Monday, February 28, 2011

Hitting Home

Ever since I've booked our trip to Israel last week, I was thinking about what it exactly means  when my heart is in two worlds. In June 2011, it will almost be 4 years since we've seen our families. Part of the reason why we've stayed away so long had to do with money, but a big part has to with professionally thriving in an environment, which is why we've opted to live in the States.

With that sacrifice though, comes a lot of loss. Loss of not feeling connected to the people or environment,  and even with the simple things like walking along a river. (see below)

As a bilingual speaker and one who has lived in Israel for almost 18 years, I continue to straddle two countries, two languages, two histories, two mentalities and two cultures.

If you had asked me in 2007, 2008 or 2009 about my struggle, I would have told you that I was "homesick" for Israel, particularly for reexperiencing certain things that have brought me closer to home. For all you bilingual speakers out there, who feel like me, realize that the "homesick" part emerges when you are struggling to find home. And as the well-known quote goes: "Home is where they understand you."

Pittsburgh, for us, doesn't mimick the Israeli landscape and lifestyle which is why it was so difficult to find "home" in the very beginning.

In the very beginning, I tried to "hit" home by listening to Israeli songs, reading Israeli newspapers, speaking Hebrew whenever I got a chance. But now, it's become a committment for us to speak Hebrew ALL the time with my son. Then I don't feel so "buffetted" by the wind of "homesickness." I guess that means in socio terms, I'm not so much an "immigrant" anymore.

Natalie Portman, 2011 academy award winner has said in interviews that when she is in Israel, she feels "American" and when she is in the States, she feels "Israeli" - I think that would apply to me now, but if you had asked me in 2007, I would say it the other way around.

It's obvious, there is a world outside my window that is "bathed" in English, affected by US temperature, erratic snow and rainfalls, 5 day workweeks, and lonely and busy professional lifes.

But yet, I am always comforted whenI think of...

The Ami Promenade alongside the Jordan River

My love for this place started in the year 2000. I had just broken up with a long-term boyfriend and moved from Kibbutz Ein-Gev to Kibbutz Naot Mordechay. (The Naot "Teva" shoes are made at this factory.) To help me deal with my pain of the breakup, I had spent long walks trekking through the fields up to the Ami Promenade alongside the Jordan River.

When I moved to my final kibbutz Sde Nehemiya, I was plesantly surprised to not trek through a field to get to a promenade. I would sometimes bike from the promenade down the 5 kilometer or so hike to the nearby town of Kiriyat Shmona.

Since this is a work in progress, I will continue to add to this post, which as I see it, resembles a collage, a quilt of memories so to speak, feeings and stories.

Saturday, February 26, 2011



This is where I played ball in the inner courtyard, called out to my mom hoping that she would hear my plea to throw down some more tennis balls so I could continue to play tennis in the outer courtyard. (second photo)

But she was busy. So busy. Practicing the same measures of Chopin mazurkas she thought, would make her a star. She thought she would get a break living at the artist "ghetto" known as "Westbeth" where I grew up in Greenwich Village, NYC in the 70's and 80's. Where prostitutes, transvestites and drug addicts would filter and flirt along the West Side Highway and share their wares. They floated against the orange red sunset alongside the highway and I had already learned how to develop an immunity to them.

Riding on my banana seat bike alongside pier 41 would help while listening to Duran Duran's "New Moon on Monday" on my walkman. Because of course, the New Moon is a "lonely satellite," DD's lyrics make A LOT more sense now than they did when I was a bopper. But the rhythm and chords so profoundly moved me, and I was stirred by my course of travel. And Mom didn't know where I was. She never did. And it was alright.

Tough NYC in 1982 taught me how to be a free bird.
Mom taught me there is no way - I have to take care of my emotional sense.
Westbeth nurtured the artist in me.
And I ...ran with the passion.

