...Coming Home to Jerusalem...provide[s] a distinctly nonsimplistic snapshot of life in a far-from-simple land and time.The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Coming Home To Jerusalemby Wendy Orange, Wendy Oran
Coming Home to Jerusalem, Wendy Orange's story of her six years in Israel, is a vivid look at life behind the headlines, at the individuals who make up the fascinating and tumultuous place that is the contemporary Middle East. Orange and her family settled in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, and this is the story of her homecoming, the worlds she discovered, the people behind the politics, and the deep-seated ideas obscured by divisive ideologies.
Her sojourn brings her into contact with famous authors, obscure artists, Evangelical teachers, American-Israeli housewives, and citizens weary of the turbulent life Orange finds so fascinating. As a reporter for an American magazine, she travels to remote parts of Israel and into the Palestinian territories -- adventures that give her a broader picture of the age-old conflicts that inform the opinions of peaceniks and young soldiers, downtrodden refugees and elite politicians, on both sides of the cultural divide. Her portraits illuminate, with stunning immediacy, everyday lives lived in extraordinary circumstances, and she recounts her experiences with candor, wit, and a keen eye for the cultural and political undercurrents of her adopted home.
Coming Home to Jerusalem... chronicles the years Orange spends immersed in the nuances, languages, friends, views, food and... the politics of Israel...Meeting Palestinian journalists and activists, lawyers, psychiatrists, and elderly refugees...she tastes "the varieties of Palestinian consciousness, sweetness, depression, generosity, cunning, frustration, along with the more predictable black hate the fills some hearts." She spends time [in]... face-to-face and family-to-family dialogues between Jews and Palestinians... Orange...oscillates between hope and despair at newsworthy events...[she] is committed to the peace process, grieving over the obstacles created by extremists on both sides. Yet it is not ideology that, in the end, dominates this book...Orange's attention to individuals and to the emotional tone of events...makes her writing so appealing. "As we who are parents tune into our children," she remarks toward the close of Coming Home to Jerusalem, "I felt the shifts on the ground in an unmediated, intuitive way." I wish more journalists resembled her.Lilith Magazine
Dallas Morning News
In Coming Home to Jerusalem, Orange describes how this duality trailed her until 1991, when... she travels to Jerusalem for the first time. Overcome by an instant sense of homecoming, she muses, "I've been the proverbial wandering Jew, looking for place in all the wrong places."... falls madly in love with Israel and can't leave.
[She] begins a self-styled curriculum of Jewish education... experiences first-hand the social division between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Israeli society... [Then] as Mideast correspondent Orange covers daily life in the West Bank and Gaza...She travels to and from Palestinian towns. In one of the book's most memorable scenes, Orange visits a psychiatric clinic in Gaza, where she observes therapy sessions with children suffering from post-traumatic stress after encounters with Israeli soldiers.
Amos Oz called the Israeli-Arab conflict the struggle between "right and right," and Orange soon finds herself caught between the worlds of the journalist who witnesses the poverty and fear of Palestinian daily life and the Jew who so badly wants to embrace her new home in its totality. "I'm twisting inside," she says, "unable to hold onto the Israeli rationale and the Palestinian narrative at the same time." Her attempt to resolve this inner conflict and create a new definition of home occupies the rest of the book.
Orange's reporting skills are top rate, whether she's having tea in a Palestinian refugee camp or witnessing the historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin...The result is a book that offers many finely detailed scenes of "the ethnic porousness in the Mideast, a racial cross-fertilization that takes place so visibly that no one over there finds it noteworthy"...
It's January 1991, and Wendy, a non-observant Jew, is watching the Gulf war on CNN. She's horrified to see a SCUD missile land on Tel Aviv and Israelis escaping to Jerusalem. She's also horrified to realize that she doesn't really know where Jerusalem is. So she organizes a trip-two weeks at a Jerusalem peace conference. This New York/New England American has never been to Israel, was never interested in Israel, and knows not a single soul in Israel.
