Back in July, after a brief week-long visit with my family in Detroit, I advised my future self to never again go visiting a place I used to call home in the summertime; simply because the pleasantness, ease, and general warmth of this sunny season in a familiar place is just too dangerous and can be misleading. Maybe perhaps even luring my future successful self into thinking about moving back to this one-time home.
I come from a family of immigrants and travelers. My father went grey in an airplane or at the Frankfurt Main AM airport about 7 years ago (I swear, one day he came back form a business trip and was just grey all of a sudden), and my mother always has every possible remedy for every conceivable, albeit irrational, event – sweaters, hand-sanitizer, fruit, organic chocolate, an extra pair of socks if anyone’s feet get wet, water, moisturizer, you get the picture. I attribute their nomadic, but not transient, ways to the “Wandering Jew” phenomenon: Soviet Jews being only one example of people who had to flee a country they once called home for the great unknown, the American frontier, where life was simply better. These roots have in turn made me into a bid of a wanderer myself but of the more ephemeral variety. Needless to say, traveling 12 hours by plane with a layover here and there just to see family for a week or less is not that big of a deal for me, although I’m not as fascinated with the magical in-between of time and space at higher altitudes as I was when I was a kid. Now, romantic comedies take up the lost or gained hours, Vanity Fair too – if I can find the U.S. or British editions at the airport.
Anyways, I stand corrected after this past Thanksgivvukah trip to Detroit and a few days in New York. My new motto is now: “Never go visiting a place you used to call home, future self, during Christmastime; it’s just too warm and fuzzy.”
Living abroad, you begin to appreciate and strangely miss all those good ol’ American habits you never previously thought twice about. There is just something romantic about being an American outside of the U.S. – All of a sudden, you become really proud of where you came from. The city of Detroit going bankrupt… yeah, that gives me some kind of street cred that is entirely different from the struggles of Israelis or Palestinians. This is all a part of my story, my past, my history – the biblical stuff is yours, the conflict you can keep, this bit of breaking news is mine.
Back to the holidays: Hanukkah was always one of my more favorite times of the year because as a kid, my mother always made it special with 8 Crazy “appropriated (from the Christian tradition)” Nights of gifts, candles, dreidels, latkes, and fabulous, glorious, golden chocolate coins we American Jews call “gelt.” Instead of a beautifully scented pine tree, we had a lovely menorah that we placed near our fireplace (which we regretfully never used) and under my framed 8×10 high school yearbook photo were 8 presents and under my brother’s on the other side of the menorah/fireplace were his 8 gloriously wrapped (in blue and silver) little miracles. We received sweaters and more practical items from Hanukkah Harry than our baby Jesus loving friends at school; the theme, I now realize, were generally presents that rooted us down a little bit more, made us a bit more American, more capitalistic. Our wandering ancestors and affliction to be prepared for any possible trigger to get up and run (a trait particularly reserved for Jewish women, especially mothers) are just stories of days gone by this time of year, and we instead focus on planting ourselves more firmly to where we currently live. Our gifts were for our bedrooms and homes – candles, jewelry boxes, notebooks for school, scarves to keep us warm, sweaters for the coming Winter months. All these items were not meant to fit into a bag if we ever – God forbid – needed to run again. The items were American, they would need to be left behind, they were things we didn’t necessarily need but were grateful to have because they made our lives, in Detroit, a little warmer, more convenient, more colorful. It wasn’t about survival during Hanukkah and the holidays in general, it was about being grateful for what we can now accumulate because we have remained still – in a very good way – for the past year, at least.
I don’t believe in rushing out on Black Friday to find the best sales because really I have too many things already and I appreciate a consumer culture a lot less now, as an adult that tends to change coordinates (drastically) every year or so. I give things away every time I move, yet the burden of “my stuff” gets heavier and heavier as time marches on. I own a storage unit in New York City that costs me $100/month – I don’t even remember what’s in it anymore. I like having everything I own neatly in one suitcase, but when you live in different climates in different parts of the world, the seasons change to quickly to contain all my nostalgia for days gone by. Besides, everywhere you go, every country you visit, you always “need” to buy at least one item that serves as a memento of your trip because the memory disappears faster and faster these days. I give many thanks, to all that is holy, for Instagram this holiday season.