When I played hide and seek in the creepy stairwells that reeked of urine, and saw weird shapes of people holding strange things at the far end of the hallway, I ran to music for comfort. The mazurkas would still be there like a hot meal on a table. There were many things about the place that I didn't want to understand but tried to.

I had my first kiss with my first "boyfriend," Ben on the third floor roof in 1982. When I passed my father's studio, I wanted to tell Ben that this was my father's space. A special place. He walked with red bandanas hanging out of his pocket and to a twelve year old, that was way more hip than showing her new boyfriend some paintings and a few tin "Chock Full O'Nuts" cans filled with screws and nails in moonlight.

The voice in me again wanted to say, "This is my father's..." but suddenly, it didn't seem to be important.

Tough NYC in 1982 taught me to be a free bird.
Mom taught me there is no way - I have to take care of my emotional sense.
Westbeth nurtured the artist in me.
And I ...I ran with the passion.

There is only one "C," (first picture, top) in the inner courtyard of Westbeth, and I found so many different things to do on it: I jumped from the end to the beginning, I skated on it, and even biked in and around it on my banana seat bike. In 1982, I was grown-up, so grown-up yet still a child.

On dull days, I just took my snoopy lunchbox and entertained myself with a picnic. I danced in the rain and watched the rain make uneven puddles in and around the "C". I watched my brother in the community room power kick for his black belt from the C. I prepared an animation show on film of Barbie dolls. I listened to Spencer Holst tell stories in the community room.

On rainy days, Dad would piece dollhouse furniture together from a kit. (My mom would later call him "The Man with the Golden Hands") and I could see why. Everything was perfectly glued and fitted together. I was so proud of my father but all I could say was a quiet "Thank you" and repeat after my Mom, "The Man with the Golden Hands." (Maybe this should be the name for a picture book?)

When he wasn't creating things for me, he worked with the famous visual designer, Ralph Lee. As long as I can remember, the greatest part of Halloween was the famous West Village parade that started in our building by  Ralph Lee who worked with Jim Henson of The Muppets back in the 1970's. Lee and my father made the most gossamer looking objects from ghouls and goblins to hideous looking creatures with eyeballs hanging out looking as if they were about to fall on me and segmented hands all held up with long poles and stilts. My mom once left an entire box of small miniatures boxes of candy corn before she took off for the parade and when we came back from the festivities, the box was torn up and candy corn was all over the hallway.

Like all children of divorce, I was torn between deciding which parent could and would offer more solace, strength and support. But on Halloween, I was...

...a free bird.

Mom taught me there is no way - I have to take care of my emotional sense.
Westbeth nurtured the artist in me.
And I ...I ran with the passion.

"The Night I Found My Mom"

I had been cleaning the floor under the kitchen table after Friday night's dinner on my knees, which I sometimes did with my son's baby wipes. As I expected, my twenty month old son hugged me from behind, then laid his head on my back. He held a half eaten apple in one hand and a pacifier in the other and said, "Ima" for "Mother" in Hebrew. He smiled. I stopped what I was doing and looked at his tender sweet face.

It was just me and him that night. My husband was working. Mom's presence was everywhere but yet nowhere. I was thousands of miles away from her, living on a kibbutz in Israel for the last sixteen years. She had been living with Alzheimer's for the last ten years. Way before her diagnosis, she was a concert pianist. Every Friday night, I put on her concert tapes. I hear her say, "Dorit! Go to your room! I need to practice!" in her own nervous way. For years, Chopin mazurkas lulled me to sleep. As a child, I twirled in front of the full length mirror, on a parquet floor in an artist loft in Greenwich Village hoping my mom would notice me.

I will never forget the day we separated at the airport. I could see the deep fear and worry. She wanted to accompany me through the checkpoints and when she saw she couldn't, I quickly grabbed my things and pecked her withered cheek. When I felt I was far enough from her, I turned around. She wildly waved her hands. "Don't forget to wear a sweater!"

