Despite being a rabbi's daughter, I had never been to Israel before -- unless you count the fact that I was conceived on an Israeli kibbutz 40+ years ago. Barring that, it was my first visit to the Holy Land, to the homeland, to the place I am from no matter where I'm from.
How I never traveled to Israel, I'm not sure. I remember discussions about it when I was a tween and a teen. But the time never seemed right. And even the slightest amount of unrest over there set my mom into a tizzy over here.
Somehow, I never made it on a birthright trip either. To be honest, I had never even heard of such a thing until I was too old to be eligible. (Though I have no idea how that could be considering I was a Rabbi's kid.) Regardless, I was starting to wonder if I would ever go. Maybe it would be one of those things.
But this past fall I finally found myself boarding an El Al flight at JFK to make my way to Israel. Even boarding the plane was an experience. The flight attendant gently reminding me to be careful of the black hats which filled the overhead compartments. "They are very important and must not be smashed," a clipped voice reminded me as I tried to find a place for my bag.
I was glad that I knew they were more than a fashion accessory and was careful to find a hat-free location for my bag. It was as if I was already in another world on that flight with Kosher meals seemingly outnumbering the regular option two to one.
I began my visit with a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem and a stay at the chic Mamilla Hotel. It all seemed surreal as if I was still looking at photographs rather than actually seeing the real thing. All of my senses felt heightened, the smells stronger, the tastes more more grand.
As I approached the Western Wall, a tiny paper full of prayers in hand, I felt nervous. I actually felt nervous. I watched the other people around me. I was worried that I might not do something "right." I'm not an Orthodox, or even a Conservative, Jew. But I am still a Jew and felt as if all of this should somehow feel familiar, should somehow feel like home.
But, ironically perhaps, it wasn't in Jerusalem where I felt the most connected. It was in the desert. As I sat in a Bedouin camp drinking tea and eating hummus, I felt as if I had been there before and wondered if perhaps I belonged there once again.
I could almost imagine myself living in such simplicity. Would I miss the restaurants and the theater and my friends? Would I miss the crazy that has come to be my life?
While in the desert, I rode a camel and mountain biked through the rocks. I visited the gardens and wineries where the Negev is being coaxed into bloom by creative people who know there is more life in the land than can be seen by the naked eye.
I spent one night in luxury in the desert too, at the gorgeous Beresheet Hotel built right at the edge of the Ramon Crater. I marveled at the view, yet another astonishing side to the desert I never knew but that suddenly felt so familiar.
I also went to the top of Masada (which was as heartbreaking as I expected) and I floated in the Dead Sea (which was much colder than I expected) before I made my way to Tel Aviv, where a whole other side of Israel awaited me. Art museums and restaurants and Fashion Week and marvelously friendly locals.
But despite all of the historic sites and the dramatic views, despite all of the wonderful people and the sophisticated dining, it was the smaller things that will stay with me. The amazing falafel in the Muslim Quarter. The handmade halvah from the busy market. The massive graffiti murals. The people and the music and the traditions that started to feel more and more familiar the longer I was there.
On the El Al flight home I sat with an older, heavy-set, Israeli woman dressed all in black who spoke very little English and called herself only "the Rabbi's wife." I cheered with her when they found her husband a seat beside another man, as sitting near an unmarried woman was not allowed, and I helped her fill out her customs form as our descent to JFK finally began.
I rarely even speak to people on airplanes. But this woman instantly felt as if she was my Bubbe.
I'm sure if I had gone when I was younger I would have had a markedly different experience. Better or worse, I can't say. But different to be sure. It makes me wonder about when I will take or send my own daughter to Israel. Her father is not Jewish. But, by blood and according to Jewish law, she is.
We're not practicing, barring a menorah at Hanukah and matzo ball soup when the weather gets cold or someone in our household catches a cold. I would describe us as more spiritual than religious. Regardless, I am Jewish. We are Jewish. And I have always felt a connection to Israel.
Having finally made it there, I feel it even more so.
I doubt I'll ever run away to live with the Bedouins. My falafel will never taste like what I had there. And this Passover I didn't even make it to a sedar. But I am glad I finally made it home.
My dad is pretty happy about it too.
All photos by Cristina Goyanes.