On December 19, 1974, my brother and I were woken up in the middle of the night by our mother. We were dressed and got in the back of my grandfather’s car and driven to the airport outside of Tel Aviv. We were leaving Israel for New York. I remember the speed and thrill of the airplane taking off. I remember running up and down the airplane aisles. I remember stepping out to bright daylight at JFK airport and my father, who had gone a month earlier to set things up, leading us to a car – an early 70’s Buick convertible as big as a boat, that he borrowed for the occasion. He wanted to impress us. We didn’t want to leave our home, it was his idea, and I imagine he thought this amazing car would make the departure less painful.
My father felt suffocated by Israel. He was very damaged by the army and didn’t want his sons to be soldiers and go through the same traumas. He wanted America and it’s promise. To be free, finally. Born in Czernowice in what was Romania before 1939 and is now Ukraine, he and his family survived the war and the following years in several camps. In 1948 they made it to Israel. He was 15. Three years later he had to go to the army. His job was to clear land mines. At some point he was released because of a psychological breakdown, but later he served as a reservist. He struggled with depression for much of his life but I was not aware of it. We didn’t speak about anything deep or difficult. He was proud, independent and stoic and he wanted to protect us. Also, to my regret, in my younger years I wasn’t very curious about the past.
I can’t say how I felt about the move to New York at the time. We had a sunny Mediterranean childhood in a house with a big garden, fruit trees, flowers, dogs and cats. My brother and I were sheltered from the wars and the tensions surrounding us. From this to the ugly blocks in the New York suburbs in the winter and a school with a language we didn’t understand at all. It must have been tough but I quickly got into American life. A lot of sports, television and bad food. For my mother, leaving Israel was a catastrophe. She loved her home and her country. She doesn’t remember her first year or 2 in New York. It’s blocked out. And she is still pained by the guilt of leaving her parents in Israel. Me, a little less so. I left New York for Europe over 15 years ago. I try to call her once a week. And I wonder from where, years from now, will my daughter interrupt her busy life to call me.
A phone call that is burned in my memory – After 2 or 3 years in New York, my mother, brother and I returned to Israel for the summer holidays and stayed in our home. I was 9. Some of my former school mates came by to say hello and ask questions about America, like was there television there? One night I woke up and left my room and saw my mother on the telephone, crying. She was telling my father that we’re not coming back to him. I returned to bed and we never spoke about it. At the end of the summer we did come back. Since she was 16 she followed him. Until she didn’t.
My mother’s father, the kindest man I’ve ever known, was born in Poland. He was fortunate to have had a job in Sofia, Bulgaria and was not with his family when Germany invaded (over 2 days in 1942 every Jew from his home town was taken to Treblinka). In Sofia, he met my grandmother, and soon after found work in Istanbul. There my mother was born in 1941 while they were waiting for permission to emigrate to Palestine. She says her earliest memory is of being on a train but it’s hard to believe. She was 1. During his lifetime my grandfather tried to get some information about his mother and brother, left in Poland. He hired private investigators but never learned anything.
When I was young I felt some allegiance to Israel but I lost it. I now feel both American and stateless. There are places where I love to be, love to work and return to. Places where I feel connected, where it’s a pure pleasure just to exist – the streets of New York, Krakow, Varanasi, India, among others. And always the sea. Places where I’ve felt less alien. People and landscapes that I see myself in. These connections are my home. Photography is an act of profound recognition. When I take a picture I have the brief illusion to belong.