It would be seven years until I would see her again. I had come back from my settled life in Israel. She was already stumbling over words and sentences, trying to make sense of a tabloid and asking me questions. She squinted in front of the television. She couldn't sign her name. There papers all over the floor, bills were left unpaid and letters remained unopened. Her hair was unkempt, she didn't cut her toenails and had scabs all over her body. In a panic, I took her to our family doctor who knew me since I was a child and whispered in my ear, "She's showing signs of depression. Take her to a neurologist." It was then I realized that she wouldn't be the same mom. Alzheimer's had taken over.

In a matter of weeks, I sold the 1920 Grand Steinway piano to pay for bills and in its place was a twin size futon bed. The downstairs which she used for piano playing, now was her home. Her home health aide played her mazurkas on a tape recorder. I hoped to hear her say, "Honey, bunny, I love you," but I didn't. I thought that maybe my long absence had something to do with her depression.

In the middle of one night during a visit back in 1998 when my mom was still in the early stages of dementia, I saw her wandering in her corner downstairs. It was after midnight. It was now or never.

"Mom, I'm sorry I left you. I know it's been hard for you. Please don't be angry with me," I said.
"Oh," she said in one big laugh. "Honey, don't worry about that," she said. For a moment, I felt as if she was my mom again.

"It was my right and privilege to be your mom," she said emphatically.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Her love, once confirmed through music, was now directed to me.

I didn't know what to say. She had never spoken to me like this. Hugging her felt good. The sound of the mazurkas came back. It felt good to be home.

Those sentences are the last real connection I had with my mom. Sadly, she doesn't know she is a grandmother and she can't say my name anymore. But at least I know that night back in 1998 will go down as the day I found home and my mom.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Bus Ride Home

The sunlight streaming through the bus number 65 to Squirrel Hill is so strong, I want to pull down a shade. Even my thick rimmed UV rays won't block out the tiny shards of light that pretend to scoot behind clouds. I extend my hand as if to pull a blind and I am suprised at what I had just done.

There are no Egged busses here in Pittsburgh. It takes me a few seconds to remind myself that I am riding on bus #65 from Duquesne University to Squirrel Hill. No blinds. No soldiers. The snowy capped roofs of Pittsburgh's south side against the slope of Mount Washington reminds me of an Austrian town, Solvang.

I am an Israeli soldier taking the first Friday bus up north to see my parents who just moved from the States to a settlement overlooking the Sea of Galilee known as Korazim. I reach high up for the blinds. My dogtag ID jingles. When I am satisfied with the right visibility length, I settle back again the red and black checkered seats and notice that half the foam is sticking out. 

I squiggle a few times to avoid landing on a crease. I hug my legs to my chest and prop my knees high enough so they act as a barrier between myself and the glass divider to the rear end door. Across from me are two male Israeli soldiers bunched in a fetal position, too tired to pay attention clanking of the M-16 against their knees. A blind suddenly zips up disjolted by the fasteners and the windows are wide open. No-one bothers to close them. 

I'm taking the 845 Express bus from Tel-Aviv to Kiriyat Shmona. I will get off at "Tzomet Korazim" - the Korazim junction.   I will see my parents' house for the first time and wonder, "How is it possible to live in such a beautifully rustic piece of countryside when I have to pull out smelly tomatoes in the middle of the Arava Desert?" I will perform the one act of kindness and prop the male soldier's head that now rests on my shoulder. Here, there are no physical and non-verbal boundaries - with a push of my hand, I gently nudge the soldier as if I am his big sister. How awkward it feels to be pushing a soldier's head in its upright position. He opens his eyes and smiles and curls in the other way. I'm satisfied by this small feat - aching for a little bit of physical space.

By the time we reach the end of the highway to the developmental Afula, the town is in wide range. I will keep an eye out for people who aren't soldiers and are pushing shopping carts to the nearby "shuk," market for their Shabbat food supply. I will look longingly at the civilian clothes and think about the first shower I will take in my parents' new home - happy to finally feel "settled in."

