Wednesday, March 16, 2011


by Shirley Walton

My son made Aliyah in 2001. Ever since I have been coming to Israel twice a year -- mostly two months-plus at a time. The reasons I come here and stay for prolonged periods?

Reason Number One: I have three of the most beautiful grandchildren in the world who live here, and while they are young (and I’m not totally demented), I want to spend as much time as possible with them. My presence as Safta might even help them later in life, albeit in ways I’ll never know or appreciate. But it certainly helps me!

These beautiful Israeli grandchildren don’t help me to “stay young” -- a mistaken euphemism often bruited about. Their youth and energy exhausts me completely, each and every day. In fact, I feel 20 years younger when I’m not around them, or my two other young grandchildren in Portland, Oregon! No, it’s the love and questionable “wisdom” I’m able to share with them that is so fulfilling. I literally feed off of it; the love, warmth and sense of family quite simply fills my heart and soul.

Reason Number Two: The reason which equals in importance my three beautiful grandchildren is that I come to Israel because I love her -- every maddening, frustrating, confusing, glorious inch and moment of her.

As a person who majored in ancient history in college, I have always wanted Israel: to see her, to smell her, to imagine the eons of history marking the stones and hills; literally to inhale the long history of humanity that exudes from the air of Jerusalem, Masada, Gamla, the Galilee.

I will never forget the first time my son Simon and I drove up from Eilat to Jerusalem. We took a less-used road which actually cut through a part of the “West Bank”, into the hills surrounding the ancient city. As the trees began to appear, and the Negev turned into the rocky, cave-pocked hills, I could almost see the shepherds of ancient Israel wending their flocks toward the valleys, the hermits and recluses of old wandering through the stones.

With each visit I learned more and more about the curious and convoluted nation that is modern Israel. With each visit I think I know more and more; and then, usually with each visit, I’m suddenly brought up short with the realization I’ve only begun to learn the tiniest bit about the nation, the culture, the politics, the swirling, catalytic construct that is Israel.

Today I learned a tiny bit about how my son and I truly are of different cultures. He really is an Israeli today; I’m still just a visiting American tourist!

Some of the things -- political, social and cultural -- I’ve learned about Israel since I started coming are obvious: it’s a strange and wondrous mix of First World overlaying Third World underpinnings (i.e., the Weizman Scientific Institute in Rehovot sits less than 2 kilometers from a field of sheep with an aged Beduouin woman’s blue-fabric tent nestled near a market and across the street from an outdoor sports complex); a curious melange of Ashkanazi (European Jewry), Mizrahi (Middle Eastern, Sephardic Jewry) and Arab/Beduouin/Druze/Ethiopean/Yemeni food, tastes, styles and architecture, mixed with Bauhaus and Los Angeles/Los Vegas somewhere in there, too.

I visit the “canyon” (local mall) and watch the young women chattering by, looking for all the world as though they could get hired as extras on the set of a movie about a “cathouse.” They are busily proving that Israel is a nearly perfect model of consumerism, as shopping could easily be the national pasttime!

But my son made it clear to me today that I would be misjudging Israel and her people if I casually classified them as a nation of “mall rats” and shopaholics. He reminded me that every single one of these kids had or would enter national service at the age of 18, meaning they would serve in the IDF for two (women) or three (men) years, or perform the equivalent term in community service (except for Israeli Arabs who are exempt).

Those chattering, nattering, apparently empty-headed young women had carried an M16-A4 automatic assault rifle for two years; had “manned” checkpoints into a settlement; removed Israelis from Gaza in 2005; lost a friend in Lebanon (2006) or participated in Operation Cast Lead (2008).

In the States we are currently besieged with young people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome), yet the occurrence of PTSD in Israel is insignificant compared to the percentage per population occurring in the States.

Why do you suppose that is?

Israelis -- young and old -- have spent their lives under physical, cultural, social and political conditions which we Americans cannot possibly understand: a democracy surrounded by autocracies; judged by the rest of the world as genocidal and apartheid; a tiny nation which has won four major wars (or is it five, six, seven?), yet is expected to treat with her vanquished enemies as equals; an ancient nation which is only 63 years old; a nation of defenders in the guise of shopaholics; Beduouin tents abutting scientific institutes -- the Third World shoulder to shoulder with the First.

My son understands this; my son lives this and attempts to live his life in this swirling, confusing nation known as Israel with understanding and ethics.

I am still just an American tourist trying to let go of my tendencies to judge and, too often, misjudge.

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