NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 22: Sunrise over the Golan

The pitch black sky was studded with stars as I crept down the dimly lit paths of Kibbutz Dan on my way to work in the kerem (vineyards) at 4:30 in the morning. My heart thumped as I passed the terra cotta bungalows, children’s houses, health center and hadar ha’ochel (dining room). The exhilarating scent of damp grass filled my lungs. Being out before dawn felt slightly illicit and every cell in my body tingled on high alert.

Shadowy figures converged across the lawn, the men in baggy brown overalls, the women in blue work shirts and shapeless pants, on their way to work like me. A groggy young soldier crossed my path on his way home from guard duty. Although both men and women served in the army, only men pulled night duty. I couldn’t help noticing how traditionally the workforce was divided by gender – men in the fields; women in the kitchen, laundry, health center, school and children’s houses, while men held all the leadership roles. I was beginning to see the gap between the real and the ideal in the collective ideology of the kibbutz. So much for a truly egalitarian society.

Swinging the beam of my flashlight over the darkened eucalyptus and oleander bushes on both sides of the dirt road, I hoped the crunch of my work boots would ward off any snakes. The pre-dawn was turning a shade of gray, a few doves cooed hypnotically, and the pungent odor of manure from the nearby lul (chicken coop) and refet (barnyard) prickled my nose. The cock-a-doodle do of a rooster suddenly piercing the silence, sent a stab of fear up my spine like the point of a knife. What if an infiltrator lurked in the shadows?  (We did not yet call them terrorists.) Shivering, I quickened my pace. It was still a kilometer to the kerem, and only a stone’s throw of the Syrian border.

The only visible signs of the still-active state of war between Israel and Syria were a few haphazard warnings posted on rusty rolls of barbed wire and broken blocks of concrete: DANGER, EXPLOSIVES, KEEP OUT! But their faded letters in Hebrew, English and Arabic looked abandoned. A faint braying floated from beyond the barbed wire. Squinting, I glimpsed the billowing white-robes of a man plowing his fields behind two donkeys. The sight sent me back to a bygone time. Compared with the modern tractors used on the kibbutz, his world seemed light years away. In this bucolic atmosphere, war seemed surreal, much less the possibility that Israel might one day capture this territory from the Syrians and annex it as the Golan Heights.

One by one, the stars winked out. A faint glow now silhouetted the hills against the sky’s dark dome. I knew those hills harbored bunkers, and in those bunkers sat Syrian soldiers cradling Russian-made Kalashnikovs that might well be trained on me. But in that moment, the dawn’s beauty eclipsed all human conflict. While part of me realized how easily the soldiers could pick me off, my imagination fancied that the odd sight of a young gingit in shorts, boots and bandana, might offer a welcome distraction from the tedium of war.

By now light was gathering at top speed, rimming the hills with opalescent clouds of apricot, lavender and magenta, until suddenly, in a blaze of gold cannon-balled over the horizon. There was nothing gradual or subtle about sunrise in this part of the world! The intense contrast between darkness and light made me want to cheer the new day and grieve the loss of night all at once. Despite my exhaustion at the end of each shift, I couldn’t wait to creep along the dirt road again the next morning when the sun would give birth to a newborn day.

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 15: Night in Eilat

I shuddered at the thought of venomous vipers, as snakes were called. But darkness had long since fallen and I could no longer put off finding a place to sleep. The youth hostel was full, my fair weather English friends were sleeping on the beach, and I’d finally given up on finding my road partner Mordechai. I was truly on my own now. With a mix of relief, guilt, dread, and excitement, I shouldered my pack and began walking in the direction of the abandoned kibbutz described by the boy at the café. The desert had turned suddenly very cold, and the wind whipped through my thin sweatshirt. Before long, Eilat’s few streetlights disappeared, leaving only the half-moon as my guide.

After a while, I made out some adobe buildings. The half-demolished barns and bungalows had the look of an abandoned settlement all right. Following the sound of something dripping, I discovered an old shower pipe protruding from a bathroom wall. Its ruined ceiling gaped open to the sky. Droplets glistened in the beam of my flashlight. To my amazement, when I turned the shower knob, water gushed out like Moses striking the rock! The temptation to wash away the salt and grime of the day was too much to resist, so with the moon as my only witness, I stripped naked and let the cool stream pound over my hair and skin like a waterfall. Wet sand oozed up through the cracked ceramic tiles beneath my feet but I didn’t care as long as it wasn’t a viper. Shivering, I let the breeze dry me off. Even my dirty clothes felt cleaner now. Now, if only I could find a safe spot to sleep. But was I the only hitchhiker seeking sanctuary in this abandoned kibbutz?

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 5: Hitchhiking

The Negev Desert was a land of extremes – by day a white-hot griddle; by night a blackened skillet; at dawn a copper pot; at dusk a painted gourd. Its unforgiving rocks and sharp scent reminded me of my early childhood in Texas and Kansas, where the harshness of the land had somehow made me feel strong. Did the Bedouin woman trudging along the road feel that way too?

