Floating Trees: returning to the land of my ancestors

(This piece was written during EARTH week for the class, “It’s Elemental, My Dear,” currently taking place on Zoom. The prompt I chose was, “write about your relationship to your ancestral land.”)

I began bleeding the moment the El Al plane landed on the tarmac. A heavy dark red gushed out from between my legs after weeks pent up from the stress of preparing for my trip to Israel. A befitting gift to my indigenous homeland, I thought.

This is 1996. Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin had just been assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist who opposed his support of the Oslo peace process. Soon after, Yahya Ayyash a bombmaker and battalion leader for Hamas was assassinated by the Israel Security Agency. Hamas terrorists retaliated by using suicide bombers to implode two city buses, a historic seaport and a shopping mall, and attacked a Jewish neighborhood with a car, all within three months. Israel retaliated with the Spring of 1996 closure, the strictest closure in history of the Israeli occupation, preventing Palestinians from traveling into Israel and hence, between Gaza and the West Bank, as well as restricting their ability to travel abroad. By the summer of 1996, conservative underdog Benjamin Netanyahu, who also protested Rabin’s signing of the Oslo Accords, was elected Prime Minister and I decided to stick with my plans to spend the summer in Israel. I was 21 years old. I understood none of this.

Me at 21 outside a Bedouin tent with friend in Israel

I wanted to reconnect with my Jewish roots. Not just the culture but the land. I was not a religious Jew. I was raised secular by a Jewish mother who hated religion and an Italian lapsed-Catholic father. But roots meant so much more to me. They tied me to the earth. They arranged an origin story to my heroin’s journey. Roots provided the nourishment I needed to proceed in the world as an adult, coming-of-age before the full extent of the internet was yet to be completely understood.

I believed that I would need to work the land to dig up the true depths of my roots. So, I signed up to live on a kibbutz outside Jerusalem and volunteered eagerly for agriculture work. I had a glamorized view of hard labor in my youth. I sensed that physically toiling would bring about a kind of spiritual transcendence that could only come from a well-earned exhaustion. I also loved to be outside.

That summer, there was a heat wave with temperatures reaching up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. We had to wake especially early, before dawn, to beat the heat, and we were done by lunch. The first week, I picked cherries. I climbed a ladder, intertwining my limbs with the tree’s limbs, picked one perfectly ripe crimson cherry after the other and tossed them into my basket. I nibbled on them as I harvested. At night, my stomach cramped with diarrhea as a result. I dreamt all night of cherries, streaming through my deep unconscious state in waves of pebbled red—picking cherries, eating cherries, holding cherries, eating cherries, sorting cherries, examining cherries, eating cherries, pooping cherries.

The following week, I climbed onto the tractor in the dark morning with the other kibbutz volunteers who worked in exchange for room and board, and into the nectarine trees. We harvested one tree after the next, row by row, only stopping for short breaks where we’d crouch and crowd under stout branches for shade from the heat and smoke cigarettes. Only volunteers worked the fields. The kibbutzniks had more skilled jobs, air-conditioned jobs. The other volunteers were from all over the world, including Germany, Tasmania, England, Japan, South Africa and Canada. They weren’t necessarily Jewish, but they were all travelers. This was my first taste of the backpacker lifestyle that I would emulate for years to come.

Volunteers gather under trees during breaks

Soon after the nectarine harvest, my responsibilities shifted, and I was called to work in the laundry. I slept in and spent the day folding clothes in a quiet cool room. I was miserable. I hadn’t returned to the holy land to fold clothes. I wanted dirt, sweat, hard-earned fruit and suffering under a merciless middle eastern sun. When I asked why I was chosen to do laundry and not one of the other volunteers, I was told it was because I was a woman. Laundry was women’s work, apparently. The hard labor was for men. My fists clenched at the sexist injustice. My heart crumpled. I knew I moved slower than the others. My petite body had less endurance for the physical strain required in orchard work. But I loved it. I imagined my ancestors from long, long, long ago, also harvesting food on that same plot of land perhaps, straining under the same intense sun. As I worked, my mind drifted with the monotony and I sang songs that I learned on the Kibbutz, wondering if my ancestors sang some version of the same.

Taking a snack break from the hard work