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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

From One Land to Another

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

As I pack up my LA apartment to relocate to NYC for the summer, I'm remembering this time last year when I was leaving Israel and the life I had made there for the previous year.

Israel was such a trip. I knew I was going to fall in love with rabbinical school; that was not a surprise to me. What floored me was how hard I fell in love with Israel itself, and with a very special person I met there.

It was so hard to leave Israel last year. Being in a place where I felt connected to my Jewish culture even just ordering a coffee, where I didn't feel like a minority (even though I still was one in many other ways), where I felt a sense of camaraderie with everyone around me (except for the Women of the Wall visits where I would get attacked by Haredi elementary school children), where nobody mispronounced my name.

I'm remembering one particular event that happened about a year ago. I was on my way from Jerusalem to Yaffo to stay with my family before going to the airport to fly back. I had all my stuff with me, including my cat, so I took a cab instead of a shuttle. My cab driver had dark hair and light blue eyes, just like me. He spoke Hebrew with an accent that told me his first language was Arabic, but he used many Jewish Hebrew expressions, like "Baruch hashem" - thank God. I didn't take too many cabs in my time in Israel, so I didn't know that this was a thing. We got to talking, and although his English was probably better than my Hebrew, he told me it was important for me to speak Hebrew, and we spoke for the whole trip in Hebrew. He spoke slowly and enunciated to help me understand. He told me he was born in Kuwait and his wife was born in East Jerusalem. They now live in Jerusalem together with their whole family on a compound, over 100 people living together in separate houses in the same area. It was Ramadan, and he said he was not a very religious man, but he loves Ramadan, because it was not hard to fast when you get to have a beautiful feast every night surrounded by everyone you love. He told me about the lights, the music, and the food - so much food, everyone felt like kings. He said over and over how blessed he was - Baruch hashem.

We also talked about cats. He saw mine and was so excited. He said he never owned a cat, but that there were dozens that live on his compound, and he feeds them and takes care of them. He said there was great joy when one let you touch it. He said he doesn't let them in the house, because his wife thinks they're dirty, but to have a cat hang around your house is very very good luck. And that it was probably good luck for me to keep one as a pet.

He asked me why I was moving back to America. I told him I had to for school, but that it is also hard to live in Israel. He said he understood, but Israel "will be here" for me when I return. I was unsure how to respond to a non-Jew seemingly advocating for my "Right of Return," but I accepted it as a very warm and welcoming gesture from someone who also loves the land, and had lived in it longer than I had, but was also not a native.

The jacarandas have bloomed in Southern California and are beginning to drop their flowers. The jacarandas in Jerusalem reminded me of California. The jacarandas in California remind me of Jerusalem. I'm reminded of taking walks around the city with Ze'evi, pointing out all the plants I could identify. Going to Jachnun Bar and having to remember how to say "cauliflower" in Hebrew because the server, seeing that we mostly knew Hebrew, wouldn't let us order in English. I see the purple petals and I crave malawach and the sound of Hebrew and the soft slippery steps of Jerusalem stone.

My heart has been full of longing -- איזה געגוע -- for the person and the place I fell in love with last year. And while it will be a while yet till I return to Jerusalem, my heart is full knowing I will be with my person, and there will be new plants for me to identify for them, and new places for us to discover together.

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