“I want to go home!” This is her constant refrain. She has dementia and memory is not easily accessible these days. But one thing she does remember is her beloved home in Jaffa ~ so close and yet so far. She remembers the smell of the sea and the taste of the oranges. And she knows that the place she is currently living is not really home. The refrain breaks the heart of her son, who is her primary caregiver.
I know her as “Joseph’s mom.” I only met her briefly last fall as she was wheeled into the restaurant to celebrate the wedding of her granddaughter. But I feel as if I do know her because my friend Joseph has told me her story ~ how he feels helpless to grant her most basic desire ~ the desire for home. As the evening shadows lengthen, she expresses her desire to go home. With a heavy heart, Joseph wheels her the 50 meters up the cobblestone street from his restaurant in East Jerusalem’s Old City to their modest apartment. But it is not home. They both know this. He knows the object of her longing, but he is powerless.
She was born in the ancient city of Jaffa, just south of the modern city of Tel Aviv. In 1948 she lost her home and everything she had, forced to flee the invading Israeli army. She locked the door and took the key. As with most Palestinian refugees, she thought of her departure as “temporary.” Surely the unrest would die down and she would be able to return home. But that was 65 years ago. And she is still homeless, although she has lived in many places since that fateful day.
The family lived for a time in Jordan but ultimately returned to Palestine, taking up residence in the Old City of East Jerusalem, then under Jordanian rule. When Joseph was 2 years old, his parents and their young children were again forced to flee from the invading Israeli army. The year was 1967, and once again his parents found themselves with no place to live and nowhere to go. As faithful Christians, they turned to the only place they knew for help ~ the church ~ which provided them with the small apartment where Joseph now lives with his mother. The home where he was born is but a few cobbled lanes and twisted alleys away, but his childhood home is now an Israeli-run youth hostel.
Joseph has adjusted ~ somewhat. For him, his beloved city of Jerusalem is his home. His church is a few cobbled blocks from the apartment. I joined him one Sunday for mass to hear his band lead the singing. This city is the center of his life. He has established a successful restaurant where he serves the best of gourmet cuisine, having prepared meals for many visiting dignitaries, including his beloved Pope. It was my desire for good food that first took me to Rossini’s Restaurant in 2008. This was the beginning of my friendship with Joseph, and his restaurant is simply the best place to enjoy an amazing meal, lovingly and creatively prepared. Last fall I spent many an evening in the warm embrace of this place, enjoying the delights that emerged from the kitchen as “compliments of Chef Joseph”!
Joseph is one of 1.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. They are “second class citizens” in a Jewish state, but they enjoy many privileges that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza only dream about. Freedom of movement is one of those basic human rights that allows Joseph to obtain a passport and travel the world. He is part of “Chefs for Peace,” a group of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chefs who use their art to advocate for peace. He is an amazingly resilient man who has made the best of a tragic situation. He tells me, “This is my city ~ my birthplace ~ I will never leave ~ But my mother is not at home here ~ It breaks my heart ~ She is my mother, and she wants desperately to go home ~ What can I do?”
Violence once again marked Nakba commemorations yesterday, May 15 ~ It has been 65 years since the Nakba ~ the “catastrophe” ~ when 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee the advancing Israeli army ~ over 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed ~ there were massacres and forced evictions ~ For many Palestinians the Nakba was relived in 1967 ~ For many Palestinians, the Nakba is ongoing ~ Palestinian land is confiscated for expanding Israeli settlements ~ Palestinian homes are demolished ~ East Jerusalem families are evicted onto the streets, their homes given to Jewish settlers. In 2011 the Israeli government passed a bill to deny funding to any organization, institution or municipality that commemorates the Nakba ~ But how can you legislate a people’s history? How can you control collective memory? This historic and ongoing catastrophe is engraved on the hearts and minds of three generations of Palestinians! ~ Would not the creation of peace with justice help to ease these painful memories and do more for Israel’s “security” than the passing of draconian laws? Why is acknowledging another’s pain such a difficult thing to do? When will this catastrophe end?
As I watched Joseph, with a heavy heart, wheel his mother up the cobblestone street of East Jerusalem’s Old City that night, I reflected on the meaning and place of home in our lives as human creatures ~ The connection to place is deep and primal ~ What does it mean to long for home? Is an old woman’s deep longing too much to ask?