• Johanna DeBiase

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

Before I left for Israel, I had a dream about three trees floating in the air. I wrote it down in my journal. It was such a strange and resonant image, and I couldn’t conceive where it came from. When I arrived at the kibbutz, a poster on the wall showed a picture of three trees seemingly floating in the air atop three 36' tall plastic Grecian columns. It was a sculpture created by an artist and the three living olive trees represented peaceful co-existence.


I enlisted my adventurous friend Nicole to join me on my search for the floating trees. Nowadays, the sculpture can be seen on agricultural tours through olive tree lined walking paths. At the time, it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere. I was warned that the olive tree sculptor bordered disputed territory, a blood bathed border between those who believed this land was their ancestral land and those who believed this land was their ancestral land. Both were correct, but war knows no nuance. So, I ventured cautiously with a bit of trepidation, drawn into danger by the mystical connection of my dream.


Nicole skipped ahead. “Aren’t you worried?” I asked her.


“If I die now, I’ll die happy,” she said.


And I considered how appropriate it would be to die on my indigenous homeland. I wondered if the land would swallow me into its depths, into millennia of my ancestors’ hidden bones, the ruins of their primitive lives, and further still to a time when they worshipped at the altars of goddesses, and further still when they were nomads hunting mammoths.


Lying on my back beneath the floating trees, I considered how far their roots had to traverse these columns to reach the earth. That was just like me, I thought. My roots floated above the earth, reaching, stretching, yearning to be home, but altogether disconnected.


recent internet photo of the Park of Olives

My more recent ancestors were from Romania. I am an Ashkenazi Jew, not Mizrahi. According to my DNA, most ancestors of Ashkenazi Jews migrated from Western Asia into Europe around 2,000 years ago and despite this, have more genetically in common with other Jews than with Europeans, making it a distinctly genetic group. And despite controversy, DNA continues to show that Ashkenazim are descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel. 2,000 years is a long time and about the time that Jews were expelled from Judea by the Romans who renamed the country Palestine to further disassociate the people from their land. But despite thousands of years of diaspora, Jews never lost their connection to their homeland. Every prayer, every holiday, every Hebrew word mumbled, we remember Jerusalem.


The Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago was nothing like the one I lived outside of in 1996, of course. The temple wall remained, the old city and ancient olive grove, but around them bustled streets full of traffic, shoppers and boomboxes. My bus ride into the city was never uneventful. On a couple of occasions someone accidentally left their bag on the bus and riders evacuated immediately while the bus rushed off to some undisclosed location where the potential bomb could be further investigated. A sense of impending death always hovered in the air around us as terrorist attacks had become common place at the time. Young people dressed in military uniforms were everywhere, including dancing on tables in crowded nightclubs, clubbing me with the butt of their machine gun still strapped to their backs. Long hours smoking in hookah bars, drinking Turkish coffee usually resulted in me wobbling back to the bus stop clenching my gut.


Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City

The buses stopped running at sundown Friday until sundown Saturday and for the first time in my life, I celebrated shabbat. I was amazed that the whole country shut down for shabbat. An entire country revolving around my strange culture. I felt a great sense of belonging like I had never known before. I struggled to learn the Hebrew language from scratch as I’d never gone to Hebrew school. An entire country speaking in the language of prayers. The mosque bells rang twice a day to call the Muslims to prayer and I swear, even this felt like home.


My supervisor from the orchards, Ravi, was a friend of mine and in time helped to get me assigned back to the orchards for duty. I walked along the rows and picked trellised green melons. I did not have gloves and at the end of each day my hands and lips burned red and inflamed from the pesticides recently sprayed in the fields. Some of the glamor was lost.


tractor

I hitchhiked to Jaffa and sat on the beach. The Mediterranean called my body home. I tubed down the River Jordan, avoiding the thorns of blackberry bushes and heard the echoes of the mythical promise, once you put your feet in the Jordon, you are destined to return.


When I left Israel and returned to New York, I got an autumn job working on a farm. I wanted to relive my agricultural experiences on the kibbutz. It was generous of the farmer to hire me and my friend Catherine. Our first day, we were tasked with cutting back weeds from the pumpkin patch. Beside us worked migrant farmers from Jamaica. They swung machetes at a rapid rate, buzzing through row after row while Catherine and I giggled and chatted and moved like snails through the field. The workers were remarkably friendly and all in all it was a fun experience. But we did not return the next day or the day after. It didn’t seem right to be paid the same as those men who obviously worked much harder and more efficiently than us. Besides, it wasn’t the same. My family migrated to New York to escape antisemitism in Romania, but New York was not my homeland. I had been to the homeland, and I knew the difference. I could pick apples and pumpkins all day and it would never feel the same as it felt in Israel.


I was a floating tree again.



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