When I was a wee young thing (by which I mean, I can't quite remember what year it was), my Mom took my siblings and me to Israel for three weeks to visit ... basically her entire family: her parents, her grandmother Nana, her brother Jonny and his children and his wife's parents, her aunt Millie and uncle Elliot and all his descendants, etc.
On the flight over, I remember being astonished at how waaaaaaay ritzier this flight was than my usual fare (yes, even at that age I considered myself a world-weary traveler and connoisseur of the flying experience). On El Al, we had rows four seats across so the whole family could sit together. We had individual movie screens (this was back in the day when not every airline in the world had this) with so many movie choices (I watched Mrs. Doubtfire and Beethoven's 2nd over and over. What? I was like eight)! Perhaps most importantly, they gave out freaking TOYS to the kids!!!! I got a supercool travel magnetic version of this marble puzzle. Also, I remember the flight was superduper crazyface long.
And when we got there, we were massively jetlagged of course. My sister and I went straight to sleep (I believe it was mid-afternoon, Israel-time). My brother, though, was not to be deterred by such petty things as "sleepiness," not when there was mischief to be had! When we woke up we saw that he had gotten his hair buzzed off. While this was actually a cute look for him, I'm fairly certain most of the motive here was to see the looks of astonishment on our faces. I was mostly bitter he wouldn't let me touch the soft fuzz on his head (he let my sister do it ... grumble).
My grandparents and my uncle and his family all lived in a very nice small town - walking distance to each other's houses and to a pretty kickass pool. Each Friday night they rotated which of three houses would host the Shabbat Dinner, a potluck that brought together my grandparents, my cousins, and my aunt's parents - and any friends and family that were nearby. This was a place of welcome and safety and most importantly to all involved, family.
My grandparent's house's walkway was paved with their favorite, Jerusalem Stone, a stone both beautiful and full of meaning for them. The house itself is a lovely large one-story with high ceilings and central air (a requirement for Israel, I would presume, but a luxury to the likes of us with our window unit ACs). The walls were filled with art, the shelves with books, and the rooms with family. They had three guest rooms for our use, two living rooms, a kosher kitchen (separate dishware and flatware), and a bomb shelter just off the kitchen, complete with gas masks and stores of non-perishable food and water.
Not every day, but many and most days, we would all pile into the van, along with our cousins, and go off on "LM Travel"* - my grandparents scorned the elephant-like tourists with their tour guides and instead told us the history and stories behind wherever we were visiting that day on the ride over. Knowing our history, knowing our stories, taking pride in being Jewish, these have always been such important values to my grandparents, and they have instilled this pride in their descendants. Our visits varied from the giant flea market to the outdoor zoo (my brother sat with the peacocks and smiled, and the ostrich tried to break into the car window to get food) to Yad Mordechai to Jerusalem and the Western Wall to climbing Masada at dawn (for my sister's birthday) and the Dead Sea in the afternoon. I collected keychain after keychain, my then-souvenir of choice. My grandfather would always buy us all ice creams from a cart as a snack.
We stayed for three weeks. The first Shabbat was also a birthday party for my brother. The second Shabbat was a birthday party for my sister. The third Shabbat was an un-birthday party for me, so I wouldn't feel left out (since I'm a March baby while the other two were summer babies). It was a wonderful time.
We went back another summer for another three-week-long visit, and my brother, who became more in touch with his Jewish side than either my sister or I, had his Bar Mitzvah there. My grandparents were so very proud.
I haven't been back to Israel in sixteen years.
My grandparents still keep in good touch with us - they usually come to the States once or twice a year and "make the rounds" - they've always loved traveling and they like to stop in at DC because they love the history there too. And they talk on the phone with and email regularly with my mom. My cousins I keep in more tenuous contact with, since it has been a really really long time, but at least we're all facebook friends now. But my grandparents are less able to travel now, for health reasons.
So this summer I am finally going back to Israel, if only for a week. cousinTerra and I are flying out Saturday at midnight to see the whole wonderful family again (including two tiny new babies! My grandparents are now great-grandparents!). And while family-seeing is the primary goal, it will be good to see Israel again.
*Note: My grandmother insists the LM in LM Travel stands for List-Makers. But we all know that if she is leading it, it's Loud-Mouth. Said with love, so much love.