Almost every summer since coming to Israel, we've tried to take the kids on vacation for at least a few days to the northern edges of Israel. We do this because it is an incredibly beautiful area - mountains and valleys and waterfalls and history meet. The air is a bit cooler, the views greener, the stress and pressures of life less felt.
One year, we rented an apartment on a kibbutz right near the border with Lebanon. Elie was quite young, our two youngest children hadn't even been born. The second night of our stay, there was a katyusha attack from Lebanon. We were close enough to hear two explosions - only later understanding that we'd actually heard the exit and entrance sounds (the noise the missile makes when it is launched; and the noise it makes when it crashes and explodes).
We were faced with a decision - stay or go; run or remain. Most of the visitors left - once we'd made the decision, we found that we had whole vacation areas to ourselves. We choose to remain up north and amazingly enough were treated like heroes simply because we stayed. Two things went into our decision. The first was a message to local residents that the army was confident there would be no further attacks and that they believed it was a "tit for tat" response from Hezbollah rather than a major escalation. We were encouraged to remain and continue our vacation - and we agreed.
The second factor was something Elie said. He was young and afraid. We had been barbecuing outside when we heard the explosions. I remember turning to my husband and saying, "that was a katyusha." I can't tell you how I knew; I'd never heard that sound before - but it wasn't a tire exploding from the heat, it wasn't a sound you hear every day. It was...it was a missile being launched and slamming into my land, my home. Where did it land? Was anyone hurt? Would there be others? What should we do? Where should we take our children?
So many thoughts, so many worries. The owner of the rented apartment came out quickly and told us to come into his house. He has a room - more of a hallway really, that is in the center of his house, protected, with no windows. We gathered there with the children, pulled in mattresses so they could rest, and brought dinner into that small area.
We decided to spend the night there, as the army suggested, and as we were all camping out in the hallway of this stranger's home, sort of an adventure, if you think about it, when Elie said he was scared and wanted to go home.
Sometimes in life, clarity comes in a flash, a sudden moment when you see and really can understand the results of a decision you are about to make. Such was that moment when I heard my son tell me he wanted to go home. We sat with him and explained that this was our home - here up north where we were on vacation, every city in this land, every house, every inch, and yes where our house was too.
If we ran from here, we told Elie, we were telling the Arabs that we surrender the north, and then the south, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Arabs would simply come closer and continue to shoot. There are times when you don't run, times when you have to make a stand. Israel is a country where the Jews have chosen to make our stand, here in our ancient homeland. We have gathered here from all over the world because it is ours and has always been ours. There have been Jews here throughout the millennia; never was there a time when our people were completely exiled, and yet only now do we have our homeland back.
No, Elie, we cannot run, we told him...and we didn't. We stayed up north and helped him (and ourselves) defeat the fear. We would not be frightened away, not then, not now. I believe with all my heart, that the message we gave Elie then remains with him.
Since that summer, we have returned almost every year to some place in the north. We were never again caught in a katyusha attack, though Elie has since heard many more explosions - both those he has caused, and those that have been lobbed in his direction.
Last summer, Elie couldn't get time off from the army, and so we took our children up north, there to spend a lovely week or so in and around Safed, the magical, mystical city perched high on the mountains overlooking much of the Galilee. It was a strange vacation for me - filled with wonderful hikes and meals and time with the children and yet there was a hole, a missing factor - we'd gone without Elie.
This time, my oldest daughter and her husband couldn't come and so again there was a missing element, a sadness amidst the fun. And somewhere in the reality of this vacation is the understanding that next year too, our vacation will not be complete because there is a good chance that Shmulik, our next son, will be in the army and unable to join us.
We also went for a shorter period of time, just two days. We slept over in camping grounds in the Golan, and were treated to a meteor shower watched from mattresses on the ground. This was wonderful because my kids reminded me that years before I had them lug out mattresses to a balcony to watch another meteor shower and it was nice to see that there was a memory there for them. We did the same, pulling out mattresses and pillows and blankets and laying down to watch the skies for a while.
Another difference in this trip was that I wasn't the chief navigator. For the most part, I am the one who knows the roads in Israel. It's a combination of how much I have driven combined with the blessing of a decent memory.
