Beautiful Intense Life

In a fluffy white bathrobe and slippers, my head topped with an MTV baseball cap, I relax on the wooden bench of a hotel sauna for the first time in my life.  My husband sits next to me, equally out of his comfort zone.  Despite his reservations about stopping in at the hotel spa after our morning hike, he was willing to try it; I’ve been telling him about the benefits of extreme heat for months. “This is actually nice,” he says finally, relaxing into the heat.

An American wearing swim trunks enters and strikes up a conversation. “Where are you guys from?” he asks.  We cover the basics: we’re from the United States and have lived in Israel for twenty years.  He tells us that he’s on a volunteering trip from Florida, and that he’s just come back from making a barbecue for soldiers. We praise him and mention how much the soldiers appreciate stuff like that – which we know because we have a son in Gaza.

Two more men walk in, similarly clad, and our new friend introduces us, “They’ve lived here for twenty years,” he explains, “Their son is in Gaza.”

“Oh, really?” says the taller of the two, “What’s he doing down there?” We tell him about our son’s position in the army, working with explosives on the front lines.  And our new sauna buddies tell us about their respective lives in Brooklyn, West Palm Beach, and London.  They discuss the new wave of antisemitism they’ve seen creeping up back home, “At our last barbecue, one soldier said that he was worried about our safety, going back to the U.S!” the New Yorker laughs, clearly entertained by the irony. At this point, a woman comes in and sits down, joining the conversation. She, too, is from Florida, and she’s here to take her soldier daughter out of the army for a four-day break.  We tell her about our son, and then her daughter enters the sauna, “Did someone here say handasa kravi?” she asks….

And so, the conversation continues. They speak about the war and feeling a strong desire to help.  Nobody seems really worried about where things are headed with antisemitism in their own hometowns. Every so often, I wipe the moisture from my face with a minty fresh towel, available just outside the room on an elegant metal tray. It’s strange to be here, experiencing this luxury under our current life circumstance. And this sauna conversation is certainly an interesting start to our one-night vacation.

We had debated about this trip, about whether now was the right time.  The routine of war was getting to all of us – the heaviness, the new daily rhythm – a night away would be nice. But with our son in Gaza and the heightened sense of danger we felt constantly, even one night seemed like too much.  On the other hand, we had credit card vouchers to use– they would go to waste if we didn’t book a trip before the New Year. And with my parents stranded at our house since the beginning of the war, we were equipped with built in babysitters.  Fingers crossed that all would be well for one night, we went ahead and booked the trip.  Searching for hotels we found that the Ritz Carlton Herzliya, for some reason, was unusually inexpensive – we had just enough credit to cover a room and dinner at the luxury hotel.

After the sauna, we stop in the “Relaxation Room”, and someone’s phone plays a familiar sound, “Tzeva Adom! Tzeva Adom!” Rockets are landing, as usual, in the southern border towns. Perhaps not the most soothing background music for a relaxation room…

That night, we plan to enjoy dinner in the Herbert Samuel chef restaurant, renowned for its incredible kosher food.  After a short sunset hike, we return to the room to dress, and take the elevator downstairs.  The doors open, and we are greeted by a lobby scene that’s unusually raucous. Cute children run about in pajamas.  Large families in ultra-casual clothing gather around the small lobby tables and chairs, talking closely.  On the outskirts of the chaos, suit-clad hotel employees deal with incoming arrivals and mix drinks at the bar. Teenagers sit sprawled on a few couches with phones, a child has an adorable long haired puppy in her arms.  These are the evacuees; the Ritz Carlton, like all other hotels around Israel, has become a home away from home for Israelis fleeing from northern and southern Israel in the wake of war. Definitely no escaping that reality.  For anyone.