But as soon as she gets there, she feels at home-more at home, in fact, than ever before in her life. In her words, "I feel an easy intimacy with the people, with the place and with myself, wherever I go. I belong in Jerusalem." When the conference ends, she flies back to Boston, quits her prestigious job, packs up her young daughter, and emigrates. Her book, COMING HOME TO JERUSALEM, is the story of that emigration: what it meant to her, to her daughter and to the people she met in Israel and the West Bank.
Though much of the focus in on the feelings involved in being in Israel, COMING HOME TO JERUSALEM taught me more about the Middle East than any thing else I've read. Wendy Orange meets everyone from ultra-Orthodox Jewish settlers to gun-toting Palestinian fighters. She views them all though psychologist's eyes. That doesn't mean she squeezes them into neat psychiatric classifications; it means she looks beneath the surface into their hearts and unspoken beliefs. COMING HOME TO JERUSALEM is a terrific first book. (Jules Older, commentator Vermont Public Radio)
Perpetually surrounded by the constant Israeli-Arab conflict, Orange appoints herself as unofficial peace advocate. Determined to unravel the knots of Israel's continual battle for land [and] to gain a better perspective on the Israeli-Arab relationship. With the help of her Arab landlord, she crosses the Green Line...
As we enter Palestine, we are invited to witness the other side of the story... unfair treatment, deportation and attacks by Israeli troops on Palestinian citizens cause us, like Orange, to empathize with the pain, sorrow, fear, anger... of the Arab people...The Oslo peace talks spark hope. Then suddenly, expectations of co-existence are silenced...Talk of fences, borders and separation gain momentum...we are caught up in the painful, poignant uncertainties of Israeli-Arab discord...[She writes]: "As always this land I love is a world as impossible to fully decode as it is unbearable to leave-this theater of incongruous, gruff, sexy, close-minded, religious, secular, cruel, funny and excitable characters. This drama has everything but an ending.The Post Courier
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In The Beginning
Certain moments stand out, imprinted on our memories, however innocuous they seem when lived: On a Sunday morning in late autumn, 1990, I was walking down a deserted street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, walking also into a familiar alienation.
The first signs of winter were coming on. The last tattered leaves were dropping from the oaks, maples and elms, under a gray November sky. This sight had, since childhood, thrown me into mysterious dejections, a sense of exile. Certain that I couldn't rise above this recurring mood, I looked down, studied a grayish stretch of sidewalk. And it came to me, starkly, that I was homesick.
In the New York suburb where I grew up, there were similar sidewalks, nearly identical streets and trees, the same hushed quiet. There, too, the "action" took place in that American agorathe mallwhich in the 1950's was the shopping district at the center of town. As I walked along, I realized that I was homesick for a place where I'd rarely felt at homea thought that filled me with numb wonder.
What I found estranging growing up in Woodmere, Long Island was the town's obsession with appearances, clothes, homes and cars, a materialism that seeped into children's lives. My best friend Lizzie, for example, had a mother who wouldn't allow her to go outside, not even to elementary school, on any days when her hair frizzed.
This focus on externals was the rule, not the exception. Yearly, everyone went into a high-voltage shopping frenzy as the Jewish High Holidays approached. Mothers and daughters crammed the stores, searching (not in "quiet," but in boisterous desperation) for the "right" outfits. At ten, I'd already discovered that shopping was a lacerating ordeal from which it took hours to recuperate. Though "objectively" there was little wrong with my appearance, I loathed the mirror-reflections, the pressures to look good, the thingifying of it all. Especially, I dreaded the outings for holiday "dress up" clothes, all-important occasions in which I had no vote about whatever was purchased. That momentous decision was left to my mother, who, along with a particularly mousy saleswoman, conferred, plucking crinolines, stockings, crepe skirts and Pappagallo shoes for me to wear. For all the difference my presence made, I might have stayed home and left it to them to outfit me. Unfortunately, this thought never occurred--and if it had, I'd have spent hours in that store anyway.
What I loved to do, as much as I dreaded shopping, was to talk on the phone with my friends for hours and then (a leap of no small proportions) then retreat up to my bedroom where, surrounded by books, I'd read obsessively about the Holocaust. Such an immersion, which lasts to this day, surely began (I speak here as a parent) when I was far too young.
