She bounced around, first against her father’s knees, then through the confusion that was a billowing dress. Stubbornly, her mother’s hand pulled her through the crowd, never letting go, but never dragging her, either.
It was a glorious day, filled with the merry shouts and jokes of neighbors, family members, and friends-to-be. The crowds milled around, groups forming and un-forming, as the calm of a day off met the anticipation of celebration.
Adriana couldn’t remember ever seeing so many people at once, but then again, there wasn’t much to remember when you’re only five. There had been older memories, glimpses of being woken in the middle of the night, carried into a car with her favorite blanket. Moshe had been crying, her mother’s voice had been comforting, but without form or context to hold it in place, her only memory of Egypt had eventually faded. For now, Lebanon was all she knew.
Around her, she could see only pants, dresses, skirts, and shoes. She longed for an empty street, a straight road to run down. She wanted mountains to scale, and monsters to fight! There were so many adventures waiting to be embarked upon.
Yanking her back to reality, her mother slowed her pace as familiar faces approached. Even Adriana could feel the buzz around her, appreciate that the holidays were a special time in Wadi Abu Jamil.
Of course, at five years old, she couldn’t have cared less about Pesach, or the significance of partaking in a tradition that spanned back millennia. When wobbling Gad (the one who lived two doors down and always gave her chocolate) came to introduce his new bride to her adults, Adriana seized her chance. Quietly slipping out of her mother’s grasp, she took a step back, then two. The adults were smiling, distracted. She turned and ran.
She ran past the white walls of the synagogue, under its stained glass windows and patterned stars of David. When it had been built, 25 years prior, Magen Avraham had been called the pride of the Jews of Beirut. Her parents had only arrived a few years earlier, in 1948, but they had been welcomed warmly by its congregants, alongside the wave of Arab Jewish refugees. Lebanon had been the only Arab country to see its Jewish population increase after the first Arab-Israeli war.
Rounding the corner, she came into view of the small Talmud school. She had passed it many times before, when she accompanied her mother to drop off Moshe, her older brother. Today it was quiet, almost eerie without the throngs of screaming children and the watchful gaze of wiser teachers. She ambled along the path towards the shade of a beech tree. She wanted a spot that overlooked the street, so she would be able to see if anyone came looking for her. In the distance, she could just make out the outline of the Grand Serail, Lebanon’s Parliament building. Gad had explained to her father that its nearness to the synagogue was a symbol that the Jews in Lebanon would not have to hide. Things were different here - this wasn’t Egypt.
The stepping stones beneath her feet were beautiful. Carved mosaics with intricate designs of stalks and leaves traced their way across the stone. Some flowers were in full bloom, while others had made the mistake of biding their time, now forever frozen.
She pranced down the walkway - two stones forward, one step back - never breaking from the pattern and always careful not to step off. A breeze blew softly past her face, freedom bursting in her little soul. Where were the mountains, who were the monsters? No time for dreary adults who had given up on adventures.
What if there were monsters here, even in Wadi Abu Jamil? Adriana froze, balanced on one leg. Maybe they were hiding, waiting for an opportune moment. She looked down, wondering if any could be under the very stone she stood upon. Her mother had warned her of monsters, how they lurked in the dark, but never ventured into the light. Adriana absent-mindedly touched her bracelet, tracing the grooves of a menorah on the flat silver, and the clasp that held the band just a little too loosely on her wrist. A gift from her mother, it was her tangible reminder to stay in the light. Surely she could fight off any monsters she found here.
Stepping gingerly off the stone, she wedged her fingers between stone and soil, braced, and pulled. It was heavier than she had expected, a strain for her little body. She planted her feet and strained her fingers. Slowly, slowly, the stone came up. And lo! Beneath, on the fresh soil, scurried worms and centipedes, ants and even a little spider! She would keep her distance from that one.
Faint as the sound was, she turned her head instinctively, her eyes leaving the subterranean wonder to gaze across the street. A red face above a smart black and white suit made its way towards her. It was her father, dripping with sweat and breathing hard.