This time, having spent so much time in the Golan in training or whatever, Elie knew the roads and was quickly able to guide us to the camping grounds, the kayaking place, and more without maps. It was Elie who pointed out each base, saying who it belongs to, what division, and more; Elie who showed me sides of the Golan I hadn't known.
When we went kayaking, we had to divide up into groups. Elie went with his middle brother, who will be going into the army just as Elie comes out. They are two strong young men, easily able to maneuver themselves and the kayak more easily than the rest of us. It was wonderful to watch them - free from having to deal with younger siblings, have fun, paddle together, laugh.
My husband and I went with our two younger children in a "family" unit. To make life more interesting, at times, Elie and Shmulik moved ahead of us; at other times, they hung back and then came barreling past only to wait for us again further downstream.
It is almost unbearably hot in Israel in August and so Israelis flock to the few water paths we have. The Jordan River path we were on meandered for some distance, the full distance taking us more than 3 hours to traverse. Some rapids, some slow areas, even a man-made water fall. Lots of sun, cool water, shaded areas, trees, no traffic sounds, tons of people, but all having fun. Barbecue smells, and more. Suddenly, in the middle of the river, a man grabbed our boat from behind. Even before I had turned, I heard someone call my name and the man said, "She doesn't recognize me."
"Oren!!!" I called out - happy to see him, surprised, happy. Oren was about 11 when I first met him. Today, he's 23 years old. Then he was an awkward boy, stumbling through adolescence; now he is tall, strong. He was in the same age group as my oldest daughter when the families became friends. They were our next door neighbors, constant companions for their first year in our neighborhood. His mother rocked my babies; I rocked hers. We have vacationed together in the past, barbecued together, worried together. It was his mother who called to tell me about Elie's friend being seriously injured in a car accident (How Do You Tell Him?).
Their whole family was up north for the day and we made plans to meet them later on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Hours later, we did in fact meet them, as the sun was setting and the day drawing to a close.
Elie is 22-years-old and has been in one war. Oren is two years older than Elie, and has been in two wars. He left the army after his three years, but a few months later, found that he couldn't quite adjust back to normal civilian life and decided to go back into the army and is now attending an officer's course. He's a trained sniper, extremely accurate, deadly...this little boy I watched play in my yard and tease my younger children.
He lost several soldiers from his unit, friends and comrades who were killed in Lebanon and after. A close friend of his died in his arms during his first experience with war. I've never spoken to him of this, never told him that his mother told me, that I worried about him, prayed for him. He doesn't know that we know of this side of his life. We are simply family friends, together again for a holiday break of water and splashing and summer smells.
At one point I looked over, Oren and Elie were standing and talking - they looked so serious there, framed by the background and the setting sun - separate, alone and together. They share a bond that goes as deep as brotherhood - they are brothers in an army where all become brothers, all speak the same language and understand the primary instincts of survival and defense that are a part of our country.
Both fought in Gaza; both have been on the Lebanese border, though Oren has been deep in Lebanon, know the terrain there and beyond. Two years and a war separate them, but that falls away compared to what unites them.
The circles in life always amaze me - what chance was there that these people would choose that small area of a river to make their picnic, that they would see our boat and realize it was ours - of the hundreds of people passing in kayaks that day. What chance that Elie's commanding officer served with Oren in Lebanon as the artillery point person to Oren's invading ground forces.
The Second Lebanon War is viewed by many (probably even most) as a defeat for Israel. We didn't get back the soldiers who were kidnapped and though the rockets and missiles that hit our cities and communities were stopped, over a million people were forced from their homes, over one hundred were killed, hundreds more wounded, property damage in the billions of dollars. Those soldiers that were kidnapped - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - only came home two years later, in coffins, as part of a humiliating exchange. Oren came back from the war whole and safe, and yet so much more mature, so much more serious.
It was fun to see him having fun, see him laugh, smile. It was yet another of those moments in my life - seeing Oren who has finished his army service and has chosen to give more; Elie who has served more than two years and is beginning to look at what will be after, and Shmulik, who is beginning to realize the army comes closer every day.
What chance...and yet this is so much what Israel is like. As the sun lowered, I watched as these two men stood on the beach and talked of this world they know. It was yet another of those moments that told me that long ago, I had done the right thing by taking Elie on the plane ride that changed his life, that gave him a country, a language, and more brothers than I could ever count.