Tali Versano Eisman, resident of Memphis’s Israeli partner city Shoham and a member of the Memphis-Shoham project’s steering committee, visited Memphis in October to deepen ties between the two communities, and to speak at this year’s Israel Festival. In this piece, she reflects on her visit, the love for Israel she found in Memphis, and the people-to-people connections being forged between the two communities.
After a journey is over, you have to pack everything, the clothes, the presents, and put them all in a suitcase and try to close. If I had to bring in all my experiences from this trip as well, there’s no way I would have closed it.
And it’s not just the stories; it’s also how I felt.
I woke up at four in the morning in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis, twin city of Shoham, where I represent the city as part of the Memphis-Shoham partnership.
I’ve been in the US for a week and the jet lag refuses to leave, I go through a few phone messages, I open YNET (Israeli news website) to see what’s new in Israel, as if I have control by this observation, and I get a bitter sense. Again, a photo of frightened children, a sister of someone who was stabbed to death tells the story from her point of view, Lucy Aharish married a Jewish actor and everyone has something to say and more of such that you all know well. I read, understanding that nothing really changed and I swallow it like a dissolving pill, and go on with my day in Memphis. On this day I am extremely anxious, today the Israel Festival will be held.
Four of us arrived from Israel – Col. (res.) Avi Eliyahu, who was chosen to represent Shoham, as I, and give lectures at the festival; Anna Berkman, Partnership Director of the Jewish Agency, and my very good friend, Dana Edelstein, who joined me on this journey not only as a friend but also as my English mentor; and I, Tali Versano Eisman.
All through the week prior to the festival, I noticed that Memphis was covered with signs regarding the upcoming Israel Festival Event and big white and blue flags were on top of these signs. I wondered to myself, ‘who will be coming to this festival? Is the Jewish community organizing a festival for themselves and bringing some Israeli speakers to the event? ‘GREAT!’
Nothing prepared me for what I experienced.
The entrance to the festival was full of Israeli flags and signs illustrating Israel. I peeked out and saw two camels, alpacas and sheep. Rain threatened to descend. I thought that this was certainly a different experience for the animals as well, and found myself amused by the thought that they were the ones representing Israel.
I moved in further, and right in front of me was standing, no less, the Western Wall. Even the plants growing between the stones were there. There were a few notes on the side to put between the cracks of the Wall. I wrote: ‘God, let me touch the hearts of people’ and pushed my note deep into one of the cracks. In contrast to the Western Wall, it pushed quite easily.
I thought that it probably didn’t matter to God what rocks the requests are pushed into.
I moved on, Israel was with me in the form of BAMBA, Elite chocolates snacks, Teva Naot shoes, Israeli jewelry, Shabbat Challah cover, and actually what not?
I looked around, it was not just a festival for Jews, I noticed a few Christians, some of them African-Americans who love Israel.
Suddenly, I feel being hugged. No one is touching me and still I feel an embrace. They love Israel. They love us.
I went into the bathroom and met an African-American girl. I turned to her: Can I ask you something? I’m Israeli, so it’s clear what I’m doing here. What brings you here?
She smiled and said: ‘What do you mean? My dream is to get to Israel, my mother has already been there, and I plan to arrive in the coming year. We are very close to Judaism. It is close to our heart.’ She gave me her hand and took me to one of the stands to meet her mother and brother.
“Mom, this is Tali, she is from Israel’, and immediately the mother’s face curls up in excitement and her arms spread out to embrace. I love hugs and of course I immediately respond. I notice that on her neck there is a pendant written in Hebrew, and asks for the meaning of the word “DRUSHA” that appears on it. ‘This is from a verse in the Bible she explains … God revealed to me at night and said it was my name.’ I’m not sure I can understand everything at the moment, but I take this hug with me and move on.
I later investigate deeper and find out that she is named after the second name of Jerusalem.
On the loudspeaker there is an announcement of a Falafel eating contest. Dana and Avi compete with the locals and don’t win first place.
