San Francisco is my lifelong home. But every time I leave Israel, a part of my heart and soul is torn out. This last time might have been the toughest.
It’s difficult to describe to someone who doesn’t have the connection I, and so many of my family and friends, have to Israel — why she digs so deep into our souls, why she is part of our consciousness, why we fight so vigorously for her. Israel casts a spell, and I am incapable of breaking free. And to make matters crazier, I have zero desire to break free. I only want more and more.
Friends have asked me to describe our last trip. In the past it has always been easy: wonderful, exciting, inspiring, beautiful, fun, all words that have always flowed freely. But this one has thrown me for a loop.
It didn’t start without concerns. The search for the three kidnapped boys was ongoing, and the fear for them hung over everything like a cloud. But my son Jacob’s bar mitzvah was wonderful and he was amazing (I know I’m biased, but he really was). There was so much joy surrounding us. The sun beat off the stones of Jerusalem, but I think our smiles shined brighter.
After Jerusalem we traveled down south. We saw sights we will never forget, swam in springs in the middle of arid desert, searched for scorpions late at night, drank delicious wine grown in the same place winemakers practiced their trade a thousand years ago along ancient spice routes. But we also found out about the discovery of the bodies of the three boys and the revenge murder of another innocent boy days later.
We were walking through Jaffa when we heard our first siren. It took a few moments for us to realize what it was. A nearby restaurant owner called out to us to come into his place to seek shelter. I felt a calm, coupled with concern for the fears of my children. How do you explain to your kids that everything will be fine when they know at least one rocket has just been launched their way? My kids are too old to pretend nothing is going on. The restaurant owners saw my kids’ distress and did what Israelis always do — they comforted. They gave us water, told us to sit as long as we needed, that we were part of their family and welcome to stay. Despite my children being afraid, all I could think about was how my love for Israelis just grew.
The rest of the week, we heard the boom of Iron Dome many times. We saw the smoke trail of rockets, we sought out shelter when the siren sounded again, but we continued to go on with our vacation. That refusal to alter one’s life despite the constant fear is what is so hard to explain. The Israelis live this every day. It is stressful to know that any moment you will need to seek shelter, even if you’re not consciously thinking about it at all times; it is hovering over you. The boom of Iron Dome makes you jump. My kids were hearing explosions where none existed. It takes a psychological toll. I found no stress greater than watching the fear in my kids.
Yes, life goes on. Yes, Israelis want you to continue on with your day, sit on the beach, have dinner in a great restaurant, buy souvenirs, stroll through exciting neighborhoods teeming with life. But everything is different, everything is altered, everything has a different light and texture.
However, the people remain the same: They are the bravest, warmest, craziest, loudest, most argumentative, smartest, best looking and big-hearted people on this planet. More than once people asked if we were tourists and thanked us for being with them, telling us how brave we were (us?!) for staying. It felt like they all wanted to invite us over for an afternoon of tea and cakes.
It is the people who make it so hard to leave. And it’s the people who make it so hard to describe my feelings properly. The land is wonderful, beautiful, mysterious, exciting, and I do feel an extremely strong connection to the history, our history. But it is the people who make the land what it is. They have brought it to life, they have planted vineyards in the desert, opened fashionable restaurants on fashionable boulevards, built cities out of sand, grew forests where none existed, and fought to bring Jews from every corner of the world out of danger and to our promised land. And they just want to let their children play on jungle gyms, not bomb shelters. Not hear the constant barrage over the airwaves that people want you dead because you’re a Jew. They just want peace.
How was our trip? Wonderful, exciting, inspiring, beautiful, fun. Stressful, exhilarating, affirming, amazing. Delicious, awe-inspiring, scary, joyous. Israel, if it isn’t clear, I love you. And I’m pretty sure you love me too. And for that I will always be grateful.
Sam Lauter is a public affairs professional and a fifth-generation San Franciscan who comes from a long line of active Zionists. He lives in San Francisco with Stephanie and their two kids.