Day 9: Crossing the Mississippi River to Chicago

The Mississippi River, from Pike Peak State Park, Iowa, looking at the Wisconsin side.

In the summer of 1977, the synagogue we belonged to (or maybe I should say, it belonged to us, as it was just starting -) embarked on a new project: inviting exchange students from America. For about six months, the students were to be housed with local families and go to local Israeli high schools in a new of its kind immersion program. How exciting!! My own brother was attending a navy boarding high school at the time, and our 2 bedroom apartment (in retrospect, tiny but in my mind then, quite ample -) seemed “empty” and “spacious”.
I don’t know exactly what I said, that I’ll do chores and that I’ll learn English and on and on; and maybe, there were just not enough families who signed up. Before we knew it, a group of shy, slightly awkward, and very American teens arrived. There was no “pre-meeting”, pictures, skype, anything. As Paul reminded me this morning when we were having tea in his spacious home in a suburb of Chicago, the lady in charge from our synagogue, just gave birth and there was no one really in charge. The “ceremony”, if any, went something like an adoption horror story: ‘you, take… what’s your name? Next: you…’ Hey who cares? One way or another, I got my American brother!
Well, there were adjustments, to be sure. We went on family “tiyulim”, showing off the wonderful, amazing, beautiful, one and only – Land of Israel, with its marvelous mountains (the tallest point on the Carmel is 1724’ above sea level-), towering trees (planted by JNF a couple of decades earlier), flowing rivers (at winter, right after the rain), and a lot a lot of rocks and I remember my mom’s dismayed face, when, to her horror, Paul dared napping in the car. How can anyone sleep?? This is our beloved homeland! I think it took me all this time – and this trip – to realize what it must have been like to hear Bible Stories about the Jordan River, and imagine it at least like the Mississippi, and then come to the hot, arid stones that one can cross in a casual jump and us Israelis call “a river”… not to mention that he’s seen many of the sites before, but in that ‘smooth cultural exchange’, we had no idea what exactly was going on.
Then there were efforts to make “American” foods. In her despair, my mom decided to make pizza (American food, right?). It should not be so difficult, just take some dough, pour “sauce”, i.e. ketchup on it, and lay some slices of cheese above. Here! Wait, what’s wrong??
And – worst of worst: Paul refused to speak English. He was very clear that he came to Israel to learn Hebrew, not to be my English tutor. Already then, at 16, he knew exactly what he wanted to be: a rabbi. I also knew what I wanted to be, or do, or maybe… well, let’s see: I want to study – everything. And write. And travel. And dance. And teach. And discuss deep philosophical matters. And talk with my friends. And… interestingly, fast forward and he’s the senior rabbi of a large congregation in the Chicago, and here I am.
To be sure, I was happy with my “brother”. We quickly became best friends and part of a ‘hevre’ at the synagogue’s youth group. Sadat came to Israel. There was peace. Everything was good.
Before my army service, my mom and I went on a trip through the US (anyone remembers “VUSA”? yes -) and got to visit him and his family. I was so sad. He was headed to college; I was going to the army! This was obviously the very last time ever –ever I would see him! I think I spent half the visit in tears.
When I came to the U.S. we spoke a few times, but the distance between CA and Chicago – and between our lives – was much bigger before the internet and we lost touch. Decades passed. Then, an article I wrote through me front and center on the Jewish map and shortly after, I got a message from my long lost American brother. We happened to both be in Jerusalem at the same time: me at Pardes, and him – at Hartman. Once again, we could have coffee and chat. When I decided to drive cross-country, a stop in Chicago to see my brother and meet his wife, was obvious.
Throughout this trip, every day I get on the road I am ecstatic with everything around me. Wow, look at this, wow, look at that, me and myself share excitedly; the rivers and lakes; the blue and green and yellow and brown; the sounds and smells; the expanse around me; the fact that I can trust my phone to take me; that the road doesn’t dead-end somewhere; it never ceases to amaze me that wherever I go there is gas and light and water and a little motel and a bathroom and NPR and grapes and chai-tea-latte… I drive and jot down in my mind all the things I must write about later. Many of them, I forget by the time I get anywhere, but being able to continue a conversation from almost 40 years ago, is a whole different wow.

Pike Peak State Park, Iowa

אח שלי

Almost 40 years later

on the road…



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1 Response to Day 9: Crossing the Mississippi River to Chicago

  1. Nitza Agam says:

    You know how to bring Israel, the past and the present, Chicago of then and now, the 16 year old, the Israel of that time to meeting an old friend after so many years, and what great photos! It is mamash kef to read your work!

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