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Heaviness and Hope in Haifa

This blog post is written by Alex Horwitz, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in the Kiryat Chaim neighborhood of Haifa.


There has always been a heaviness to Haifa. The air is so thick with humidity it seems almost as if the city clings to you, even, or perhaps especially, if you’re not quite ready to cling back. Community and youth centers function under the auspices of a municipality whose dire need stands in stark contrast to the limited resources available to meet it. But above all, Haifa is heavy because I was here when I heard that my sister had died. For all its beauty and opportunity, my time in Haifa has been stained with grief.


They say grief is bittersweet. Bitter, because it is evoked by the loss of something or someone you will never have back. Sweet, because to miss some so profoundly means that you once loved them with the same intensity. People say that those we lose are never truly gone, that they live on within us, in our memories of them, in the ways we honor them. They say our loved ones watch over us, guide us, lament our hardships and celebrate our triumphs.


But none of these platitudes speak to the true experience of loss, let alone that of a relationship that was, at best, complex. If ever there was a place to grapple with such an experience, it is here, in a country whose identity is stitched with loss and conflict, but also with hope.


Grief is desensitizing and heavy. It leaves you isolated and numb. Maybe it is bittersweet, but I wouldn’t know. In the days and weeks following my sister’s death I’ve hardly noticed the taste of anything, let alone my grief. And though I cannot taste it, I see my grief in everything. I see it in the children at the community center I teach at, who remind me of my niece and nephew, hobbled by the loss of the only parent they’ve ever known. I see it in the artwork around the city, so much of which is evocative of the whimsical style in which she used to paint. I feel it, too, in the most benign moments of my day. My grief is the thing I feel dragging the corners of my lips down when the laughter of a joke subsides. My grief is the stinging in my eyes when I think of my sister and all the lives hollowed by her death. It is the heaviness that settles on me like a second blanket when I lie in bed at night, and the tiredness I can’t quite shake when I wake up in the morning.


I’ll be the first to admit that I have a natural inclination to solitude, particularly in the wake of loss. It is in these last two weeks that I have felt Haifa tighten its grip on me, refusing to let me slip away. Though my first instinct was to keep the news of my sister’s passing to myself, I found myself confiding in program staff, who offered sympathetic ears, compassionate calls, and shoulders to cry on. The other fellows in my cohort–those in Haifa especially–and the supervisors at my placements, too, have shown me a warmth and kindness that has disarmed me completely, holding space for me when I stumble and showing me what it means to find strength in a community that wants to help you stand again. It is only in rare and fleeting moments, that I still feel alone.


I have always felt heaviness more acutely than hope and at times have struggled to understand a world in which they could coexist, but I see now that that world does exist; it exists here.


On the surface, it might have seemed as though my relationship with my sister was never meant to be. Like the many communities who live alongside one another here in Israel, we seemed, at first glance, to be irreconcilably different. She marched to the beat of her own drum, while I lived to follow the rules. She felt happiest caked in the dust of the Black Rock Desert, high off a week at Burning Man, while I felt the same with my nose buried in a book. But like the disparate communities here, we made attempts–imperfect though they might have been–to understand one another as well. I asked her about the spiritual retreats she’d attended, and she, the classes I’d taken. And though we did not really understand how the other could derive any satisfaction from such interests, we never said as much out loud. The work I’ve been doing here, has recontextualized for me how significant it is to show those with whom you think you cannot relate, just how much you would like to. It has also reminded me that some chasms are too wide to bridge in the span of one lifetime. That what matters is not perfection, but progress and perseverance. This lens has helped assuage the gnawing guilt over our tenuous connection that has accompanied my grief. In the wake of my sister’s passing, I’ve found myself retracing the edges of old memories of our time together. Like photographs, some have yellowed with age, becoming faded and incomplete. Others still have disintegrated completely, leaving me with only the essence of what I know we once shared. Regardless, each reminds me of how I felt at the time, and leaves me wishing I had prioritized making more. That I didn’t, means my collection of memories is sparse, so much so I find myself wondering if I am even entitled to the sadness I feel at knowing it will never grow.


Though the physical and emotional distance between me and my sister often felt impassible, it ebbed and flowed through the years—a living, breathing thing unto itself. She was 18 years my senior and though I rarely knew the details of her life, I idolized her as a child. She did not visit often, and her visits were all the more special because of it. I close my eyes and see snapshots of her picking me up from school, painting murals on my bedroom walls, walking through the neighborhood. For most of my adolescent years, we did not speak at all. For reasons I never understood, she cut ties with me completely when I was nine years old. When I received a postcard from her after years of silence, I ripped it to pieces, cried, then painstakingly taped it back together. There was always magic in her words and the glitter ink in which she wrote them, whether I wanted to admit it or not. Even so, her long silence and all but total disappearance from my life left me jaded through my teenage years about who she was and who I had ever presumed to believe I was to her. I sneered at any resemblance to her I saw in the mirror and prided myself on the characteristics that differentiated me from her.


Still, our similarities, try as I might to mask them, were often glaring. We both found clarity in writing, and indulged in fantasies of making careers of doing so. We were at once immutably different, choosing disparate paths at every turn, and indelibly alike, searching for the place where we could be most ourselves. I do not know if Haifa will ever be the place where I am most myself, but it is where I have begun to understand that there is beauty in lives lived parallel to one another; courage in the act of striving to understand even if and when we fall short; and unyielding hope in continuing to reach out across a divide that seems impossible to bridge.


A selfie of Alex's sister in a swimming pool. She is wearing a swimming cap and has a soft smile at the camera.
In memory of my sister, Athena Grace.

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