Jerusalem Journa: Yatzpan and me

It often seems that with each passing year my life in Israel is becoming less and less Israeli - although not by design.

Pinned onto my pillow was a curious envelope adorned with an "I love you" sticker. Clearly it wasn't from a male suitor as I haven't had a date in 11 months. I quickly scanned my mental Rolodex to ascertain who would love me enough to offer such a romantic gesture. (Is George Clooney clairvoyant?) Not surprisingly, the envelope had been left by my daughter and contained two tickets to a live audience presentation of The Eli Yatzpan Show, scheduled for the coming Saturday night at the Jerusalem Theater. I could barely contain my excitement while, at the same time, warding off a sense of panic. "I won't understand a thing!" I protested. "What if everyone in the audience is laughing hysterically and I'm sitting there looking like I'm from Uzbekistan? Worse, what if I guffaw in all the wrong places?!?" Talia patiently responded. "This is an aliya anniversary present. You love Yatzpan on television and your Hebrew is almost fluent. It is time that you mingle with Israelis and integrate. Enough. There is more to life than Janglo and AACI [Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel] garage sales." Sigh. It often seems that with each passing year my life in Israel is becoming less and less Israeli - although not by design. Liaising with Westerners on a daily basis demands impeccable English which, I'm finding, is harder and harder to hold on to. This isn't to say that the English I'm losing is being replaced by Hebrew. Rather, I'm just experiencing longer periods of silence while struggling to express myself in any language. That said, Saturday night rolled around and my steady date Ariel (17-year-old son who can't believe how much time he actually spends escorting his mother to events) and I found ourselves happily standing in line at the majestic Jerusalem Theater, shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder alongside real Israelis: hardcore Lonely Planet's Guide To Israel types including big-bellied national religious men sporting oversized crocheted kippot, Sarit Haddad look-alikes with their "shachordini" (bleached blonde) hair, several shuk stall owners and the secular Ramat Aviv crowd that skis in Austria and knows a helluva lot about sushi. Assessing my co-standees, it was abundantly clear that I was the only American in this well-heeled and cheery mob. Suddenly my star-spangled deportment felt uncannily weighty and I sensed that I was, somehow, an alien. Something dawned on me in the days that followed the Yatzpan night out. The show took place on the eve of my 13-year aliya anniversary and I must have been waxing emotional despite an iron-tough exterior. Rarely in all these years have I had the luxury to stop, assess and/or contemplate the way life has unexpectedly unfolded. The plans I made when just a girl included being a ballerina, astronaut and a mother but only the mother part came to fruition. The word "divorce" was reserved for chain-smoking, halter-topped women of a certain ilk and never sullied our proud family tree. Taking all of my lessons from the Fifties and Sixties, I planned to work until the birth of my first child, bake a lot and get stubborn stains out of just about anything. Well, what a surprise Israel turned out to be! Still not a ballerina (having a bit of trouble with those pesky leg lifts), that 24/7 mom routine gave way to part-time work to full-time work to two jobs and squeezing in a little parenting when time allows. Unplanned-for singleness made for awkward seating arrangements at simchas for many years but a recent move to Katamon has tossed me into a human pot filled with guys and gals who are also not married and don't balk at uneven-numbered seating. There is a popular parable describing a man threatened with impending death by a flood. He keeps refusing help in the form of two boats and a helicopter because of a deep-seated belief that God will miraculously rescue him. "God will save me," he all-too-righteously shouts to the respective do-gooders until, not unexpectedly, he drowns. Upon reaching the gates of Heaven he utters, "I don't mean to be ungrateful, God, but why did you let this happen? I believed you would save me," to which God answered, "What do you want from me? I sent two boats and a helicopter!" With this in mind, I want to share that I recently had coffee with a fresh-off-the-plane immigrant who is not having an easy time of things. The neighbors aren't friendly and, even if they were, they are too old and of different religious mindsets. She is lonely and fears burdening her husband with her questions that include, in fact, whether or not they have to stay in Israel. Although not an authority on many things, I'm a maven on grabbing life by the shoulders and defying convention. And from personal experience I can confidently state that merely "letting life happen" is a foolproof recipe for depression. There are moments in this 120-year sojourn to draw one's tomorrows on a (figurative) piece of paper and insert dollops of happiness. Spirituality-based lectures, political rallies, book clubs, water aerobics classes, flea markets and the Cinematheque are all good starting points for getting rooted in this new Middle East home. (I can't expect everyone to follow my personal example of loitering in the shuk several times a week to achieve psychological balance; it's a personal quirk.) Serving up meals once a week in a soup kitchen can help improve one's ulpan Hebrew while easing away the aching new oleh stiffness. Special-needs children do not really care if a loving volunteer speaks with an accent or is having a hard time understanding his monthly bank statement. Hugs work pretty well regardless of whether someone hails from France, the US or South Africa. Which brings me back to Yatzpan. I roared. With each change of costume I cheered aloud and moaned at every cornball joke that merited a Catskills-worthy drum roll. My previous 20 years of Sephardi wifedom came in handy as I shrieked at the routines that poked fun at Iraqi fathers-in-law, Moroccan cab drivers and Persian playmates. When Yatzpan mocked a British salesman, I gave nothing away other than an ear-to-ear grin which mirrored the smiles around me. I was part of an audience fabric that was indigenously Israeli on a laugh-filled evening in a city that is often under siege and yearns for more "smile fests." Thirteen years ago, the Fourth of July coincided with coming home to Israel. This year, I celebrated with Eli Yatzpan. Independence never felt so good.