But the gloomy Northern California coast where I’d later grown up had zapped my strength under a depressing blanket of fog. I knew without knowing that to dry up all my tears, I had to escape to a hot place. Now the merciless desert was restoring the strength I’d known as a child. I could feel my life energy surging up into my bones. Or was it the rumble of a giant semitruck grinding to a halt as I stuck out my thumb on the side of the highway?

“Climb into the back,” the driver shouted over the idling engine. Catapulting over the tailgate, I clung to a rough wooden bench as the colossus lurched forward. Like a prairie schooner, a canvas tarpaulin offered shelter from wind and sun. From its oval opening, the road spool out behind me like a wide-angle screenshot. Here and there, the greenhouses of an agricultural outpost broke the monotonous beige of rock and sand as the road wound ever deeper into a narrowing chasm and the hours slowly passed. Just when I thought we’d reached the end of the world, the brakes hissed and the truck ground to a stop at the top of a ridge. I had just enough time to scramble out before it barreled downhill, showering me with dust in its wake.

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 4: Gingit!

 I couldn’t resist the beauty of the nocturnal sky as I crept up on deck alone. A shimmering canopy of stars arched over the cobalt sea, falling to the horizon like a fishnet tugged tight by unseen hands. Flying fish played in the ship’s wake, their silvery tails and bellies twisting and flashing in the starlight. Leaning over the stern, I let the salt spray wash over my face. Boundless as eternity, time stood still. Only the low thrum of the engines, the slapping of the blue-black waves, and the starry dome overhead reminded me I was still on Planet Earth. As I watched, a poem I’d written in third-grade floated into my memory net, shiny as the flying fish.

Sailing boat, sailing boat, sailing away

Over the ocean and far away

Will you come back or will you stay there?

Where will you go? Where, where, where?

I still didn’t know the answer to that riddle but I was on a quest to find out. Where was home? Where did I belong?

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT – CHAPTER 1: Making Life Happen

As a young woman my mother had made her own Atlantic crossing to bring my sister and me from England to America. Our parents had met in the midst of World War II, when Dad was an American GI stationed in Britain and Mom was coordinating live entertainment for the Rosy the Riveters, working in the munition factories. Despite the chaos and carnage of war, they had managed to fall in love. But for our mother, marriage had meant leaving her own mother behind. As I grew up, she rarely mentioned this fateful decision and I learned not to ask. Instead, she’d adapted to her new life in the US with a grace and courage I had taken for granted. Now, as I gazed over the ship’s railing on my way to a year abroad in Israel, a wave of empathy engulfed me. I let my tears fall into the foam – as if the sea needed more salt.

Had my mother also had felt this poignant mix of elation and dread as she sailed toward an unknown future? My life just happened to me, she’d often say in a slightly wistful tone. So much of it had been beyond her control. Coming of age during the war years, the conflict had dashed her dreams of a career on the London stage, despite having trained at the prestigious London School of Speech and Drama. But I was determined my life would be different. Headstrong and idealistic, I would make my life happen!

NEWCOMERS IN AN ANCIENT LAND EXCERPT from the INTRODUCTION: Israel Then and Now

eilat settlement, 1950s

The Israel that greeted me on that distant, dusty road no longer exists except in memory. Today, parts of the Promised Land have been paved over to such an extent that the life and landscape of the early sixties in this story may sound fantastical. Humming freeways carry a population of nine million between skyscrapers and shopping malls. Villages have become towns and towns have burgeoned into cities in a building frenzy designed to accommodate a population that has tripled in half a century. Jerusalem, while officially united, remains a tale of two cities deeply divided, East and West.

Tel Aviv Israel city skyline

Of course, I too have grown from a teenager whose book was practically a blank slate to become a professional woman, mother, grandmother, and writer. But back then, Israel and I were in many ways coming of age like a pair of adolescents (we had, after all, come into being only three years apart). In that sense, the country’s cocky chutzpah and can-do attitude were a good match for my own mix of idealism and bravado. Israel’s pioneering spirit inspired me while my post-war generation was a source of hope and renewal after the Holocaust.

But the country’s heady idealism was not shared by all. As I was falling in love with my adoptive homeland, I was barely aware that Palestinians were grieving the loss of theirs. What Israelis called the War of Independence, they called the Naqba—a national disaster that had driven them into squalid refugee camps in an unwelcoming diaspora.  But after two thousand years of exile and persecution, the new Jewish inhabitants had little sympathy for the misfortunes of Palestinian refugees. While ordinary citizens on both sides longed for peace, security and geopolitical and issues beyond their control increasingly overshadowed their desires. Although it would still be several years before the War of 1967 launched the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands outside Israel’s recognized borders, the clouds of conflict were never far from the horizon.

However, this book is not meant to romanticize, politicize, or rationalize past or present affairs but to tell the story of a personal journey that came to determine the course of my life, though I had no idea of this at the time. I went to Israel in search of a closer understanding of my father through his Jewish roots, but planted my own roots there instead. Not only was I leaving my small hometown, I was also leaving my mother for a foreign land, just as she had left hers. On top of this, I was struggling to become an individual, distinct from my identical twin. Lurching on the tightrope between fear and the urge for independence, I plunged into the future with all the inexorable momentum of youth. That quest has now become a reverse journey through the arc of time, connecting the young girl I was with the woman I have become.