It was 1 a.m. I sat in the back of the airplane, looking out the oval window at the darkness. The lights of the tarmac and the city of Tel Aviv twinkled in the distance. I was going home, back to the U.S., but I was also leaving a place that had been my second home as a child, a place that had always been special to me. But now, as I tightened my seat belt and prepared fortake-off, I felt a sense of sadness overwhelm me. The place of my childhood memories was gone.

My parents met on a blind date in Israel. My American mother, on a family trip to Jerusalem, was set up with a handsome sabra (a native-born Israeli; the word comes from the name of a rough, prickly cactus plant with a sweet interior, a reference to Israelis’ demeanor). After marrying, my parents had to make a choice about where to live, but it was an easy one — at the time, the state of Israel was a developing nation, barely 25 years old and surrounded by enemy countries. They settled in the U.S., where life would be easier.

But they would return often. After I was born, we traveled to Israel twice a year. Though long, the journey was always a joyful one. Every time the plane touched down in Tel Aviv, all the passengers would start clapping, and the Hebrew folk song ‘Hava Nagila,’ which means ‘let us rejoice,’ would start playing over the loud speakers.

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That was in the 1970s. Passengers don’t clap anymore.

A lot has changed in Israel since I was a child. In the ’70s and even ’80s, there were only three television stations; one was an Arabic language channel, the others Hebrew and English, but they all went off the air in the afternoon. Now my father — who moved back to Jerusalem in the late ’80s after my parents divorced — has satellite TV with 500 channels.

Preparing for a trip to Israel was also a major undertaking back then. We would bring a plastic bag with essential medicines, like Tylenol, cough syrup, and Imodium, with us, just in case. And we would fill our suitcases with hand-me-downs for my younger cousins and buy a list of requested items for our family members: toothpaste, vitamins, hair products, etc., all things we took for granted that we could find in any grocery store in the U.S. but, at the time, were nonexistent or extremely expensive in Israel.

Now, a visit to a typical Israeli grocery store will find the shelves stocked with Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Colgate toothpaste, Yoplait yogurt.

Israel is no longer a Third World country. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union brought one million Russian-Jewish immigrants, most highly educated, to the country, Israel’s high-tech industry took off, and today it is a leader in the field. In 2000, Israel ranked second behind the U.S. in the number of start-ups and first relative to country population.

I started noticing the changes in the country about that time, but after a six-year absence, the transformation was much more apparent on this trip. Nowhere was the shift more obvious than when leaving the Old City in Jerusalem. The Old City, surrounded by a wall built in 1538 by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, is a .35-square-mile area that houses some of the world’s holiest sites: Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (built where Jesus is said to have been crucified and buried), the Western Wall for Jews, and the al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims. Walking through the city’s typical Middle Eastern bazaar, replete with old Arab men wearing black-and-white kafias selling spices and young boys running through the ancient streets with trays of tea, you are easily transported back to another time, another place.

And then you walk through the Jaffa Gate, leaving the Old City, and boom! — you are in a modern outdoor mall. There is Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, and Polo Ralph Lauren. Yes, the developers incorporated existing historical buildings to bridge the gap between old and new, but it was still a shock to, in a matter of minutes, leave the 19th-century Middle East for the West of the 21st century.

Progress is inevitable, and I don’t begrudge a country for moving forward and trying to better itself and join the modern world. But the feeling I had as I sat on the plane was one of loss, for that special sense of place that made Israel unique. Or maybe it was just nostalgia for something else that had receded into memories … my youth.

Author

  • Melissa Siig

    Melissa Siig ditched international politics in Washington, D.C. in 2001 to move to Tahoe, where she quickly found her true calling — journalism. She has written for regional and national publications, and enjoys writing about community issues and quirky human interest stories. When not at her keyboard, she is busy wrangling her three children, co-running Tahoe Art Haus & Cinema, or playing outside.

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