Am I On Vacation?

A friend in Maplewood sent an email this morning asking if we were around for a picnic.   Wrote back that we would love have a picnic when we get back in town after July 14.  He responded, “Well I hope you are on a vacation.”

I am sitting on a mountain above the town of Rosh Pinna watching the sunrise.  Roosters.  Birds.  Lavender. I wipe a chair that is wet with dew and sit down to write this.   Mountain peaking out from the haze to the left.  The Sea of Galilee barely visible at dawn on the right.

I never take pictures of sunrises and sunsets. Sunrises, sunsets, rainbows – all too much to squeeze into a frame. The frame only owns a piece of what you are seeing.   I cannot take that much in.  Stephie comes out and stretches.  There is my first picture of the day.  I am thinking of our friend Tom England who always gets up at dawn and photographs the sunrising so beautifully.   I never do that.

It is Thursday morning.   Tuesday was one of the most moving and intense days of my life.   Woke up in Krakow.  Visited the oldest synagogue there, and laid stones on the graves.   Visited the apothecary and met with Paulina, one of the righteous gentiles.  Even the translator teared up at the end when God’s name was given as the only explaination.  Rubbed my cheek up against the walls of the town where my ancestors perished and closed my eyes for a moment of prayer.

Mostly my cheek was pressed up against my camera.  We went to Auschwitz.  It was a totally different experience than when I first visited there before having a family.   This time it was unbearable looking at the photographs of the parents holding their children, not being able to protect them.  I photographed evidence of the horror, and the dandelions.  I photographed our group holding eachother, the guide from Israel, the young assistant from the government, the radio host and his wife all holding eachother. I photographed the daughter breaking down and having to leave.  In the crematorium I photographed the nail scratches on the wall.  In this hell, by the entrance the light was pouring in.   I used that light for beauty.  I did not stop myself.

When I broke down I cried then pulled myself back behind the camera.  I was working.

We then went up the road, and got out in a neighborhood.   We were told not to talk as we walked down the tracks to Birchenau.  The sound of my camera was unbearable, but I had to take pictures.  It was my job.  I walked along the tracks.   The steel converged into one track.  I walked a long time, photographing just in front of my feet.  Suddenly the track ended.

Prayers were recited for families lost, candles lit, then I went over by the rubble of the crematorium, put my camera down, and buried my face in my hands.  It felt like a firestorm of history spinning in my head, until it all suddenly stopped on a clear image of my grandfather George, who died at 39.   He did not die here.  He died on fresh ironed sheets in the house I grew up in, long before I was born.  His death was not violent, though still tragic.  After several minutes, I opened my eyes, looked at the tears that had dripped on my sleeve, picked up my camera and carried on.

That night we flew to Israel.  It was late, and everyone was drained.  Weary voices talked on the plane, as we appreciated more than ever the purpose and promise of Israel.   Vickie said the happiest day of her life was the day her son went off to fight in the Israeli army.  She said Jews had waited 2000 years to live and defend their right for a homeland.  I was so overwhelmed when we landed in Israel.  Just so happy be there.

I was driven to a hotel in Jerusalem, and went up to room 835 and knocked.  Stephie answered the door.   I finally put my camera down for the day and we hugged for a long time.

The sun is up.  It was not a dramatic sunrise though still beautiful.  The sound of the birds has changed.   The roosters have faded.  I will begin photographing Israel for a book this morning.   I will photograph gardeners who have made magic spring from the most arid desert.  I will photograph artists and holy men.   I will photograph great women chefs, eggs stewed in tomatoes, and mountains of cheese.  I will photograph dancers and politicians and large families dancing at a wedding.  I will try to show how terribly personal everything is.

I was told recently that the camera I am carrying has had over 380,000 images shot on it.  Several thousand more will be taken in the next week.

This is what I do for work.  I am not on vacation. I am getting paid to be here in Israel. My work is doing something I love, that opens doors and takes me places I could never dream existed.  My work takes me to places that are beyond guidebooks and introduces me to strangers that embrace and challenge me. Vacation is the moments when you get to put down the tools of your trade and hold your family, wherever that may be.  Vacation is a state of mind.  Vacation is this moment, feeling the sun rise on my face, just before I pick up my camera.