At another stand, I see Krav Maga instructors. I take a picture with them and tell them my two sons are practicing Krav Maga in the army. They are excited to hear this.
I took a moment to look around me, trying to make all the sights fit into my experience. I know that the more I am present, the more the experience will remain with me, even when it is over. I see a man with a Menorah over his head, a MATKOT competition, signs with ‘The Nation of Israel Lives’.
Suddenly I notice a giant kite at the end of the hall and a group of young adults from Israel with shirts reading: ‘I’m an Israeli, ask me about Israel.’
We stop for a little chat, they are in SHERUT LEUMI (Israeli national service), at the festival to explain about Israel. They want to put the giant kite in one of the settlements at the Gaza border and invite everyone to write on it. I wrote: ‘Only good things should fly over children’s’ heads.’
I notice my name on a sign at the festival, inviting people to my lecture. We are having a great time, but we need to get back to the Israeli reality and give the lecture we have come to give. Avi will talk about the many threats to Israel and Operation Protective Edge, and I, in my role as the explanatory for children, on reserve, of the Home Front Command, will tell about my experience with the children living on the Gaza border during Operation Protective Edge, and my experience while being with them in the war for more than 60 days.
I opened my lecture by saying that I wish the festival would have stayed a festival, without lectures on wars, but unfortunately that’s part of our lives. And thanked them for leaving the falafel and MATKOT and coming to hear us.
They asked quite a few questions: What about the threat from Hezbollah? Is there anyone better suited than Bibi to lead Israel? What other real problems does Israel have other than the security problem? Avi gave excellent answers and meanwhile I received phone alerts on another alarm that sounded in Israel. My heart pinches when I think of the children who are running to the shelter at this moment.
I finished my lecture with the following story:
During Operation Protective Edge, I arrived at one of the settlements adjacent to the fence, right next to the Gaza border, where a few days earlier terrorists had infiltrated through a tunnel. I came there to broadcast with a crew from ‘The Kid’s Channel’ (Arutz HaYeladim, an Israeli cable channel geared toward children). I was surprised to see that the settlement still had children in it, after being attacked. After the broadcast, I turned to the mothers and asked: ‘Are, you crazy?? What are you still doing here? Why aren’t you leaving with your children?’
I received an answer I will never forget: ‘And who will take care of the soldiers?’
I choked during my lecture, paused for a few seconds, and continued with the story.
‘Who will open their homes for the soldiers to shower and eat tasty food?’, one of the mothers continued. ‘in fact you are a soldier as well, come, take a break and refresh yourself a bit.’
The tears flowed down by themselves. I was thinking of my two soldier sons, who at difficult times may come across such big open hearts and great generosity. I summed up and said that at that moment I remembered why I loved my country so much, and I looked up at the audience and saw that I was not the only one in the room with tears streaming down her face.
In my heart I thanked God and that ‘mini Wall’, that I have managed to touch people’s hearts.
We left the lecture and suddenly we see Omri Casspi who is playing for the Memphis Grizzlies this season. We jumped on him, letting him also feel this love, and be able to jump back to dunking basketballs on the court. Omri, what pride you are.
So there is falafel, and there are camels that were left outside wet from the rain, there is a festival shirt, and even a picture with Omri Casspi. The experience is nearly over.
Now, I can fold it all into the suitcase of very good experiences, go home and try to tell it all.
The partnership of Shoham – Memphis is one of 46 partnerships in the Partnership Project jointly operated by the Jewish Agency to strengthen the interpersonal relationship between Israel and Jewish Diaspora. The Shoham – Memphis partnership was established in January 2017 and operates a program for twin schools, exchange of delegations – women, artists, youth programs, community visits and peak events. The Partnership is operated by volunteers – the Shoham Committee is run by Chairman Orly Lahat and nine energetic committee members.
The Jewish community in Memphis, Tennessee, has about 9,000 people. The community has many cultural and spiritual institutions – synagogues in variety streams of Judaism, two Jewish schools, the JCC. The community is sympathetic to Israel and is thrilled by the emerging connection with Shoham.