Decades later, I can view the split-level irony of those '50's evenings: I'm upstairs tripping the light fantastic into Treblinka while my parents, below, are bustling about their living room, creating their private tribute to the nascent Jewish State. Gold-plated menorahs, silver mezzuzahs, enlarged photographs of Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann were placed (and replaced) among rows of books on the Mideast history, which held all I thought I'd ever glimpse of the State of Israel. Squeezed among all these volumes and artifacts were the burgundy prayer books we dusted off twice a year before heading out to "Temple."
Once inside our high-ceilinged synagogue, I tried to follow the Hebrew textrising and sitting and rising again as instructed. But soon only boredom was rising in meusually less than an hour into the day-long service. Though some adults in the room were audibly snoring, if I began fidgeting, my mother would dig her long red nails into my skinny arms, putting an end to all thoughts of dashing out to the hallway for a break. So I restlessly listened to the English part of the service and then to the Rabbi's long lecture which invariably focused on Israel. He'd remind us that Israel was a country in dire need of our devotions, our prayers and our money as welllots of it, everything we could muster.
The adults, presumably, sent in checks. We children slid all our spare changenickels, dimes, quartersinto pre-packaged envelopes, scooped out with coin-sized slots. These packets were shipped half way around the world. Months later, we received "deeds" to our very own Israeli treescommodities whose value wasn't clear to us; after all, we lived in a town full of them. Yet we spent many Sundays collecting those coins because our parents and Hebrew teachers demanded we do, and because (as became clear over time) for most adults in our town Judaism played a distant second to Woodmere's primary religion, which was Israel. Or so it seemed to one over-earnest ten-year-old.
Overheard everywhere were fever-pitched discussions about the new Jewish State. The din of these voices was as striking as the silence about the events occurring prior to Israel's birth. The silence and the commotionas I was later to learnwere entwined because many in my hometown had family members who'd been murdered by the Nazis.
Reading in my bedroom led me to identify ever less with Israel's blue star, ever more with that yellow Jude armband worn by Europe's doomed millions. My room burgeoned with books I found in the local librarynot only popular ones like Anne Frank's Diary but obscure titles, anything that mentioned the death camps. The more I read, the more Israel's flag seemed a flimsy cover for that immense darkness.
At night, seemingly safe in the suburbs, I often dreamt of the Nazis, of concentration camps or the cattle cars. I'd wake drenched in sweat, heavy-hearted, suffering dream-hangovers. In my pink and gray striped bedroom I'd sit up, try to dispel these night visions while listening to the thunderous Long Island Railroad trainstheir tracks cut through our small backyard. At eight minute intervals, the "commuters," as we called them, rattled our dishes, shook the photos on our walls, deafening all conversation. As they chortled past, I heard echoes of those other trains, traveling along such terrifying trajectories.
By the time I entered high school, Israel had taken a peculiar shape in my mind, odd as its contour on the map. I alternately pictured that far country as another Long Island suburb or a barren desert populated by grim, regimented "pioneers." Whichever image dominated, Israel had become, for me, the antithesis of hip and an emblem of the suburbia I longed to escape. And I did escapethe suburb and talk of Israelthe day my parents drove me to Manhattan to enroll in college. On New York's Upper West Side, for the first time in my remembered life, I felt the enchantment of being rightly placed.
In the Spring of 1967, I married a sweetheart of a guy named Julian. Only days after our wedding reception, I received a phone call from my father. Speaking even more softly than usual, he said, "Sit down, sweetie. Are you sitting? Bad news. Very bad. Grandpa Phil just died."
I sat in a daze as my father recounted how his father had been staying home to rest after his heart attack. "But today, he'd defied doctors orders. When he heard that a war in Israel had broken out, he left his bed, rushed to a fundraiser at the Waldorf Astoria. While his doctor and your grandmother grabbed onto his coat, he shook them off, racing up onto the stage. There he gave one of his speeches. He was shouting 'the very survival of Israel is at stake' when he had his fatal attack."
"Grandpa Philip died on a hotel stage?" I asked, amazed.
