This is a love story.
I didn’t expect it to be this way, but it is.
And like all love stories, it’s many other things, too — but mostly it’s a love story. It started the summer I was 15, when my parents sent me to Israel for the first time.
I wasn’t expecting to fall in love — in fact, I was pissed off when my mom told me they were sending me for the summer.
“No way,” I said. “I don’t want to spend my whole entire summer there.”
“Why?” she asked.
Why? Because I was 15, and I wanted to spend the space between 9th and 10th grade strolling the 3rd Street Promenade with Aimee and Emily.
I wanted to sit by the phone and wait for Matt Johnston to (OMG please!) realize he still wanted me and call. I wanted to make out in the Century City AMC theater, and buy clothes at Forever 21, and paint my nails black, and sneak out to Mar Vista swimming pool with a bottle of Sun-In and a bathing suit my parents would never allow, carefully hidden under a Nirvana t-shirt I’d wear as I left the house.
In other words, I wanted to be, like, 15 and super original.
My mom had other plans.
She had been to Israel before she met my dad.
“It was right after we won the Six Day War,” she had told me when I was even younger. “Jerusalem was ours again — all of it — the Old City… our very heart.” And I thought it was funny at the time that she said “we,” as if we’d been there, invading the Egyptian Sinai, seizing East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“But we aren’t Israeli, Mom,” I said.
“We aren’t, but we’re Jewish… and Israel is our homeland.”
Israel was her favorite place in the whole wide world, she told me, and my bedtime stories were about how she rode camels in the desert, and picked oranges and sweet clementines in the orchards on a kibbutz way up north, and swam in the Mediterranean among the ancient Roman ruins of Achziv, and sang songs around a campfire in the middle of nowhere.
But mostly she told me about Jerusalem. About the nun who painted icons on old pieces of wood, and the man who fried sweet dough into little balls dusted with sugar, and the family who lived in a wooden shack on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and how each morning she’d leave a little note with a secret wish and a whispered prayer tucked into the cracks of the Western Wall.
She had only been there that one summer after the war, and she said the streets were filled with a fantastic energy, and everyone was singing “Jerusalem of Gold,” celebrating the fact that they could return to the Western Wall and explore the ancient alleyways of our forefathers and mothers… the places that the poets and the sages wept and dreamed over, the very place where our exile began 2,000 years ago.
Of course, I know now that’s much more complicated, but at the time, this is what I knew. And as a kid, I was intrigued, and I would look at her old photos and coin collection from her weeks there, and ask her questions and listen to her stories.
Jerusalem was in her blood in other ways, and in mine too, she told me. Her grandmother, Sarah, whose name I had been given, came to live in Jerusalem nearly 100 years before as an au pair to a rich Polish Jewish family from the town near her shtetl.
“She fell in love,” my mother said. “I don’t know much about it except that this was during the Ottoman times, and he worked for the sultan, and they would meet at midnight to kiss on a roof overlooking the Temple Mount.”
“Well, the family she was working for found out and shipped her back to Poland where her parents sent her to Chicago — as far away from Jerusalem as they could send her — where she met my grandfather, your great-grandfather.”
I liked that story, and I would fall asleep some nights picturing my tall, strong great-grandmother with the raven hair she refused to cover tumbling down her back while a handsome man cupped her face with the same strong jaw as mine between his hands and kissed her on that roof, while a million stars shone in the sky.
But now I was 15, and there was the mall, and my friends, and boys, and making out behind the air vents. Israel and Jerusalem and all those old stories were ancient history to me.
But not to my mom.
“Oh, you’re going to Israel,” she told me while she smoked. And that was how it began.
THE TIMES OF ISRAEL PRESENTS:
Join Sarah Tuttle-Singer for more stories at the Israeli launch of her book “Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered.”
Monday, June 18, at The Jerusalem Press Club, Mishkenot Sha’ananim at 7:30 p.m.
She’ll sign copies of the book, which will be available for purchase.
Advance tickets NIS 40 HERE.
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