The first thing you realize when you travel internationally with kids is that the world needs to serve more grilled cheese in its restaurants. Seriously, man, would that be so hard? Little more grilled cheese? We can orbit Jupiter in a can but we can’t serve grilled cheese?
This is the tension, traveling with kids: How hard do we press in getting them to appreciate the things we are appreciating? It’s not inconsequential, this question – being bored as a kid is a fate worse than death. And if you’re anything like Liz and me, you didn’t fly to Israel to visit all those Israeli-made playgrounds.
Liz and I thought we had perfectly planned a trip we’d been anticipating for years. First, we’d be staying with our close friends, Itay and Orit, my classmates from business school at Stern. They had two kids around our kids’ age. We love their family. Second, this trip would be a spiritual and culturally-enriching journey wherein the kids and grownups would be equally blown away by the historical significance of the places we were visiting.
We started off pretty well.
We headed to the Old Jaffa Port, a biblical scene of libertine life, gorgeous steps, narrow paths and ornate doors and flowers pouring out windows, all carved out of stone, all climbing a hill and overlooking the bright blue Mediterranean. It was like scaling history. And for a while the kids were mesmerized by it all.
But soon, as a parent, you hit that moment. Where interest from the kids begins to wane. Because they’ve sort of gotten it – it’s different! It’s amazing! They were ready to move on, Liz and I were still soaking it in.
And that’s the moment of truth, right?
Thankfully, I’ve made this mistake enough times. (If Parenting had a bumper sticker, that would be it: “Thankfully, I’ve made this mistake enough times.”)
Liz and I decided to just sort of roll with it.
So instead of a reverential approach to St. Peter’s Church in Jaffa, a four hundred year old beacon to Christian pilgrims, I found myself approaching it via a backwards skipping race that Lucy won, per Liz’s video (but only because Lucy said “go” instead of first saying “ready set” and backwards skipping is all in getting off the blocks quickly).
There is very little my parents could have shown me when I was six years old that I would have understood or appreciated in the same way they did. So instead of trying to make our kids appreciate what we were seeing in the same way we did, Liz and I simply tried to tell them why we loved it.
There were thing we really wanted to see. And then there were the moments we had to just let go.
We drove a couple of hours to see Masada, the mountain archeological wonder of a 2000 year old palace built by Herod on the backs of what must have been the lives of tens of thousands of slaves. We took a cable car to the top of the mountain. Lucy, in that moment, decided she was feeling too hot and tired to walk around a bunch of ruins. Which seemed, to the kid in me, pretty reasonable. So I decided I would just look at photos of it later. And while the others wandered through the ruins, Lucy and I chased pigeons across the plateau. (Because I don’t know why God made pigeons if He didn’t want us to chase them.)
Every once in a while we’d tell the kids there was something we really wanted to see. The Western Wall, the Garden of Gethsemane (where Jesus was taken by soldiers), and other places in Jerusalem they had little interest in. But because we had respected their run-around time, they respected these moments.
They let us tell them about what we were looking at because they could tell we wanted to ell them. So they listened. Sometimes maybe they cared, sometimes maybe they didn’t. So while we grownups looked down at the Western Wall from this glorious rooftop, the kids played up there with a balloon.
Then there were the moments of perfect synchronicity, that we all loved. Like making a bonfire outside our cabins up north and discovering a.) we could make our own roti over the fire and b.) we were good at burning roti.
Or swimming in the Dead Sea. This is Finn and Itay floating.
Or when we walked around the ancient synagogue at Capernaum while the girls (Lucy and her friend Anna, with whom we stayed) climbed the trees next to it.
Or when we reached the site on the River Jordan of Jesus’s baptism, where we could put our feet in the water together and the kids could gently splash around and we could all have a different experience standing there, feeling that cool water that Jesus felt.
I had imagined, before we went, Israel would be a sacred, holy trip with a few trips to the playground sprinkled in. It was the opposite, in a way. And the kids came back happy and joyful and we came back as a tightly knit family. And that, in the end, was the sacred, holy trip we needed.
Someday we’ll go back to Israel, I have zero doubt. We miss it already. We miss our friends already. And when we do the kids will want to do different things, though they would deny it now. Which brings us to….
Top Five Things I Was Sure I Would Never Outgrow
1. Marshmallow Peeps.
I once asked my parents, after a debaucherously unhealthy Easter, if I could have Marshmallow Peeps every day. I was maybe eight. My parents said that I could not have Peeps every day and when I asked why and they said something to the effect of “You’ll die.” (When I started making my own money I went to a grocery store and bought about six packs of them. I took one bite and my entire body instinctively rebelled, my left hand slapping it out of my mouth.)
2. Watching Cartoons.
Saturday morning cartoons used to be a thing. If I could have set up camp forever in my pajamas with some sugary cereal in front of an episode of He-Man, I would have. My parents, meanwhile, were watching Masterpiece Theater which, as far as I could tell, was a show about dusty curtains.
3. Getting Up at 5 a.m. on Christmas Morning.
Even 5 a.m. was a concession. I would have stayed up all night if my parents had let me, toothpicks prying open my lids, staring at the Christmas tree. Time slows down in those hours between waking up as a child and waiting for your parents to come downstairs. I thought as an adult I would have access to pots of coffee that would mean I wouldn’t have to sleep at all on Christmas Eve. (That would be prescient, it turned out, thought it was because I was staying up all night putting together some stupid trampoline.)
4. Nerf Guns.
I don’t know if this is just a boy thing? But Nerf guns, man. What was more fun than that? My friend Chris Wallace and I promised each other that when we grew up we would buy the woods behind our neighbors house and turn it into a giant Nerf gun battle zone where we could play all day. But now as an adult that doesn’t seem so appealing. Especially with the price of real estate and the associated property taxes, and the fact that Nerf gun battle zones provide an incredibly low return on investment.
5. Egg and Spoon Races.
Field day in third grade, Arlington Elementary – guess who won the egg and spoon race? ME. My heart was pounding through that whole thing. To the left and right of me kids’ eggs were wobbling and spinning off spoons, but I had it that day, my friends. I burst across the finish line and I had found my calling. This was what I would be known for. I would practice every day and I would never lose and people would be astonished. (None of that happened.)
I’m watching all this in my kids now. Them living in their moment. And there was something nice about joining them in that moment. Even in Israel, even when my instinct was to pull them up to my level to see things as I saw them. There was something about looking at the world through their filter that made that country come to life in a way I never would have seen on my own.
And after thirteen hours on a plane and years of looking forward to that trip and visiting those sacred sites, many of my best memories of Israel will be those playgrounds.