"Talk about fund raising! Your grandfather raked in at least twenty ambulances with that performance," my dad said wryly, as was his way. This was all I knew or cared about the '67 war. And then, within three years, as the Sixties and my marriage were both coming to an end, just after finishing my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I accepted a job in Boston. It was a prestigious position I thought too good to turn down, even though the hospital contract stated clearly that returning to live in New York would be impossible for years.
The week I arrived in Boston, I knew I had just made one colossal, irrevocable mistake. Though I loved my work, clients and new friends, the town of Cambridge, where I leased an apartment, shuttled me emotionally right back to Woodmeredifferent as I knew these places to be. It was as if my years in Manhattan were only a fleeting mirage.
Since no one else I knew disliked the Boston area, I tried to ignore the memory flashbacks which the physiognomy of the town evoked. Yet despite reminding myself that I was always hypersensitive to place; despite attempts to ignore my feelings, I couldn't. Living in Cambridge gave rise to an inner suffocation, not dissimilar to the claustrophobic awareness that you've just married the wrong person.
I sought out a supervising analyst at my hospital, a Jewish woman with whom I'd developed a small rapport. We set up a session where I talked about the disconsolate moods that could strike without notice, triggered by anything at allthe shape of a multiplex theater, a shadow cast on a wall, an angle of winter light.
The analyst studied me, her eyebrows raised in surprise. I couldn't be this superficial, she suggested. After all, we were both psychologists. We knew, better than most, how we take ourselves with us wherever we go. "There is no wrong place," she asserted before changing the subject to ask if I remembered my dreams. I nodded, flashing on a dream that recurred regularly, usually in autumn. I prefaced it by saying that I'd studied Buddhist meditation for the last few years. Then I walked her through the dream's tableaux: It's the Jewish High Holidays but I'm at a Buddhist Retreat. Meditation ends; I drift toward a run-down section of town where I enter a dissolute tavern. That's when I hear Hebrew melodies. They grow louder, obliterating the Buddhist chants and gongs. When the sad control melodies fade away. I sidle up to a degenerate guy and am, as the dream's end, madly trying to kiss him even though he's more or less drowning in his beer.
"That's an easy one," the analyst responded, "This dream points to your neglected Judaism. It's telling you to search for your ethnic roots. I suggest you start with the writings of Martin Buyer. Read his essays. Tonight would not be a minute too soon. Your dream shows that you're drunk on the wrong religious practices. Studying the great Jewish scholars now. One day, with luck, you'll get to Israel. There you'll find your true heritage. In the meantime, I encourage you to stop this nonsense about sidewalks and trees. Hit yourself (here she handed me a thick rubber band) the minute you think a negative thought about this quite lovely place."
Was she Freudian or Jung Ian; a behavioral psychologist or dull-minded ? I didn't know. What I knew was that my Buddhist dabbling were in no way an alternative religion. And that, given the volumes on psychoanalytic technique we had to read every night, I wouldn't find time for Martin Buyer as well. Out of her office, I rehashed her airtight "dream interpretation," which I found so simplistic that as I drove away, it crossed my mind that my mother, living on Long Island, had somehow managed to give this woman a ring before I arrived.
It was Saturday in September, 1973. Specifically, it's the afternoon of Yom Kippur as I was driving to visit my grandmothera fragile woman, now long-widowedwho still lived in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Far Rockaway, Queens. On this day she was too weak to attend synagogue (which was fine with me). Instead, we lounged together on twin beds in the home she'd shared with my grandfather for over fifty years. Sounding wistful, she said, "It's like Phil's still in the bathroomjust shaving or washing up." I asked how she kept Philip alive in her mind years after his death, a comment that evoked a sharp look of pity. My grandmother rightly intuited I would never love anyone for half a century. She then asked about Julianwhat had happened; why the divorce?
I explained about evading the Vietnam draft, about emigrating to Canada. I told her how, at the last possible moment, we returned to New York where Julian, miraculously, or sort of miraculously, received a psychiatric discharge. "On what grounds?" my grandmother wanted to know. She leaned forward, her face frowning. I relayed the strange truth: that after Julian pretended to be crazy to avoid the draft, he actually went crazy. My grandmother was all-ears, was thinking out loud: "That boy is lost. If only he'd moved to Israel! There, he'd have something to fight for. In Israel, he'd have become a man." I listened to her, wondering how a country could heal anyone's primal wounds, just a simple fact of life if you asked anyone in my family.
