Birthdays with a zero have a special purchase on the imagination. Whether one turns 40 or 70, that zero marks a turning point, the end of an old decade and the beginning of a new one, a chance to take stock: what in Hebrew is called cheshbon ha-nefesh — literally, an accounting of your soul. And if that birthday takes place in Israel, where you once lived for years — and where you might have stayed, had you chosen to — you have a formula for cascading, competing visions of what was and what might have been.
This past October, I celebrated my 70th birthday in Israel, at my in-laws’ backyard in Zikhron Ya’akov, about 22 miles south of Haifa. Those at the gathering were all part of my wife’s family. There were cakes and hugs and singing “Happy Birthday” in three languages: Hebrew, Spanish and English. It was pleasant and gratifyingly low-key.
I stood and thanked my in-laws for hosting this event, telling the group that I couldn’t imagine any place I’d rather be for my 70th birthday. And that was true, as far as it went. But during much of that night, my mind floated back in time and space.
When Betty and I went to Israel in the early 1970s, we thought we were going to remain there for the rest of our lives. We lived for two years at Kibbutz Netiv HaLamed Heh, in the Valley of Elah, and then more than five years in Jerusalem. We learned the language and became citizens. We had not gone to Israel to fulfill a Zionist dream, but little by little we became Israelis, as nosy and noisy as our neighbors. For the most part, we felt at home.
The last few years we were in Jerusalem, we lived in a suburb where, after the school day was over, we could let our older son, Rafi — born in Israel in 1974 — run free with his neighborhood pals. Before it got dark, we’d go look for him.
Years later, while living in Los Angeles, Rafi would write of his childhood in Israel: “I remember playing with my friends in the chaparral and the caves as the sun was setting. We found pottery shards and imagined that we were ancient Israelites battling against the all-powerful Romans. It felt like an adventure, though home was only a few yards away.”
It was an ideal life for a 6-year-old, but difficult for Betty and me: We barely eked out a living. I picked up odd jobs as a writer, working on documentary films, audiovisual shows and fundraising movies, while Betty was a high school math and science teacher.
By late 1980, we came to the reluctant conclusion that leaving Israel was an economic necessity for us. Our plan was for me to go to Los Angeles by myself first, find a place for us to live and look for work. Betty and Rafi would join me later. The decision to leave Israel was a painful one. (What made it more painful, perhaps, was the language. In Hebrew, going to live in Israel is aliyah, “going up”; leaving Israel is yeridah, “going down.”)
So when my 40th birthday rolled around in October 1980, we knew that our life in Israel was about to end. When our friends came to our apartment that night, it was with the unspoken feeling that this might be the last time we would see one another.
For us, Jerusalem had been a magical place. In the documentaries I worked on, I told stories about a unique city whose stones breathed a kind of sanctity. But the world in which I lived was also infused with the spirit of the age: sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. For those of us living a secular life there, it was a time of crazy, all-too-human adventures.
At my 40th birthday party in 1980, there were friends whose personal stories outstripped mine for audacious behavior. There was 25-year-old V., who, after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer, set out to live her every fantasy, artistic or erotic. (She would miraculously survive and have to deal with the consequences of her bust-out behavior.) There were A. and M., a married couple who had an arrangement: On alternate nights, A. would be with his other wife. A lovely young woman, R., showed up with her German (non-Jewish) boyfriend and his Israeli-born wife. Apparently, they functioned as a trio. And so on. These were my Jerusalem friends, exploring internal and interpersonal boundaries.
At 3 a.m., under the influence of God-knows-what, I led the group on a hike to Nebi Samuel, a hilltop a few miles away. We got there shortly before dawn, in time to see Bedouin shepherds waking up to tend their flocks. We looked out toward the Old City, imagining that on this very spot in 1099, the Crusaders — inspired by Peter the Hermit and led by Godfrey of Bouillon — planned their assault on Jerusalem.
As we walked back home, I knew that soon there would be new friends, a new landscape, a new life. Did I feel I was abandoning Israel and my friends? Yes, on both counts.
Fast forward to my 70th birthday party in Zikhron Ya’akov. Here is my sweet 90-year-old mother-in-law, there my wife’s brother and his children and grandchildren — toddlers kicking balls and wearing funny hats. A happy, joyous scene. As I take it all in, my mind races back to my 40th birthday and the decision we made then, 30 years ago.
What would have become of us had we stayed in Israel? Would we have found a way to thrive economically? Would we have held on to the same friends? What about our two sons, Rafi, who was born in Israel while we were living on kibbutz, and Zeke, who was born two years after we arrived in Los Angeles — what would they have been like had they grown to manhood in Israel? Would they have had different values, followed a different path? They would have gone into the Israel Defense Forces, but how would that have affected them?
These thoughts were not a reaction to pain and suffering. Los Angeles has treated Betty and me well. We’ve been blessed with a comfortable life and a wealth of family and friends. We and our two sons are healthy, keinahora. No, what animates these “what if” questions is the inescapable fact that I lived this life and not that one.
Thirty years ago in Israel, at my 40th birthday, I looked forward to a new life, wondering what the future had in store for me and my family. And now, on my 70th birthday — again in Israel — I looked backward, both to the life I had lived … and to the life I hadn’t.