stern email after the raid on the Mavi Marmara. Beyond those occasional arguments, I treated Israel as force majeure, a force of nature to which I had no relation.

Yet there I was, in the passenger seat of a car taking the Golda Meir Boulevard exit off of Route 1, merging soon enough with the Menachem Begin Expressway, the main highway into Jerusalem (the “Golda merging into Begin” joke is one my grandmother delighted in telling me). The ride had been punctuated with phone calls from a few family members, like my parents back in the States, and confirmations that I had landed fine, etc. My grandmother called to let us know not to come so early, she still needed some sleep. So, Noam and I set off for breakfast. He picked a spot near the Montefiore Windmill. The Windmill, if you haven’t seen it, is a good indication of just how weird Jerusalem is. In the 1800s, British banker Moses Montefiore was Jewish Jerusalem’s biggest civic booster and in the spirit of modern philanthropy gave the people of the city an absolutely useless gift that they did not want or need. Meant to be a flour mill, Wikipedia notes, the mill was not a success—“due to the lack of wind.”

Yet it persisted, like everything in Israel persists. The British blew up the Montefiore Windmill in 1948; some Dutch millwrights got it working again in 2012. It’s built out of the same white, coarsely crystalline limestone that they use for everything in Jerusalem. They call it Jerusalem stone. Coming from the States, I find such uniformity jarring. As we ate, I got pitched, yet again, on Israel. Noam would constantly tell me about how much various groups of people owed Israel. This time it was the Bedouins. Israel had built them cities—you’d think that was a misnomer but Israel had found a solution for the nomadic Bedouin, cities that would save their lives. He was referring to the controversial Prawer-Begin Plan, which the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights said would “[decimate the Bedouin people’s] traditional cultural and social life in the name of development.” And did they thank them? No, of course not. But that was the marvel of Israel: Anyone could go to the Supreme Court and complain. The rule of law, he said, made Israel different. The Prawer-Begin Plan would fall apart the next month. He was heavily quoting from Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel at this point.

He then took me to a few vantage points to imagine the ’67 War. We walked into a random Haredi synagogue during morning prayers and stood on its balcony. There was a certain empowering feeling to being able to barge into a room full of praying people and just look out from a balcony without asking. The paratroopers, Noam told me, used where we were standing as a launching site. From there, without any outside communication and in the dead of night, they were able to move past the Green Line and secure the surrounding hills, uniting Jerusalem. A few of them got lost in the darkness, even for days, but they all found their way eventually.


We were very lucky to have gotten Grandma a spot in Gan Horim (not its real name). I was told this many times over the course of the trip. The first option had been to get her a foreign care worker, a Herculean task in Israel today. In 2011 an amendment to the Israel Entry Act bound caregivers to specific geographic locations, thus greatly increasing the difficulty of finding a new one in any given area. (It hasn’t been so great for the caregivers either, one of whom told The Jerusalem Post that the point of the law was “to make every worker like a slave and we do not like it at all.”) Add to that the government’s tightfisted approach to doling out assistance for hiring a caregiver, and it was clear that that wasn’t going to work out. We had gotten Grandma a place in one of Jerusalem’s best retirement homes only because she had been looking into it for some time before she approached the rest of the family with her idea to move there, and she had known someone who had known someone.

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Seven Days, Five Years

A week visiting my family in Israel