I drifted into reveries about who to date next while my grandmother checked her clock.
Shabbat was over and so she was free to turn on her radio. At first, the room filled with loud static. But soon, the station cleared and we heard the shocking news that just a few hours before, Israel had been the target of a surprising, deadly Arab attack. I looked at my grandmother. After twisting in agony on her bed, she put an ear into her high-topped old radio. Both of her arms were curled around it, as if for comfort. Occasionally, she'd wag a gnarled, arthritic hand over at me, a motion for me to stay quiet, though I hadn't said a word. She was obviously in a state of alarm about Israel's fate. What alarmed me was her fate. She was so weak; I certainly hadn't forgotten what the last Israeli war had done to my grandfather.
Soon my grandmother became exhausted, needed sleep. I brought water to her bed, smoothed her covers and kissed her good night. As I was turning off her radio, she waved her arm in agitation again. "Leave it on; I need the news...Another war," she mumbled in a small, tired voice."Try not to worry," I said. "Remember, I'll be here first thing tomorrow morning."
"Come early," she whispered hoarsely.
I did. At 7:30 A.M. I was standing with my parents on her front porch, carrying bagels and lox. Her door was still locked. "Good. She's sleeping late," my father said, relieved that his mother was getting rest. He, also, was terribly distracted by the war now raging in Israel. My mother retrieved our hidden key and we walked inside to find my grandmother lying in the exact position I'd left her only nine hours ago. Except that she was dead. In the heightened eeriness of that moment, the only sounds filling her too-silent bedroom were bulletins from Israel's battlefields.
Despite this second wrenching loss, I developed no more interest in the Yom Kippur War than I had in the '67 "Six Day" war. As Kafka wrote in a journal: "My family draped themselves over the map of the world, left me to inhabit only the places they left untouched." In a less dramatic (and less acerbic) vein, the same was true for me: Israel belonged, had always belonged, to my family.
The next events happened in quick succession when my parents were still in their fifties: In the early 1980's each was diagnosed with a terminal illness. After two years of constant worry and travel to help my mother, she died. A month to the day after her funeral, my father began his equally urgent, non-stop medical crises. Chemotherapy and dialysis, heart attacks and emergency rooms, bedpans and painthese were our daily fare. And then, as if suddenly, he too was gone.
Soon after losing them, I remarried. This time to a happy man, a bit too happy I might say, and happiest of all in the most remote spot imaginable in rural Jamaica, West Indiesan unusual place for a Long Island Jew, which he was, to call home. Within a year or so, I was offered a job as a professor at a college; we agreed to relocate to live in Burlington, Vermont. After the initial rush of joy with our new home, work and friends, I often sunk into a Sunday ennui, one which could spread, low grade, over an entire week. In such moods, I had the sensation of being only randomly or arbitrarily placedor felt, as a friend put it, that I was living in an anywhere but not a somewhere.
Our marriage ended eight years later. By then I had an infant daughter. Where to raise her? By now, I felt too Jewish for Vermont, too cerebral for Jamaica, too hooked on natural beauty for Manhattan, too eccentric for Cambridge. So I traveled with my baby girl from one place to another, aware that time and money were running out, that Eliza would soon be old enough to realize that not everyone lives in planes, trains and cars. The year she turned four, I "settled down"an injunction that anyone who knew me for even ten minutes emphatically advised. Cambridge was the sensible choice: a kid-friendly, academic town where I had close friends and a professional identity. Yet mere months after returning came that homesick moment on the sidewalk. And then, two months later, in January 1991, the Gulf War broke out.
I was glued to the television in my small Cambridge living room, watching CNN. On the screen, an Israeli reporter was struggling, none too successfully, to position a gas mask over his face. Once in place, it made him look like a huge rodent. His voice trembled and his knees were buckling as the building he reported from began shaking. Later, we learned that this was the first Scud Missile to hit Tel Aviv. But at the time, a news bulletin, shortly retracted, announced that a missile had just dropped poisonous chemicals over central Israel.