The bus driver shouts, "Eser Dakot Hafsaka - Ten minute break" and everyone shuffles out except the male soldier next to me who is snoring loudly. I'm now too bunched in the nest I've made for myself. Buying a bureka or a chocolate milk is enticing, but not enough to jostle myself or the soldier next to me. Sleep catches on with me and I submit myself to the quiet lull of the almost empty bus.

One hour later and I'm passing through the Yizreal Valley that I mistakenly perceive as the Golan heights. It is speckled with kalniyot. They have enjoyed the last heavy rainfall and now the entire valley sparkles in technocolor rain that pentrates the hills and mountains to a point of honest perfection. 

I'm on my way home.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Finding my Tribe: From Israel to Pittsburgh

So I was rummaging through some old files and found an article that I submitted to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette entitled, "From Israel to Pittsburgh," that I wrote back in 2007 during our first few months in Pittsburgh.  

This part especially speaks to me:

"...When I had to live in other peoples’ houses during the second Israeli-Lebanese war, I learned a different side of acculturation I had not experienced: the life of a refugee. When my students heard me talk in English about where I was during the war, I felt  ironically,  I had acculturated.

But the war this time is different; it is an inner war of confusion, hope, struggle.  Perhaps, it is part of that acculturation experience all over again. I join Israeli-American events. I bake challah on Friday and call my family in Israel early Saturday morning. I speak Hebrew to my husband and English to my three year old son. I hold unto the bus pole smile and sometimes strike up a conversation. I live my life hearing two different voices from two different linguistic settings, always trying to remember where I came from."

Until now, I've never shared this online, partly because I've always felt like an "outsider" looking in.  Up until last year. I wrote, and wrote from "Outsider Glasses."

When I went to Indian restaurants, I was still that "outsider." When I shopped at Target and heard Hebrew being spoken in the aisles, I felt it was weird to suddenly be hearing Hebrew in the Diaspora.
Now that I think about it, I didn't think there would be potential tribe members who would be interesting in reading my life story. 

In the summer of 2010, I finally decided to take the plunge and sign up for the Madwomen in the Attic non-fiction workshop at Carlow University. This was a huge step. Little did I know it, I was stepping into my story, voice and purpose as a writer. 

The first piece I wrote was a character piece about Maya. 

“Remind me please, when is my flight?” I ask.
“Eight thirty,” my friend Aliza says checking her watch. “You’d better hussle, Maya. Taxi’s waiting downstairs.”
It’s time to leave my mom’s apartment B345 in New York City to volunteer for the Israeli Defense Forces. I’ve been waiting for this moment for years. My mom doesn’t know. I don’t want her fear to paralyze me.
I shove a few more T-shirts, and sweatpants while Aliza makes room for my underwear. We’ve been friends since kindergarten, we both have Israeli dads and visited Israel practically every summer.
“I just can’t believe you’re actually doing this,” she says. She stands on the suitcase while I zip it shut leaving just a hole big enough to stick my Nike sneakers. “You’re the last person of army material.”
“And you’re the last person I thought who wouldn’t support me, beside my mom. So thanks a lot,” I say.
The enormous sculptures and canvasses of desert and rivers that once astonished my Dad comfort me briefly as I walk through what he once claimed as “his space” in our loft apartment. The Israel of my Dad’s art will soon be my Israel. 
I thought the other workshop participants would think I was this completely "foreign" person from Planet "Zonko." Yes, Zonko. I tried to imagine myself writing about something completely different like "motherhood," or my first year experiences teaching - something a little more generic, like "I get it" without isolating anyone.  
But the story kept nudging and nudging me. It needed to be "born" and when I tried to "stop" it, the words kept coming.
This is a sign for anybody reading this, that if you want to write a story, you really do need an iota of inspiration, but to pay attention to the nudges, those voices that say, "This is IT."
It took more than 6 months of finally feeling comfortable sharing my life story with the others. As my writing improved, so did their understanding. Not only did I feel I had an audience, which is a MUST if you want to improve as a writer, but I also felt more comfortable writing my story. 
The last piece that was critiqued was, "Arriving in Israel - A Mistake," where I describe the first 16 hours of arriving on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert to join a bunch of new olim hadashim, new immigrants in preparation for my army service. The emotions that emerged from that piece were startling surprising. I wrote in description and feeling mode - the most I had ever done with any piece of writing. I felt tonce again, the fear and isolation as an new immigrant and again, as an outsider to Pittsburgh, this felt even more foreign. Those first 16 hours were scary and they still are. when I think about it But somehow, writing about them, years later, was comforting. 
What was even more comforting were the affirmations of the group - "You had me hooked!"
Little did I know, I had found the beginning of my "tribe."


