My Summer in Jerusalem, Ashquelon, and Crete with My Beloved Mother (2016)

The summer of 2016 turned out to truly be something special, and in many ways, I didn’t know what kind of experience I was really going to have, and little did I know at the time, that this would be the last full summer I would ever spend with my late mother, Ahuva Kats. It was also the last time I would ever spend with her in Israel, and it was absolutely thrilling and enlightening for me to see my mother truly in her element here, in a way in which I had never really seen her before. This turned out to be the summer of a lifetime for both of us, and it allowed me to understand my mother in a way that I never had before. Now that she is no longer with us, I now realize that it is a memory I can hold onto for the rest of my days on earth, and hopefully even pass on to my own children some day.

The summer actually began with my father, Bernhard, during the 4th of July weekend. I remember we had a grand ole time from Friday to Sunday in Houston, after I had flown in from Seattle around July 2nd. We grilled amazing hamburgers on the barbecue at the pool outside, and watched the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating contest from Coney Island, NY; and there was a big upset, as the long-time champion Kobayashi’s reign as king of this sport had been passed on to the new dominating champion, Joey Chestnut, and Chestnut’s record-setting performance proved to be too much for the former champion’s, and all of his current competitors, as he easily cruised to victory. We drank a few beers and/or whiskeys together, smoked a cigar or two, and just relaxed on the couch, having a great time laughing and celebrating the early days of summer.

Another major sporting event was going during this summer, and that was the European Championship in soccer, so my father and I took in a couple very entertaining games - one being a huge upset by Iceland to advance in the knockout rounds, as well as another great game involving Wales, I believe, which was also quite thrilling. One of the biggest reasons for wanting to escape my current hometown of Seattle, WA (since 2008) this particular summer, (on top of frustrations I had over not being hired for teaching jobs) was my incredible frustration over the Golden State Warriors not having won an NBA Championship despite having broken the all-time record for wins in a season by going 73-9 (besting the Chicago Bulls 72-10 record from 1995), and then pulling off an absolutely improbable comeback from being down 3 games to 1 to Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder Team, only to see a 3-1 lead evaporate against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Lebron James in the Finals. But the great thing that happened this weekend while I was hanging out with my Dad, was that the Warriors signed Kevin Durant that summer after all 4 other all-stars the Warriors had (both Splash Bros, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala) had a high-powered meeting with Steve Kerr at the Hamptons in New York, and they convinced Durant to come to the Bay Area. This led to the Warriors capturing the next 2 Championships in a row, and would surely have been a 3rd in a row if it wasn’t for some untimely injuries in 2019.

But after this long holiday weekend, it was time for me to get on a flight from Houston to Dallas, followed by a long flight from Dallas to Madrid, Spain. There was a pretty long layover there in Madrid before boarding the flight to Tel Aviv, where I would meet up with my mother. I remember I met a very interesting young lady, who also happened to be Jewish, on the flight to Madrid, and she was also continuing on to Tel Aviv, as was I of course, so we spent most of this time having great conversations during this extremely long flight to Spain. We spent nearly the entire 5 or 6-hour layover together there as well, before the Israeli customs officers finally interrupted us. When they were done with their usual series of intense security questions, I was on my way to boarding an airplane packed with Jews, destined for the Holy Land.

When I arrived in Israel, at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, my Mom was there to meet me, along with someone who has become a tremendous friend to our family, and was literally a God send to my mother, the taxi driver from Morocco named Itzhik. I wasn’t sure exactly when this friendship between my mother and Itzhik had formed, but it was clear that he had such a tremendous amount of affection for her. She didn’t really drive, so he took her absolutely EVERYWHERE she (or I when I was visiting) needed to go. In this case, we had a slightly different first destination, and that was Jerusalem, where we attended the Bar Mitzvah of one of my cousin’s son, Ohad, who was turning 13, and taking part in the Jewish religious ritual. My mother and I were dropped off at a quaint little hotel, not far away from where the ceremony would take place the following day. It was a very nice place, and I had arrived pretty late at night, therefore was very tired, so after checking in, both my Mom and I (after having been dropped off by Itzhik), went to sleep immediately. I recall the next morning when I woke up, I looked on my Iphone, and saw the news that longtime Miami Heat superstar, Dwyane Wade, had signed with his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, after 13 years in Miami. Wade had been my favorite player the entire time, so I wasn’t thrilled with this news, but wasn’t shocked by it either, but it was an interesting way to start the day.