My association was as instant as it was historic; once again Jews were being gassed! On the screen I watched a slow-moving caravan of cars exiting Tel Aviv and heading up to Jerusalema place considered safer because Saddam Hussein was unlikely to bomb the holy Muslim sites there (though his aim was proving less than accurate). Watching that cold metallic war, I realized I had no idea where Jerusalem was located. I didn't know how far it was or in what direction from Tel Aviv. In fact, I had no sense of Mideast geography, none at all. Yet those Israeli telecasters as well as the Israelis on the streets being interviewed all felt familiar. They looked and dressed like me and my friends; were the same age, had the same verbal intonations as they spoke. Something was rising up in me, an idea as solipsistic as it was prescientprescient about me, not about Israel. The thought went like this:`If my parents and grandparents were alive, they'd be riveted by this war. But they are dead. So who is taking care of Israel now? Maybe it's my turn."
A month later I happened upon a brochure advertising a peace conference for "American, Israeli and Palestinian intellectuals." It was scheduled for the coming June in Jerusalem. By then, as was accurately predicted, the Gulf War would be over. I scrutinized this pamphlet with its list of speakers and assorted topics. Mostly, I studied that word "Jerusalem," a city whose name suddenly carried resonance, this place to which I'd never given a thought before. Something was stirring up my imagination: I'd walk around Cambridge, visualizing lemon and orange trees. I'd dream of a desert and wake wondering if this was what the Middle East looked like. It was as though I was somehow able to picture that distant, wild earth.
I brought the conference's pamphlet to my close friendmy twin soulMichael Koran. He'd lived in Israel for a few years, decades ago. He still had friends there, knew the country well. Immediately, he understood my hallucinatory response to the idea of going to see Jerusalem. "You will be amazed. You will be transformed. Definitely, we'll go, together," he said, adding, "You'll never forget this trip." The next day, we both signed up.
But in June, at Boston's Logan Airport, after we'd passed through intensive security and were standing at the open door to the 747 jet El Al jet, I panicked. I was worn down from single-parenting my five year old daughter, yet dreaded being separated from her. I'd never left her for more than an afternoon and I already missed her fiercely. In addition, I was certain that I'd have nothing, zip, to contribute to a conference of intellectuals steeped in Mideast history, Israeli politics, the nuances of peacemaking. The entire region again loomed as someone else's domain. Israel reverted to seeming geographically and psychologically too remote.
"Come on. You'll pour water for the geniuses," Michael joked.
"But I can't fly," I blurted out. Which was true. After thirty-odd years of flying (my first flight was at age ten) I'd never gotten through a single plane ride without the certainty that this one was doomed. Strong liquor, in-flight hypnosis, fear-of-flying workshopsall had been to no avail. On every flight, as I told Michael, I ended up mangling the arm of whoever sat beside me. Just then, El Al resolved this dilemma. A man from security sternly demanded that we take our seats.
From that moment forward, though braced for the familiar flood of macabre imageswings falling off or engines bursting into flamenot only did I fail to conjure visions of destruction but, on the contrary, I felt an extraordinary peace. The longer the plane hummed along, the greater my sense of well-being. I was comforted by the voices of Jewish pilots talking over the loudspeakers in Hebrew, by the sight of religious Jews davvening (bending back and forth in prayer) at the rear of the jet. The poised Israeli flight attendants, the friendly, non-stop conversations, the chaos and indifference to airline etiquette: all relaxed me. I was thrust into a rare meditative calm, a sense of homecoming that brought me closer to my parents and grandparents. They seemed to surround me in an angelic (almost psychedelic) welcome into the Holy Land.
Toward the end of the long flight, I looked down at my hands and saw reflections my father's fingers. As we prepared for landing, I heard echoes of my grandma Rose's voice: "Yes, at last! To Israel!"
What People are Saying About This
(Daphne Markin author of Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations)
(John J. Ratey, M.D. coauthor of Driven to Distraction and Shadow Syndrome)
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