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Another Kind of Israel Diary 1959-2004

The prop jet left Idlewild Airport in New York carrying my parents and me on our two-week visit. A precocious fifth grader, I had been given a travel diary, in which I dutifully recorded our itinerary. Today, hardly touched since, leather cover crumbling, it stands upon my bookshelf I open to the first entry: “Date: April 17, 1959. Place: Middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Weather: Fair. Today we started our trip to Isreal! [The 10-year-old’s misspelling is mine.]

“I couldn’t fall asleep tonight because of the plane’s noise and the light in many berths.” I didn’t set down all I recall; that my mother would not permit me turn to on my overhead light, insisting I try to sleep. Still, I ended the page: “Many stars are out tonight.”

That crossing took a painful 18 hours, but my first welcome to the Holy Land was striking nonetheless—-we walked into the warm night blanketed by the sweet scent of orange blossoms overpowering in the limpid air. It’s the closest I’ve come to paradise, before or since.

My mother’s brother awaited us behind the gate, a bouquet of wilted carnations in his hand. He and my mother had not seen each other for 12 years, when they separated in Europe after the war—she to travel to her new life in the United States, and he to set out for his in Palestine. Arriving in the brand-new state in 1948, he went straight into the navy to help fight the War of Independence.

That same night, through bleary-eyed from jet lag, a reception awaited us by landsmen from my father’s European town of Brest Litovsk, those lucky few who had left for Palestine before the apocalypse, which saw close to 100 percent of the town’s inhabitants shot to death in a forest in October 1942.

At long last we reached little Hotel Armon on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street, which the all in one concierge/reception clerk/breakfast waiter proudly told me meant “palace.”

Since then I have lost count of the times I have made that too-long journey across the globe. I traveled again at 17 to spend the summer working in the laboratory with my botanist uncle, and fell head-over-heels in love with the exuberant young country. Later, I flew there with beating heart to rejoin a boyfriend. And in my 20s I arrived with my Israeli husband-tobe to celebrate our marriage there. I’ve flown with a toddler beside me and a newborn infant on my lap, waiting a cramped eternity until they dropped off to sleep. I’ve traveled with my children of all ages, retrieving their crayons from between the seats, playing Old Maid, combing Barbies’ hair. I traveled on her last transatlantic journey with my aged mother in a wheel chair, helping to lower her into the seat. Total luxury seemed when I could become a passenger with nothing to worry about but my own boarding pass.

The captain announces descent, and I rummage under my seat to recover my shoes, anxious to be liberated from enforced immobility.

The Holy Land at first approach does not possess guidebook beauty—neither the terraces of Katmandu nor the emerald of Dublin nor the piercing towers of Manhattan. And yet I hold my breath, and crane my neck, and peer through the scratches on the double glass to glimpse the yellow coastline I have grown to know so well.

I half wonder if, after all, the Promised Land remains a future promise, a mythical place still in the realm of myth.

The white metropolis of Tel Aviv hurtles towards me—first the ancient port of Jaffa, then white beaches where I can make out tiny people running to the surf, then its old Bauhaus buildings I know from close up are peeling plaster, and finally its steel skyscrapers multiplying too fast. We circle over what remains of the glorious orchards, above highways snaking cars, above tract housing with identical red roofs, above industrial parks and shopping malls, above fields of sunflowers and cucumbers and watermelons, above rows of dusty cypress trees, above brown-baked earth awaiting new plantings.

Barely five minutes after first sight, landing. I’ve sometimes made the journey with a heavy soul, not sure if my decision to live in Israel was right for me. Other times I made it with elation. My feelings about the beleaguered country mirrored my feelings about myself: I embraced it like a sister, or rejected it as an albatross. Sometimes I cried with sorrow, sometimes with joy.

But every time I land to rejoin my prosaic life, there is always the spark of that old excitement. Luckier than Moses, I can glimpse from afar at the Promised Land—and then enter it. What I do there, and if I make it worth the trip, is up to me. I stand by my childhood words: Many stars are out tonight.

Helen Schary Motro teaches at Tel Aviv University Law School. Her book, Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada, is due to be published in New York by Other Books in spring 2005.