"If not for my visits, they wouldn’t know about shul and Shabbos. They would know nothing"
I’m waiting in line with my toddler and baby for the umpteenth bathroom trip on our long flight from America to Israel.
In front of me is a heavyset grandmotherly woman, oozing warmth. There’s something about her that reminds me of my own grandmother. She pinches my baby’s chubby cheek with her bejeweled fingers as she strikes up a conversation.
“How old is he? Six months? I have a grandson that age. Haven’t seen him in nearly two months.” She whips out her phone from the pocket of her flowing tunic and shows off a picture composed of 90 percent nose.
I ooh and aah appropriately, and my son cranes his neck to get a glimpse.
“Going to visit my daughter and the grandkids. Can’t wait.”
“Nice! How often do you go?”
Her dimples deepen. “I aim to go every two months or so. But with Covid, you know…”
“You’re telling me?!” We talk about missed weddings and bar mitzvahs and the dozens of almost-visits.
“And where do you stay when you’re in Israel?” I ask.
“At my daughter’s place. She lives on a moshav 30 minutes from Jerusalem.”
I’m thinking of comfy accommodations and endless green pastures. “That’s nice that she has room to host.”
She laughs, a tinkling sound. “I squeeze into a room with the grandkids, get the lower bunk.”
She tells me how her daughter traveled to Israel in her early twenties with a burning passion to discover the land and Judaism. But everything went downhill. Wrong company, wrong friends, wrong mindset. “We thought she was going to grow spiritually. Instead, she turned secular.” Her voice cracks, and in the darkness I detect something glistening in her eyes.
“I try to go as often as I can to be an example for my grandchildren. If not for my visits, they wouldn’t know about shul and Shabbos. They would know nothing.”
As if to confirm her words, she shows me more photos of charming kids with deep dimples in exactly the same place as grandma’s. In the background of one photo, I can make out a pair of Shabbos candles.
Behind me, a guy I recognize from the line at security listens intently.
I think back to the hours before the flight. The lines were a dense forest with no wiggle room, and the numbers on the clock inched dangerously closer to boarding time. He was frustrated, worried about missing his flight.
“I have to get the 4:00 United flight,” he said, stuffing the contents of his pocket and his shoes into a waiting bin.
“Same,” I echoed. I was shoeless, trying to get my disoriented kids through security screening with a folded stroller under one arm and a stack of Covid tests, boarding passes, exit forms, entry forms, and sign-for-your-life forms under the other.
“So what are you going to do?”
Shrugging, I pointed my finger upward. “It’s what Hashem decides. Why worry?”
He shifted from foot to foot, and when he folded his arm, I noticed the Hebrew letters tattooed there.
“Do you live in Israel?” he asked.
“I do, but I’m not Israeli. Yourself?”
“I’m Israeli.” His accent gives it away, but he’s proud of his origin. “We moved to Newark 13 years ago, built up a good business, a gorgeous home. It was even featured in House Beautiful.”
“That must’ve been some house.”
“Oh, yes. We lived a very comfortable life in Newark.” His face suddenly registered a sharp pain. “But my youngest son. He… he… what should I say? He’s an atheist.”
It was his turn to go through security, but he signaled for the person behind him to go ahead. He needed to get this off his chest. “Because of him, my wife and I decided to move back. He likes to be home, and we just know he’s going to follow us to Israel.”
To give up so much? I sputtered out a weak wow.
“Yes, we’re giving up a lot. But in Israel, the chances for him to marry a nice Jewish girl are a lot, lot stronger.”
On Succos I’ll sit in my cozy-yet-cramped succah with my husband and children. We’ll be thousands of miles away from our extended family, from the masterpieces that grace the walls of my parent’s spacious succah, from my mother’s famous roast over mashed beans, from the chorus of zemiros my husband’s brothers pull off. But I’ll think of those strong Jews, willing to move far out of their comfort zone for spiritual richness, and that is what will pull me through.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 760)
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