Just before the latest holiday, I got sick. It usually happens that way with moms. The moment we expect down time, our bodies kick into low gear and seek respite from our overdrive.
Except this wasn’t your ordinary cold. No, this was like an arctic blast taking up residence in my head, and within a few hours, it had become the perfect storm in my left ear. An infection raged, and despite an aggressive course of antibiotics, my drum ruptured, the pressure increased and I lost hearing on that side. Never mind the pain, throbbing and ringing. Determined to clear it up once and for all, the doctors admitted me to the hospital. On the menu: typical hospital food, IV antibiotics and steroids, Israeli style.
Of course, if a couple takes one co-pilot out of the chair, they have themselves a gender-bending roller coaster, the kind that places all the work squarely upon the able-bodied, exhausted shoulders of the healthy spouse.
And the truth is that no matter how egalitarian two people might be on paper, in real life roles are divvied up. Sure, some guys may do the cooking, and some gals may mow the lawn, but for the most part we still have our respective responsibilities. His and hers, for better or for worse, to keep the household going; it’s just the way of life, until said life throws in a matzo ball.
When you are new olim chadashim in the north of Israel, traditional roles become unexpectedly comforting when all else is foreign. They are like a lifeline in a rocky sea. You do this, I do that, and together we’ll make it work somehow amidst the absence of anything familiar from our old Jewish life.
For three days and two nights, I slept, ate and watched the clouds go by. I tried to avoid comparing hospitalization in the Western Galilee hospital of Nahariyah (less than two miles from the Mediterranean Sea and the border of Lebanon) to that of the U.S. And for those same 70 hours, my spouse did everything else. He shuttled the kids, went to work, arranged for childcare, fed, bathed, diapered and wiped snot from noses. He played Abba, he played Mommy, he played hero to us all.
But the most extraordinary thing happened in every other relationship besides mine with my husband.
You see, in Israel, if all is well, folks have a funny habit of leaving you alone. Not much time for chitchat, leisurely strolls, coffee breaks or superficial socializing in a place like this. Life is too difficult, people are too busy, borders and roads are too tense. It can be lonely for a California girl used to a plentiful set of friends and a calendar begging for some fun.
But when illness befell, my Israeli family, friends and neighbors called in droves. My phone rang more times in those few days than it had in all of the previous six months. The contrast was startling. I found myself thinking about the different paradigms, how people’s narratives and expectations are formed based on time and place, and cultural nuances.
In the U.S. — out of respect and politeness, I am sure — we are sometimes uncomfortable with the pain, discomfort and worries of others; and so, even when we reach out, we keep a respectable distance. It’s not because of an absence of caring, but simply a way of relating, an awareness of boundaries, if you will.
In Israel, where you don’t have the same wide, open spaces — in homes, roads and relationships — all I can say is that life and love are very, very different. Not better, not worse, just very, very different. Between spouses, between people, between cultures, it makes for a new understanding of role reversals.