It’s been a dream a long time in the making. It started as a shadow of a wish and a hope. The question was not just when we would take our grandchildren to Israel, but also how to make it happen.
Part of the catalyst was that my wife and I had never had this experience as children, for a wide variety of reasons. Over the years we have taken our children to Eretz Yisrael for no reason other than feeling compelled to do so. Without addressing the aliyah aspect of this feeling, let’s just say that this is the place for a Jew to be.
It was difficult, but we were young, ambitious, and filled with energy. Now we are older, but still ambitious and energetic. So not all that much has changed aside from the date on the calendar.
A few months ago we decided that with the older grandchildren reaching the age of 12 — bat mitzvah and pre-bar mitzvah — it was time to introduce them to the land that is always in our hearts and on our minds. It was time for us to take the initiative, as their parents are busy, baruch Hashem, with a bunch of younger children at home. I know what it’s like — where and how do you find the time?
Two decades or so ago we were in that same place, anchored at home with growing families, school and work schedules, the important things that weigh you down and get in the way. I suppose you can say that sometimes living life gets in the way of living life.
Right now I’m writing these words in the dark on an illuminated iPad screen, about 35,000 feet over Rome on our way to Tel Aviv. After almost 40 years of journeying to Eretz Yisrael, I’m still tinkering with the best time of day to travel. This time I picked a 1 p.m. Sunday flight to accommodate our grandson, Dovid, who is saying Kaddish for another few weeks.
The earliest Minchah in New York was 12:28 p.m., or just before boarding. Not surprisingly, there was a huge Minchah minyan just outside the gate. For those few moments it sounded like the entire airport was reciting Kaddish.
Joining Esta and me on board are our daughter Dini Franklin, her oldest child, Tehila (13), and Dovid Hirsch and Nison Gordon, both of whom are 12 years old and becoming a bar mitzvah in June and July, respectively.
The El Al 787 Dreamliner was doing 750 miles per hour for a while, so we actually landed in Ben Gurion Airport more than an hour earlier than scheduled. We landed at 5:30 a.m. Israel time, with an entire day ahead of us to struggle to stay awake so that we would not become slaves to jetlag.
Two of the kids were in Israel as toddlers. This is Dovid’s first trip here, and for all practical purposes it is the first trip for the other two as well. My daughter Dini has not been here for over a decade. I know that it is difficult and costly to travel, but you have to push against that which is comfortable and convenient. In convincing her to come with us, I simplified the matter. I told her: “You go to the airport and sit down in the lounge or at the gate. Then you sit on the plane for nine hours, and then you are in Israel.”
Sure, it involves sacrifice, especially for a young mother. Good things involve some sacrifice.
The objective here is for these kids to breathe in and taste Eretz Yisrael. To that end, in this one short week we plan to share whatever we can — the mundane and the exhilarating, the bitter and the sweet.
As is our custom after dropping our things at the hotel and resting up a bit, we were off to Eretz HaChaim in Beit Shemesh. Had my parents and my father-in-law, who lived their lives in the United States, not insisted on being interred here, where would that have left us? I’ve dwelled on this theme again and again. A few decades ago, we were no different than our children are today — busy, bogged down, under pressure, working sometimes for difficult people, and doing everyday things.
So our first stop is Bet Shemesh. After that we davened Minchah at Kever Rachel and later in the evening Ma’ariv at the Kotel. That’s what I call a busy and fulfilling day. But this week is still a little different. Before we think what to do next we have to take a step back and try to see Israel through a 12-year-old’s eyes.
They are old enough to absorb and remember everything. So each thing we do is a significant step that will be remembered for a lifetime, and that is precisely the calculation. After being here one day, Dovid said to me on Monday night, “Zaidy, this is the best place I’ve ever been.”
On Monday morning as we walked through the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion we passed under a large sign that said in English “Customs” and in Hebrew “Mechez.” Nison turned to me and asked, “Zaidy, doesn’t “customs” in Hebrew mean “minhagim?” I have walked under that sign hundreds of times over the years and it never occurred to me to think that. But in a Jewish country with such a diverse selection of Jews from around the world, it is not so farfetched to think that the proper word might be “minhagim.”
I explained to him, and myself at the same time, the connection between “Customs” and “Mechez,” which is really a tax, or, in a sense, I suppose it is customary to charge some of the people who pass through those doors mechez, or taxes, on certain items they are bringing into the country.
Also on Monday we sat around the Kotel area for about an hour waiting for the sun to begin to set so that we could daven Ma’ariv. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t do that. It was getting a little chilly and the nighttime Jerusalem winds were beginning to pick up. But the kids, Tehila, Dovid, and Nison, were setting eyes on the Kotel for the first time in their young lives and they were mesmerized.
They wanted to know the difference between the outer walls of the Old City and the Kotel itself. How is it possible that it is still standing after so many thousands of years? I don’t know where I found the calmness and patience to explain it all at length, but I knew that I was imbuing them with something that will be a part of them forever.
For a few minutes we sauntered into the inside and warmer area of the Kotel to see what it was like in there. People were still davening Minchah, and one of the boys pointed to two pigeons that were calmly sitting on one of the protruding stones of those inner walls. I told them that many years ago I was told that these pigeons that always seem to be fluttering on or around the wall are a sign of G-d’s presence, the Shechinah, G-d’s eminence in this still sacred and holy place.
And when the pigeons sit there eyeing the people calmly, it may be Hashem Himself Who is at least momentarily pleased. But then there are times — more often than not — when the birds seem animated, even disturbed.
As we traveled around Jerusalem the other day, a once-popular song by the retired singing group Safam came to mind. “Only for the children do we live / Only for the children do we give / Only for tomorrows that they bring / Can our lives mean anything; I pray / The children are our future here today.”