My Story 3: Almost an Adult; Leaving the American Life Behind

With my parents divorce came my divorce from Jewish life. Our new family became members of a Conservative synagogue (we were previously in Reform). With no organ or choir this was a total turn-off for me. When I turned 18 and finished High School, I set off to start my independent young adult life.

As a young adult the best I would do was to occasionally show up at my parent’s home on the major Jewish holidays, and to read the endless stream of letters that my mother sent me from that far away place she was living called “Israel”.

I don't remember experiencing any serious anti-Semitism in America at that time, or perhaps I didn’t recognize the occasional exclusions from American life as such, but something was beginning to tug at me. I began to feel more and more alienated with every Christmas celebration that I was not part of, and the letters from my mother were beginning to dig a big empty hole in my soul. After three years living in Boston as a cabbie, I decided it was time to accept an offer of a free ticket from my grandparents to visit my mother.

I set out in March 1976 with a year-long open-ended plane ticket. The plan was to spend three months getting re-acquainted with mother, then meet my friend in Europe for 3 months, and then fly back to Boston and my job driving a cab. Since I was virtually ignorant about Israel, I took someone’s advice to read a book called, “The Source” – which I read before setting off. Unbeknownst to me, this was the start of my “return” to Judaism and to a life lived openly and proudly as a Jew.

Boarding the plane in March 1976, a virtual ignoramus about my own Jewish identity and homeland, I found myself surrounded by a very loud, boisterous and very joyful Christian group, the members of whom never stopped singing during the entire 12-hour flight! I also noticed a few orthodox Jews who stood up to pray every now and then. When the plane approached Israel everyone clapped and the Christian group sang even louder and more ecstatically. I noticed that some of the passengers kissed the ground upon deplaning. I was clueless. I didn’t understand anything. Why were these people so ecstatic about being in this place? This journey meant nothing to me except that I was going to see my mother and I was quite nervous and anxious about that!

My mother was waiting for me as I exited through the customs lobby. I hadn’t seen her since High School. I was now almost 21 and I had no idea what to expect. At this point all I really knew about my mother from the letters that I mostly just skimmed over and placed in a special box for safe keeping - just in case someday I might decide to actually read them all the way through.

My mother had a small Volkswagen mini-van. We traveled from the airport towards Jerusalem. It was the middle of the night and after the long flight I was quite tired. Oblivious to my exhaustion, my mother, so excited that one of her children had finally come to visit her in Israel, jumped right into tour guide mode. She pointed out the rusted frames of the army vehicles that had been left as memorials to past wars. We ascended to Jerusalem and, rather than take me directly to her house, she took me straight to the Kotel – the “Wailing Wall”. Whoopee. I didn’t care then but I can tell you now that that was a night I will never forget and will always hold close to my heart. Seeing Jerusalem for the first time at night was extremely special, but then I didn’t even get out of the car to touch the wall. I had no idea why my mother was urging me to go see it up close. I just wanted to go to sleep. My mother continued the tour, taking the long route all around Jerusalem, pointing out the various landmarks on the way until we finally arrived “home”. She showed me my room and I retired. I was angry at her from that moment on. In fact, I'm sure I had been angry at her ever since she and my dad divorced - - but that's material for the "shrink"!

Now in Israel, my mother had made all sorts of plans for my potential “aliyah” (immigration to Israel) beginning with an all day bus tour. I don’t think she realized it, it's clear that I ended up on a Christian-based tour. So I set out to visit the Christian sites of the “Holy Land” apparently together with my Christian "friends" from the plane! When we got to Bethlehem, which then was a thriving tourist spot, everyone got out and went over to the church to a room that had a display of the baby Jesus in a manger. It made no sense to me at all. To me it just looked like a toy doll and I wondered what all the fuss was about. I guess I was simply naïve about all religions – not just my own! Those first weeks in Israel were interesting though. In an attempt to distance myself from my mother, whom I was now experiencing some deep rooted childhood anger towards, I began to explore Israel on my own. I spent a lot of time in Jerusalem's Old City which was so different to me than anything I had yet seen in my short life.

My mother decided to enroll me in an “Ulpan” (a language learning class) for a month to learn to speak Hebrew. I sat next to a French nun and spoke French with her while the teacher yakked away in Hebrew. Neither of us understood what she was saying but at least I could read the Hebrew letters in the textbook and write in cursive so I wasn’t completely lost. I guess I learned something from those childhood classes at the synagogue after all!

I’m not really sure how I met up with Moshe, an Israeli ragtime guitar player. I think my mother had something to do with it. He introduced me to the Tzavta folk club – a weekly open mic event where I met a few Israeli’s but mostly a lot of English speaking “Anglo’s” like me. Moshe knew I played guitar and could also pluck a few tunes on the banjo. Back then I was a closet musician but somehow I ended up on the open mic stage – banjo in hand. From then on I became an integral part of the Jerusalem/Israel “Anglo’ folk music scene. I began to make new friends and started to feel that this far away place wasn’t so bad after all.