Brier berries covered my mis-matched socks. My hands were ripped to shreds as the sun set on my 10th season of picking cotton. I had been in the fields since my eighth birthday. The day paused for a moment as I prepared to take my bath in a helping of Epsom salts and kerosene. This concoction had been handed down from the days of slavery to remove the red bugs burrowing under the skin.
From the concrete steps of our tiny Birmingham apartment, I gazed toward the horizon at dozens of fiery smokestacks bellowing sulfur dioxide and other pollutants into the night air. The eastern wind carried the poisonous clouds, which had eroded the shingles on the western side of the houses in our neighborhood. This was my life, working my grandfather's farm. I often dreamed of my liberation, but never once did I see Israel or an 8-year-old girl from Jerusalem holding integral pieces to this complex puzzle.
After college, I moved to Washington in hopes of discovering a life emancipated from cows, corn and never-ending rows of cotton. The choral society I joined shortly after arriving was invited to tour Israel. A friend from Alabama came up to go with me, but at the last moment, the trip was canceled. My friend insisted on going anyway -- neither of us had ever left these shores. I went, but reluctantly: In my constricted world, Israel had little relevance other than as faded memories of my childhood Bible classes. My life had become void of ecclesiastical logic or religious interest. A man given little to introspection, I viewed my visit to the land of the Bible as nothing more than an exotic excursion. All of that would change.
On the flight over, Israeli mothers traveling alone plopped their young babies in my lap as they excused themselves. If the child happened to fall asleep, the weary mother left him nestling close to my pounding heart, sometimes for what seemed like hours. Out of the corner of my eye, I kept a watch over the gathering of Hasidim swaying back and forth, side to side, praying in the rear of the plane. There was no time to sleep. Israelis wouldn't miss an opportunity to practice broken English or share stories about the hardship of living in the Middle East. For most of them, living anyplace else was not a consideration, maybe even close to treasonous. Never had I witnessed such adoration and dedication to a country -- it was as foreign to me as some of the Hebrew words permeating my ears.
After the craft touched down, we were instructed to deplane and wait for buses that would shuttle us to the main terminal. As I waited on the tarmac with 400 other passengers, a hint of jasmine subdued the autumn breeze. Amid the machine guns, shouting and pushing, I experienced an overwhelming feeling of calm, peace and completeness: During our deep and intimate conversations on the flight over, my race was never once a topic of interest to them. They were interested in my religious background. For the first time in my life, my blackness was irrelevant. Little did I know that these nine days were the first leg of a lifelong journey that would bring me back to Israel time and time again. Twenty-two years and 15 trips to Israel have now passed since the first time I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
At that time I was 25. Twenty-five years and never once had I felt valued in American society. There I stood among strangers with nothing visibly in common, but they treated me as if they knew me well. From that point forward, my only focus was to do what was necessary to make this troubled land my home.
In the summer of 1982 -- I was 28 -- a Washington-based theater company offered me an acting position in Israel for six months. The job ended abruptly three months later when the show was canceled. I left the country the very next day, my heart ripped out by the roots. My tiny Georgetown garage apartment was as void of life as a whitened mausoleum. The same day I arrived back in Washington, I knew I had to get back to Israel as soon as possible.
I decided to liquidate my life and go visit Israel for a month. I piled all of my belongings in the middle of the floor. Jewelry, furniture, books -- everything had to be sold. After purchasing my ticket and making a quick stop by Sunny's Surplus for camping supplies, I had $20 remaining, which had to last for the month.
I decided to do a cross-country hike across Israel. My trek started in Tel Aviv, with a brief stop in Jerusalem. For 10 days I walked and hitched east through Jericho, up the old Roman road north to Tiberius. The next few days I drank Turkish tea with the Bedouins under burlap tents in the middle of the desert. The blacks of Nuwayma and Ein-Duke offered me food, comfort and an evening prayer. As my travels carried me to remote corners of the West Bank, I found the Palestinians to be as hospitable as the Israelis. At night, I rested beneath the speckled galaxy, canopying the rolling Judean mountains overlooking the Wadi Qelt.
The next morning my journey continued north to Haifa and down the seacoast to Netanya, a few miles north of Tel Aviv. There I found an isolated beach on the Mediterranean where I built a fire to prepare rice for my dinner. Occasionally, passersby joined me out of curiosity and kindness. At sunrise I continued my journey, which subsequently brought me back to Jerusalem shortly after nightfall.
Once again the weather was agreeable, so I decided to sleep in the sandbox beneath the towering eucalyptus tree in the schoolyard. That night, the early rain came earlier than expected. By morning I had chills and symptoms of what appeared to be the early stages of the flu. The sandbox was my home for a second day and night. On the third day, I managed to make it to the wall surrounding the adjacent building. A young Israeli girl observed my lamenting from a distance. She crossed the street and made a futile attempt at communicating with me in her native tongue. It was pointless. She pointed to herself and repeated, "Yafit." I later found out that was her name. Gently she took me by the hand, leading me across the street to her family's flat. Her brother came out and said his sister had insisted that I stay with them because I was a guest in their country and I should not have to sleep on the ground.
For the next two weeks, their home was my home without limitations. The two brothers surrendered the room they shared, but I insisted on sleeping on the floor by the front door. I communicated with the Halevy family in broken English and Hebrew. The language of pure, unconditional love and kindness to a stranger spoke volumes to my heart. A bridge between two different worlds and families was created. When I returned to the United States one month later, I had money left over from the $20.
Eighteen years have now passed. Not a day passes without me reflecting on this period, this friendship, which changed me forever. They taught me generosity, selflessness. I give freely now.
I visit the land of my transformation as often as I can. After the Halevy sons became soldiers in the Israeli army, I visited them, and we sat together at a cafe in Jerusalem city center, sharing coffee and cake. Their father happened to pass by. When the two sons -- in military uniforms, dark sunglasses and scruffy beards -- saw him, they both rushed to him, kissing his hands and lips in greetings. If only my own children would show me half as much devotion. The commitment to family by both Israeli and Palestinian is one of the many things I love about this complicated land.
I speak with the Halevy family not less than twice a month since the first time I met them. When the oldest son completed his military duties, we gave him a six-week tour of the United States as a token of our friendship. When Yafit completed her military duties six years ago, we sent for her to spend the summer with us. Come Dec. 25, I will travel to Jerusalem for the 16th time. This time I will participate in her wedding. The unrest and confusion in the region cannot keep me away.