But the rest of the day was spent mostly with religion and the family. It was a wonderful ceremony, and given the religious nature of the ceremony in the synagogue, which essentially keeps women apart from men, I didn’t see my mother until after it was over at the reception. I was very much reminded of my own Bar Mitzvah, which also took place in Jerusalem some 28 years earlier (albeit in the “Old City” of Jerusalem and the famous Western Wall), and I mostly spent the day with my uncles, family friends, and male cousins. It was a very nice ceremony, and Ohad is also a big basketball fan and player, like I was at the time of my 13th birthday. I saw my cousin Yossi and his wife and kids, as well as his sister Ariella, Ohad’s mother and her husband Amit. The 5 of us had a nice lunch and coffee at the hotel after the ceremony before heading to the reception. There I met other family members, such as my cousin Gila, who is an amazing woman (a lawyer), whom I hadn’t seen in several years, and her friend Nathaniel Boujo, a Swiss Frenchman who was a pleasure to talk to. The food and catering was top-notch, and all-in-all it was just a glorious and beautiful sunny summer’s day in the holiest city on earth. My mother was throughout, as she always was, my best friend here, and the country’s biggest advocate, explaining everything I was seeing and experiencing in such a touching, unique, and caring way. 

The next day, my Mom and I spent a full day exploring all the new changes in Jerusalem, a city which had changed quite a bit in the nine years since I had last visited in 2007. We walked in the city center, near the US Embassy to Israel, and ironically, I was taking pictures here, and was quickly waved off by an armed guard of the place who instructed me not to do that for obvious security reasons. The funny part is that I had no idea what I was taking a picture of, but my Mom did. But mostly we walked through the beautiful park here and watched children play while feeding the park’s ducks. It was another gorgeous day, and my Mom absolutely loved it! From here, we weaved our way up into the old city, which looked very similar to what I had remembered, with one very glaring difference - all the modern shops and laser light shows, new stairwells with views of the city, and techno music playing in the background, something that would NEVER have been seen in the past. My Mom seemed pretty surprised as well. We tried to stay in the more traditional areas, such as one beautiful street lined with all different-colored umbrellas, at the end of which we found a very unique Hungarian restaurant, where we met the whole family of the shop owner (kids included), and had some lunch and coffee there. It was quite a treat, and soon after that, we were visiting the many souvenir shops near the oldest gate (Brandenberg?) to the old city. My mother and I did get into a small spat at the end of the day when I wanted to buy a Hamsa from a man, which she did not consider to be a good price ($35), but I ended up buying it anyway. But we also visited statues together, and Holocaust remembrance statues and exhibits, and all-in-all, just had a grand day, so there could not have been a better way to start this extended summer-long vacation here in Israel with her! 

After leaving Jersusalem, Itzhik picked us top again, and it was off to the beach! He took us to where our family has a home in a small city near the Gaza Strip called Ashquelon, a city which does include a rather large population of Moroccan Jews living there.

is definitely in the know - he not only drives a cab, but he essentially runs a whole fleet or division of the company, so he has more than a handful of drivers he can call upon to help him out if he ever is too busy to help drive my mother or our family. Usually though, what I observed is that if he was too busy to help my Mom or I (and later my Dad, brothers and sister too - whoever happened to need a ride), he would usually call someone to pick us up, or have them take his job so he could bring us wherever we needed to go. He would say, “Do you know how incredible your mother is?” with his relatively thick Moroccan accent. And I would always nod and say, “yes, I do.” They would carry on light-hearted and joyful conversations in Hebrew mostly, and sometimes even in Arabic or French. Laughter was abundant, and Itzhik made me feel much the same way, so he is just a precious and treasured member of our family at this point. There is simply no doubt about that fact whatsoever.

Itzhik is also, like me, a huge food-lover, and he always took us to the best restaurants Israel has to offer. Things are a little bit different over there. Most restaurants look relatively alike or similar on the outside, so you really had to just know who it is doing the cooking inside. Itzhik ALWAYS knew exactly what to order, who was preparing it, and he just seemed to be friends with almost everyone in the whole country. They all shook hands with him, gave him hugs or kisses on the cheek, perhaps told a couple of jokes with him, and before you knew it, a huge plate of the most scrumptious Middle Eastern food imaginable was being served for all of us to dig into. My mother was always overjoyed to eat these amazing salads, and Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes like Hummus, Falafel, Couscous, Tahina, Obergine, Chakchuka, Kabobs, and the list goes on and on. At dinner, we could often get amazing steak, chicken or fish as well, often grilled or barbecued, and spiced to perfection. He even took us into local grocery stores often times to buy things like spices, and sweets, gourmet cheeses or bottles of alcohol; indeed Itzhik had an opinion on all things culinary, but trust me, it was wonderful.

For my mother however, the most commonly frequented destination was the nearby local shopping mall, only about a 10-minute drive away from our house, where she would buy all of us clothes, jewelry, or handle various odd jobs and errands during the week. The post office was also nearby, as were the banks, travel agencies and the most important government offices. Itzhik would drop us off, and then do a couple more taxi pickups and drop-offs, before returning to collect us to have lunch about an hour or two later. Sure enough, we would once again find another new place to eat some delicious and healthy meal. My Mom was just beaming with energy as she bounced from place to place with Itzhik as our chauffeur. It made me feel very proud just to see how everybody picked up and fed off of my Mom’s love and energy, as they simultaneously both respected her & were clearly lifted by her joyous spirit, which was simply infectious.