"I'm going to the yarkan, the greengrocers! On the corner!" my husband says and sails out the door.

I lie unobstrusively in our Pittsburgh apartment - far away from the zests and smells of yarkan.
The Hebrew word yarkan, conjures the image of an outdoor market, but it means the same in Hebrew and English. The last time we bought fruits and vegetables was in 2007 in  small shuk, market, in Kiriyat Shmona - some kilometers away from our kibbutz, Sde Nehemiya. I wanted to enjoy the last few weeks of Israel living before we started packing for our journey to the States

Every now and then, a Hebrew word, especially food related words, is enough to connect me to the years I lived in Israel.

Take okra for instance.

In the supermarket here in Pittsburgh, I've seen it sold only frozen. But at Engels, just around the corner from our Squirrel Hill apartment, I'm sure there is okra. But I don't even bother buying it because my Mother-in-Law isn't here to cook it. The kind that is sold here is thick and too furry.  In Israel, they are very thin and my mother-in-law cooks it with lots of lemon and garlic. A true delicacy.

"Bambia" as they say in Hebrew. Like my cousin Ronita says, "when you say the word "Bambia," you can feel the taste of the "bambia" in your mouth. So true. At least from an Israeli standpoint.

Like my grandmother, my Mommy-in-Law puts the freshly washed okra on a chopping board and lets it dry in the merpeset, a back room of the kitchen where there is a lot of sunlight. On the kibbutz, people lay "Bambia" on chairs.

No time or sun for that here.

Okra is a slimy vegetable when it is cooked; my mother-in-law makes it ring of spices that it just slides in my mouth. Haim, my husband cooked it a few times, but it turned out so big, like a cucumber. I like the disproportionate size - a big "head" and a slim body; some get mushed while others stay firm and crunchy. Those I love the best.

She fries a lot of garlic and spices before adding the dried okra. Sometimes she adds tomato sauce. It is delicious as a rice dish. When we would visit her for Shabbat, she would cook lots of okra because she knew how much I loved it.

Poem: The Principal's Office

The principal calls me, "one of her teachers" she says

into her office and

mutters something incoherent in Hebrew to me

her language, her body moves

with every sound

that gutteral sound that

my father tried to speak to speak to me

is now Her sound. Her voice.

"I want to....." I said,

In Hebrew.

No excitement. Just words.

I fill in the rest of the sentence. It's confused. Battered up.

She knows what she's going to say even before hearing me

I am still trying to figure out what word to say.

I'm in a development town in Israel with Morracan Jews

who think the US is all about Julia Roberts and "Pretty Woman"

I tell my students it's not like that

But they still want to learn English

their way.

I want to teach it, "My Way,"

Is that why I'm here? In the principal's office?

Another teacher gets called in.

it's about how we work together.

not the language.


We talk it out - in their language.

not mine.

We don't find a solution.

In their language.

Not mine.

And I go home. Write about the lesson.

In my language.

I taught another lesson to fourth graders

who are learning another language

That just happens to be my mother tongue.

Only I'm not so sure if this cultural classroom is mine or theirs.

I'm still trying to figure it out.