My Favorite Place on Earth

There was steep security just entering the gate for our flight in Newark. Passports and bags checked, boarding passes verified, once, then again after we waited in line to board the plane.

Full flight, and every minute was filled with excited anticipation of finally returning to where my heart lives, the land of Israel. I slept maybe three hours, forcing myself to close my eyes and quiet my mind for even a little while so I could hit the ground walking once we landed.

And then we arrived. Touched down 10 hours after we left, surviving slightly bumpy dark skies, loving the map on the little screen that showed where in the world there was light at any moment and where there was complete darkness.

In seven years, the airport added walkways directly from the plane into the airport. The last time I was here, we walked down a staircase in the open sun and wanted to kiss the tarmac beneath our feet.

Our bags collected and a bright, sunny welcome from the passport control officer, we climbed into a white Mercedes taxi, impeccably clean and air-conditioned cool.

There is a literal going up into the holy city of Jerusalem as much as the metaphorical one. It is a true ascent – coming to this country, to this city. Everyone back home wished us a good trip and “be safe.” Nonsense. Hooey. Stop listening to the news. Israel is the safest place on Earth.

And the smartest. And the most miraculous.

I love being an American, but I love Israel in a more passionate sense. The air is clean and clear. The technology vibrant and leading. The harmonious juxtaposition of Jew and Arab, religious and secular.

I’m telling the truth. We walked from our hotel to the Old City and wove our way along the satin-smooth stone streets through the Armenian Quarter into the Jewish Quarter, cups of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice in our hands.

We stepped inside the quiet enclave of a store called Rina to buy the first of what will be many gifts for our children, and became fast friends with Hanan, the owner, a new father (10-day-old son named Zion) and a native Jerusalemite who said, “Judaism is a buffet. There is no Orthodox. There is just Jewish.”

Kippah on his head, his parents lifelong residents of the religious Old City. Tonight, he will gather with his wife and newborn son and his parents and other family and dance with Torah scrolls in circles on the old stones and for 24 hours, everyone will be friends.

What is wonderful about this holiday, he told us, is that all the synagogues in the Old City come together. He invited us along.

We kissed the stones of the Western Wall, ducked inside an impressive sukkah built at the edge of the Kotel plaza. We ate passionfruit and mango gelato as we strolled through the Cardo shops, then the Arab shuk.

And we’ve only been here six hours.

Dan is awestruck, and I am riding high on being home to my soul. I don’t want to live here permanently, but I sure do want to be here more. More often, for longer periods of time, with my children and without.

I can’t quite explain why this place calls me. Seven years I have stayed away, but always yearned to return. I wasn’t born here, and I am no longer religious, but the spiritual soaring of my soul takes me home to this tiny nation that the whole world turns against time and time again.

I tried to explain it to Dan as we walked back to our hotel, laden with gifts and purchases.

I look at and listen to Israelis, and I see strong, confident, smart people who are proud of being Jewish and proud of their nation. Vigilantly proud. And in their faces, I see resemblances of the ancestors who came before them from Europe to this land to claim it, to work it, to make it green and blossom, to turn it into a place of peace.

image(It is. Don’t believe what you read in the media. Read instead Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook Jerusalem for a true picture of this place.)

The ancestors who came here looked and acted differently, though. They were paler, hidden away from the world, fearful, complacent. Our history shows us running from Cossacks and Nazis and so many others who just wanted to annihilate us.

And the ones who came here, they claimed the land and said, “Enough.” They refused to be bullied. And they made something great out of nothing.

I have never felt safer, or more at home, any other place in the world. I do love to travel, and I love to experience new places and cultures. I cried when I left India earlier this year.

I can love a place but not need it in my bones. I need Israel. I am not whole when I stay away too long.

And so, stay tuned for the poetic words of my inspiring days ahead. This place transforms you. It takes you in whatever form you bring and lifts you up higher, quieter, stronger than you ever imagined possible.

The place dreams are made of.

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