We find out that the chef restaurant is not in operation “Staffing shortages,” the concierge explains with an apologetic look.  Instead of table service, they’ve laid out a buffet dinner.  A walk around the dining hall reveals trays of french fries, chicken kabobs, schnitzel, rice, and other cafeteria style fare.  This dinner has been planned with families in mind – it will be perfect for the many children here.  Somewhat let down that our gourmet dinner is nowhere to be found (and feeling a bit guilty about our disappointment), we return to the lobby in search of another option. 

“How’s the food in the lobby?” we ask the bartender, “Do you have a menu?”

Dave, the young bar man, is solicitous and kind. He helps us find a quiet table to eat at in a dark corner and points out some of the best items on the menu, “Probably much better than what they have in the buffet,” he reassures us with his gentle South African accent.

We place our order, and as we sit there, the scene of the hotel guests coming down to dinner captivates us.  Children bounce around, corralled into place by one dapper fellow, suited up and with a golden name tag.  While he escorts people into dinner, he makes jokes and plays around with the kids, calling each one by name. Dave brings us leek felafel salad, and we ask him about war-time life at the Ritz Carlton Herzliya.  Originally from South Africa, he served in the IDF before taking up residence in Ra’anana.  “Don’t think I’ll ever go back to Cape Town,” he says with a smile. “Life is better in Israel.”

And what is life like for the evacuee families in the hotel? “It’s definitely not easy for them, being cooped up in a hotel room and away from their normal lives,” he explains, “The kids go to school – first it was in the hotel and then the Herzliya schools took them in.”  He adds with a glittering grin, “But the families certainly are different than the usual guests.”

We nod in understanding as he clears away one course and sets down the next – sea bass on mushroom risotto.  While we eat, we watch one older man holding court at a table in the dining room.  As he fills up his plate again and again, family members and friends come and go, joining him at his long table.  “Can you imagine being stuck in a hotel with everyone from our town?” my husband asks me. “What would we do if we were in this situation?”

I giggle and also cringe, just imagining that scene. “Probably what all of these people are doing! What else?” I say, “But we’d probably spend a lot more time hiking.”

“And I guess they’re lucky that they ended up at the Ritz Carlton instead of the Holiday Inn,” my husband adds.

“Pretty sure they’d a million times rather be home,” I reply.

We finish up with chocolate cake, garnished with strawberries and pears by the ever-attentive Dave, who we thank profusely for a lovely dinner. As we leave the hustle and bustle of the lobby, I notice a young Ultra-Orthodox couple with two glasses of coke, obviously meeting for a date.  “Only in Israel,” my husband says with a grin. We take one last glance around before going up to bed – only in Israel do pajama clad evacuees, a shidduch date, two settlers on a night away, and fancy looking travelers belong together in the Ritz Carlton lobby. Am Yisrael.

The next morning after breakfast, we consider our plans for the day – should we visit the Palmach museum or the Hagana museum? These are both nixed – I want an escape from talk of war in Israel, at least for one day. Instead, we decide to head out on a long hike along the Israel trail, located just outside of the hotel.  It has been ages since we just walked for a really long time.  We load our bags with water bottles and set out, aiming to reach somewhere in Netanya.  Our walk is blissful, reminding me of days of old.  The weather is perfect, warm, and slightly overcast. We fall into the rhythm of meditatively moving forward – through quiet reserves, stretches of coastal cliffs, and more. There are so many birds – parakeets, cormorants, and kestrels – and little nutria scurry about along the marshy areas of the trail. There are also a lot of helicopters.  At one point we hear big booms and immediately check the Homefront Command app – but there are no alerts. “Probably our son’s unit blowing things up,” my husband offers.

Almost 4 hours and 20 kilometers later, we hop in a cab and head back to the hotel.  There is time for me to take one more luxurious bath, one more chance to don a fluffy white bathrobe and sink into a quiet world of soft bubbles.  Afterwards, we pack up, and set off for home.