My Mom had spent many years in the US, and whether it was the bad weather for her, or at times just the overall spirit of this country, she never seemed very happy at all here. But in Israel, it was a totally different vibe and experience - she seemed so youthful and vibrant with just about every person we met - anyone from our closest family to complete strangers we ran into in stores, many of whom she did seem to know well too, from past experience. She switched languages with ease, and could converse on any topic, instantly putting their minds at rest, or cheering them up every time, or so it seemed.

I think what I was really tapping into, is the true Moroccan spirit, something that Itzhik also has, which I could recognize immediately. There’s just a very communal attitude, combined with a genuine lightness of being, and a carefree joie-de-vivre that makes life just feel pleasant, and like it’s always in motion; never stagnating. And unusually, from a health standpoint, I honestly couldn’t really even notice or detect the chronic emphysema that seemed to plague my mother constantly in this country. In Israel, these problems were virtually nonexistent, and this was despite the fact that she, Itzhik, and most others in my family were nevertheless smoking cigarettes constantly.

There’s another place down by the beach and marina in Ashquelon that has a really wonderful food court with several different restaurants that serve some very delicious dishes. We focused on fish on this particular night, as my Mom and my aunt Ahuva (who does coincidentally share her name) took me out for dinner, and two of my cousins were to be joining us as well. Prior to eating, my cousin Dedy and I enjoyed a beer or two in the nearby bar. He is very busy as a teacher, and has a large family of 4 or 5 kids, so he had precious little time to visit, but went out of his way to spend some time with me, so I was extremely grateful, as we shared laughs and stories, and reacquainted ourselves with one another. It was a magnificent time indeed!

Religion plays a huge part in life in Israel, but when I say that, I don’t necessarily mean that people there are “religious” so to speak, in the way you might typically imagine. Even non-religious gatherings during the evening or afternoon, seem to take on the same feel as official religious gatherings do. The synagogue in Ashquelon is a very powerful center for the community, and for the Moroccan community here in particular. It’s a short walk from where we live. To see Judaism practiced in Israel is quite different from how you see it here in the USA. (Not that I am a huge participant in either), but you can really sense how the synagogue in Israel is a place where people can come together, and despite all of their differences in home or family life, they all share this one common bond that binds them together. And that common bond is simply their identity as Jews.

I believe that it is this simple fact alone, that gave my mother so much joy and peace inside. Having grown up the daughter of a prominent rabbi and judge, and one of 13 children, she did not have the typical upbringing most of us would know or imagine. Her tales of going to marketplaces and skipping school in Marrakech, or sudden excursions to Casablanca or Paris, with mysterious men asking for her hand in marriage while she was still a teenager, helped shape her carefree, yet subtly guarded nature in general. Everything about my mother’s youth seemed like something out of a movie somehow, not the least of which included her marriage to my father in the southern Israeli beachtown of Eilat in 1963. They tied the knot after having only known one another for 3 weeks prior to their wedding! But this typifies the type of person my mother was. She was quick to make up her mind and always knew exactly what she wanted (and didn’t want)! My father was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and be the right person for her - simply God’s magical destiny at work!

Well, I can tell you that while we were there in Ashquelon in 2016, I’m pretty sure my Mom didn’t want to come to the Greek island of Krete with me. At least she had said as much, but alas, I too have my powers of persuasion, and given that this is and was a very popular destination for all Israelis, I managed to somehow convince my Mom (despite some definite words to the contrary) to go and speak to the travel agent she knew well (like she knew almost everyone) in the town center near the mall. After sifting through countless brochures, and haggling over scores of different price points, flights, and hotel accommodations, we finally arrived at something that appeared to be quite satisfactory, and sure enough, the tickets were purchased in time for lunch! Let me tell you I was thrilled and overjoyed, not only to be spending this amazing time with my mother, but also because I had wanted to travel to Santorini (another Greek island close to Krete) in particular, for quite some time.

I guess you could say that the only really unfortunate parts of this somewhat brief, 4-day stay, was the time spent at each airport. Oddly, my mother and I had a tendency to fight or argue frequently at airports in the later years towards the end of her life. (This hadn’t really been the case in the past) At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, this was regretfully no different, but once we finally did get on to the tarmac, and climbed up on the stairs of the mid-sized Bulgarian airplane, we started to lose that tension and all was virtually forgotten, once my Mom could turn her attention to the thing she probably loved most in the world - babies! We were seated in a row directly adjacent to a young mother and father who had the cutest little bouncing baby girl, and my Mom immediately shifted into all of her finest baby talk, and believe me she’s always been a pro at this!! It was very cute though, and I recall feeling very relieved that something had broken the ice of our earlier animosity. Impressively, after a short hour and a half flight or so, we had already arrived at Heraklion airport in Krete.