Until I arrived this past week for my brother's wedding, it had been over three years since I stepped foot on American soil. So I suppose it is understandable to experience a certain amount of culture shock.
This feeling started when I went shopping and asked the supermarket's manager if he sold hair elastics. He literally walked from the beginning of the beauty aids aisle to its end, searching as he massaged his chin in deep concentration. "I'm afraid not," he finally apologized, "Terribly sorry." In Israel, I thought, the manager would have just clucked his tongue, shaken his head, and walked away.
Then on Shabbat, I walked with my children to a nearby park. This block-long park features a cornucopia of slides and swings and sandboxes, as well as a free wading pool for children, and on top of all this, my children had the whole park to themselves. In Israel, I thought, I have never seen a park that nice, and even if one existed it would probably be jam-packed with kids and strewn with Popsicle wrappers.
Then we arrived at my mother-in-law's new cottage. As I write this, I am sitting by a maple-leaf-green lake that ripples softly in the light breeze, reflecting the unbroken clusters of trees along its banks. It is so beautiful that it is almost otherworldly.
Not to mention the culture shock of suddenly finding myself 6,000 miles from the fresh graves of the young soldiers killed in Lebanon, and the breast-beating over Israel's most recent war. Since I arrived here, I must confess that my body and spirit have breathed a collective sigh of relief to have exchanged the wilderness for the war zone.
But at the same time, even though it might sound crazy to a person who only knows about Israel from the evening news, I still miss Israel as much as I missed home during my first few weeks of college.
For starters, I miss the holiness and Jewishness that are such a big part of everyday life in Israel. In Jerusalem's market, for example, where I do my shopping, although "Customer Service" may be a somewhat foreign phrase, I love how the market is a living Jewish calendar, with tables piled high with dried fruits before Tu B'Shvat, and stacks of macaroons before Passover, and mountains of apples and honey before Rosh Hashana. I love the Chassidic matrons who fearlessly navigate the pre-Shabbat crowds, and the egg salesman who always sends me off with a smile and a heartfelt "Shabbat Shalom u'mevorach," a peaceful and blessed Sabbath.
I love living in a place where people care about one another like family. On our street, for example, there is a playground that everyone calls "the playground with the red slide," because a small red slide and a seesaw are all it contains. Most Americans would not even consider this a playground, but this fact does not detract from the closeness the dozen or so mothers who gather there every afternoon feel to one another.
I love Israel because she's mine. I love her because she pulses with more holiness than any other place on Planet Earth.
This park is a place where we organized a neighborhood-wide Psalm chain for a red-slide-park regular in need of a lung transplant. It's a place where we discuss nursery schools and pediatricians and the correct age for introducing solid foods. It's a place where my park-bench companions call out my name when I come to sit among them, just like Norm's friends on the TV show Cheers.
I also love living in a country that feels like it belongs to me. I miss, for example, the Jerusalem Forest that I pass through every time I pick up my oldest daughter from school. Of course, there are more impressive forests in the world, like the one I see as I write these words, but the one in Jerusalem moves me more deeply.
I love it because it's mine, because just over 3000 years ago God promised the land of Israel to me and to my children, and because of that, every rocky hill and every pine-filled valley and every field of sunflowers is, on a certain level, a part of me.
My relationship with Israel vs. all the other countries in the world can be compared to the way I felt recently at my daughter Hallel's end-of-the-year performance for kindergarten. Out of all of Hallel's 25 classmates, it is possible that there were girls who had memorized the words to the songs better than my daughter, or whose ponytails didn't get pulled askew or shirts half untucked like my daughter's.
But the truth is that even if there had been a girl like that, it wouldn't have mattered, since Hallel was the only girl I saw for that hour as I reached again and again into my purse for tissues and cried from pride.
Because I love her. Because God gave this girl to me and to my husband and to no one else. Because my love for my daughter blinds me to the virtues of every other six-year-old in the whole world.
And that is how I feel about Israel. I love her because she is mine. I love her because my community is there. I love her because she pulses with more holiness than any other place on Planet Earth.
It's true, Israel's not perfect. But what do I need perfect for when I've found home?