Have you ever been in love? Really in love, I mean, the warts-and-all kind that lasts beyond initial infatuation, the kind that lifts your heart nearly all the time, despite everything.
For me, at age 18, I think it was more like an arranged marriage than love at first sight. When I came to Israel for the first time -- they shipped us straight from the plane to the Western Wall -- I didn't feel it. I didn't know right away, the way people often say they do in hindsight. The country grew on me over time, but it was like an old friend I felt I had always known, even though we had never even met. It seemed that all my life I had been prepped for loving Israel: Zionist Hebrew school coupled with an American patriotic sense of duty instilled in me the sense that I was slated for a higher purpose in life -- something to fight for, believe in -- something I hadn't come across until Jerusalem.
On July 3, 1992, I packed a suitcase and moved to Israel, where I stayed for seven years. Today, one month short of a decade, I return, again on a mission. This time, the mission is with L.A. Jews. I am with more than 100 people, half of whom are members of Sinai Temple, who are here for three days to present a gift of over $3.25 million Los Angeles-raised dollars, to visit terror victims, to show support for Israel. Some 30 doctors, part of the mission, are also here to donate one-quarter of a million dollars worth of medical equipment donated by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Encino/Tarzana Regional Medical Center, and to forge alliances with Israeli doctors to help them in the future (full story next week).
"How can you go to Israel at a time like this?" many of us were asked in the past few weeks. Safety -- a primary concern again in America with terrorist threats raised daily in the news -- imbue the questioners with wonder and a sense of empathy, because they now know fear. "How could you go there at a time like this?"
But for many committed Jews, the question really is, "How can you not?"
As I pack for the trip, I throw in clothes that I somehow know will be all wrong -- too dressy, too hot, too something -- and I realize that just as there are two different mindsets for clothes, there are two different ways of thinking about traveling to Israel.
"Why would you set yourself in the face of danger when you are probably perfectly safe in your home in Beverly Hills or Woodland Hills?" goes the American way of thinking.
"But Israel needs us," goes the Jewish way of thinking: How can you not go when you are needed so much?
This sense of purpose is palpable in the good humor of the interminable 18-hour flight, which will be repeated in reverse in merely 36 hours. Dr. Robert Khorhramian told me that he considers himself lucky to go to Israel at a time like this, because since he moved to Los Angeles from Iran in the late 1970s, all his attempts to go have fallen through. "I feel like Israel is my home, and I've never even been there," he said.
I know how he feels. I have been here, and been away from here, but as we get closer to the Mediterranean, I feel the familiar tug on my heart, the way one might feel reminiscing over a first love: Is there any getting over it? I am scared -- not of the bombings, of the terror attacks or of the upcoming war that might break out in Kashmir while I am here -- but I am scared that I will feel so at home here, so right, that I won't be able to leave.
As we move closer to Greece, I can almost feel the sweet air, and one of my favorite Shlomo Artzi songs pops into my head:
"Ani nose'ah, aini yodeh, le'an, le'an, le'an. At hayit bishvili hakol, v'zeh hayah mizman." (I am going, I don't know where. You were everything to me -- but that was a long time ago.)
And that might be my greatest fear: not that I will feel the same way, but that I won't. That I won't be able to eat at Caffit or Moment; buy wood products from Kakadu or lingerie from the 10-shekel man in the German Colony; go to the Dead Sea and the Western Wall; and that things -- big and small -- won't be the same anymore, so I won't feel the same. The news promises that the political situation has irrevocably changed the country that I love, but I still suspect that despite the things -- tangible and intangible -- that have been destroyed, my heart will find some things familiar.
But whatever we find -- and each of us here surely has our own story, our own love affair with this country -- we are here, finally. How could we not be?