To make a long story short, Detroit was brisk and cold but extremely warm and fuzzy during Thanksgivvukah and wrapping Hanukkah presents for the next generation of Wandering Jews in the Brayman clan, who will hopefully roam a bit less than me, made me happy. The food was good, central heating was comforting and yoga classes encouraged sweating, something unheard of here in Tel Aviv. Also, Detroit now has a Whole Foods; I remember once saying that i could move back there if that ever happened, but that was a lifetime ago (at least three different sets of coordinates in the big game of Battleship).
Detroit, as well all know, American or not, is also bankrupt. So Somerset Mall couldn’t really afford the holiday decorations I was expecting from my childhood. There were less colors, less sparkly trees, angels, snowflakes. DTW airport however had a lovely pedestrian walkway that played Christmas music while orchestrated flashing lights dramatically changed colors – a very nice welcome to the States. Also, JFK now has customs kiosks for U.S. citizens, meaning you can swipe your own passport, smile for the camera, get a little print out to hand to the official standing at the end of the hall and you’re well on your way without waiting in line. The future is here, kids! And did I mention you can keep your mobile devices turned on while in the air? Yay for updated TSA regulations! Although we all took photos of the clouds between here and there anyways, now we expose our ear buds to the flight attendants without shame or guilt and we don’t have to #latergram the snapped mementos of the in-between.
The radiators still timelessly sizzle with overwhelming heat in Manhattan apartments, the older ones at least. No matter how cold it is outside, the apartment is cozy even though you’re barefoot, eating ice cream and sleeping in a tank top. Christmastime on 5th Avenue near Central Park is magical no matter what is going on with the U.S. economy, Obamacare, and whether or not the government is shut down that week. Tourists galore snap photos of Bergdorf Goodman’s legendary holiday windows, bellhops look dapper in their uniforms, I see Kevin McCallister from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York on just about every corner and wonder what Macauley Culkin is up to these days, you know since he’s not with Mila Kunis anymore. Warm scarves and gloves are not an option, but Winter coats, the beautiful honest and cruel Winter air – it’s all tolerable because of the comforting sizzle of the radiator at home, no matter the view outside your window or fire escape.
Living in the Middle East, I used to think, was an escape from my American reality back home. But returning to Tel Aviv and regrettably missing the first big NYC snowstorm of the season, allowed me to arrive just in time for the apocalyptic Alexa storm that shut down Jerusalem, most cities in the West Bank, Cairo, Homs, snowmen were built by Syrian refugees in Lebanon, floods wreaked havoc in Gaza, some dusting in Istanbul, painful and violent hail in Tel Aviv, etc. The good news for me, who’s a sucker for the holidays, and people who actually believe in Santa Claus and glory to the newborn King, holiday cheer now has a true Christmas scenery in Bethlehem (at least for a few days). Returning back to the Middle East, I realize the reality is now here and the there is the escape, the sugarplum fairy dreamland I all of a sudden long for.
A seven hour time difference really confuses the soul and living in a snow globe, no matter how frightful the weather is outside, is getting harder and harder to shake up (meaning all the snow in the world still doesn’t succeed in rooting me down in one place for long enough to actually plant some roots). Space heaters and radiators, snow and rain, Christmas and Hanukkah, there and here, now and then, is all an “escape from the accountability,” and goes along with the delicious pink sunrises of waking up earlier than everyone else (of being a tourist, DeLillo would say). Getting old on airplanes, drinking hot chocolate or mulled wine, Skypeing during the office holiday party, Secret Santa and the Hollywood box office projections – I’m a big fan of it all – the in-between and the there, but only when I’m here.