Back in the car after two days away, I check my messages.  Being untethered from the phone has been nice, a much-needed mental escape from the daily goings on of life at war.  I scan through the usual – local volunteer opportunities and updates from my son’s unit.  Then I notice a message from our yishuv WhatsApp – there had been an attempted infiltration the night before. While we slept peacefully in Herzliya, terrorists had set an explosive device to blow a hole in the fence surrounding our town.  The army had been called in and, thank G-d, a crisis was averted.  One terrorist had been captured and was being questioned.

Wow,” my husband says, letting out a deep breath, “Can you imagine what would have happened at home if they had to put the Yishuv on lock down? Our kids would have been freaking out.

“Or the terrorists could have made it in.” We let that thought sink in as we drive along in silence, past the reassuring sights of Central Israel – lit up office buildings, billboards, highway lights. A magnificent sunset illuminates the cloud filled sky in shades of pink and purple. Car windows open, a gentle breeze blows in – the weather is spring-like and cheery, unlike what one would expect from December 25th. Soon, we’ll be heading back up into the Judean hills, back to the cool and fog, back home to our mountaintop town.

My phone starts buzzing – an unknown number.  After a brief moment of consideration, I pick it up…just in case my son is calling from Gaza.

“Hey Ima!” his voice rings out over the speaker, “I’m on the border, and I got to borrow someone’s phone. What are you up to?”

“Oh, not much, not really much at all,” I reply with a smile, eager to hear about his life in Gaza, “Just another regular day here in Israel.”

3 thoughts on “Beautiful Intense Life

  1. Susannah,
    Thank you for your posts.
    I am sorry for the loss of Ephraim Jackman.
    I pray for your son and all others in the quest for peace and justice.
    I am a Retired U.S. Marine living in North Carolina. I was an avid hiker when I was younger. I was in Boy Scouts and we hiked all over the Eastern parts of the U.S. The Appalachian Trail was my favorite. I had planned to hike the “AT” from South to North when I retired from the Marines, but, was injured in a Parachute accident in Okinawa 3 years before I retired. Now at 67 yeard old with a 9′ titanium rod as a femur, prosthetic R hip and plates, screws and pins in both feet just walking is a chore.

    The loss of a soldier is always a “punch to the gut”. The camaraderie we share as fellow warriors is unbreakable. I pray for Ephraim’s’ family, and especially your son as the bond of a fellow fallen patriot will always be remembered. By remembering them we honor them. No matter how we know in our minds of the danger, we are never prepared for the instant numbing of a great loss. After 21 years in the Marine Corps, I have seen tragedy strike many times in Combat and in Peacetime. I still have a hard time dealing with it or accepting it.

    Live for the End: The understanding that life is finite lends a bittersweet urgency to the business of living. Seasons change, years pile upon years, hair turns to silver and to memory, and in all of it there is an undercurrent: Get done what you came here to do. Give the gifts you meant to give. Do the good you’re able to do. Say what you need to say, now, today, because everything you see is temporary; the clock is ticking and the alarm could go off any second.

    When we lose a friend, a little bit of us is lost with him. But a little bit of him lives on in us, his memory.
    So my message to your son Eitan would be, be the best Soldier you can be and carry that memory of him that would make him proud.
    We pause to morn those who are not with us and, in morning them we honor them.
    Our tribute to them is in the victories yet to come.
    They are gone but not forgotten, they are resting but never silent. May we be worthy of their memory. Today they rest in peace.

    May God bless Israel and it’s people.

    “Semper Fidelis”

  2. Thank you Susannah, I am so sorry to hear about Ephraim a’H. Thank you for sharing your memories and beautiful thoughts and writing with us.

  3. Hi Susan nah
    Loved reading your post.I live in Jerusalem right across from the Premier Royal Hotel.The Hotel is full of evacuees.Every so often they would get some people on missions or just a tourist coming to help.It is wonderful to to them and listen to their plight and try and offer comfort and understanding. The hotel you stayed in sounded splendid.I sit in a sauna at YMCA in Jerusalem and feel great after having a good schvits as it was once upon called.

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