Shame built quickly within her small frame, blocking her breath and burning her cheeks. Adriana lifted a hand to cover her face, that her father might not see her. Just before she did so, her bracelet imperceptibly slid and landed neatly among the worms, just to the left of the spider. The stone, now too heavy to hold with just the one hand, yearned to follow the tug of gravity. She let go, and it fell with a muffled umf.
“Do you have any idea how long we’ve been looking for you! Your mother is worried sick!” There was anger in his voice, exasperation, too (it wasn’t the first time she had wandered off). Though Adriana could not yet label it, there was also underlying love. The care of a father who had been willing to make any sacrifice to protect his family. The joy of a father finding that which he loves, and had lost.
Tears welled up in her large, round eyes, and she inhaled deeply, bracing for a sustained wail. Her father caught the change of expression, realized how loud he had yelled. He kneeled down, tenderly reaching to push the curly, black hair out of her eyes.
“Never mind about that now. Mother can scold you later. I just didn’t want you to miss this big day. It’s a great moment for this place, for our people. You know that I love you, yes?” She nodded, breathed out just a bit. “Want to be tall for a while?”
As a lone tear made its way down her cheek, the others subsided, retreating into their ducts for another day. A small smile broke through, lighting up her face, and she nodded a bit more vigorously.
His left arm swooped out, hoisting her up, far and away, onto his shoulders. She giggled as she rolled in tune with his stroll, back towards the front of the synagogue. As they reached the edge of the crowd, she pointed to the balcony, where several plump, older men exchanged smiles, handshakes, and customary kisses. Her father’s voice was excited, reverent, grateful.
“That is Charles Helou, and the one with the mustache is Sami Sulh, and there’s Pierre Gemayel. Helou might become the prime minister, and-”
“What’s a Prime minister?” she asked, curious as ever and wondering if prime ministers liked bugs, too.
Her father paused. It was a reasonable question, one he should have expected. This was his most curious child, after all. But did he also want to explain what an inspector general was, or an archbishop…
“It’s a very important person in this country. They all are. And they are here to say that the Jews in this country will not be forgotten. There are a lot more of them than there are of us, so this is a big step.”
He lifted her from her seat and set her down, kneeling again to look into her eyes.
“I know there have been scary times, Adriana. But the Magen Avraham synagogue, and Wadi Abu Jamil… It’s proof that we can all live together. We are Jews, Adriana. It means that we must believe in miracles. I hope, one day, that you’ll understand how much that means.”
Tender as the moment was, there was much Adriana’s father didn’t know, couldn’t have known. How 1967 would rock the country, bringing the PLO to Lebanon, along with a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment. How Lebanese army troops would ring Wadi Abu Jamil to ward off any mob attacks. How he would hold her hand, two years after that, as they boarded a plane to Canada. It was good that they would leave before the civil war broke out. Adriana would never have to worry about checkpoints, or ID cards with a text field for religion, or gunfire and bombings and spontaneous executions. But she would hear the horror stories when Gad and Murielle would finally join them in Vancouver, several years and many bribes later. Gad said that less than a hundred Jews had decided to stay, their faith a secret, after a kind lawyer had helped get them new ID cards, the religion field changed or left blank.
Adriana would go on to start her own professional coaching business, travelling frequently to clients all over the globe. Always willing to ask the hard questions, she would help countless people face their own monsters, better climb their own mountains. For her thirtieth birthday, she had bought her mother a bracelet, gold this time, etched with a small menorah. “To remind you that I will always try to stay in the light,” and to placate a mother worried about her world-travelling daughter.
But Magen Avraham would not fade from her mind, and on long flights, she would often dream of the synagogue, the school in the back, the mosaic stones beneath the beech tree. What, she wondered, had happened to the hundred Jews who had decided to stay, and call Lebanon their home? Was that lawyer still out there, helping them navigate their singular existence?
It was a world away, and the chasm between was inseparable. When she came to that point, she would lay back down in her airline seat, closing her eyes, swimming in a mixture of loss and gratefulness. Maybe, maybe one day, things would change and she would return, just for a short but sentimental visit. Deep down, she knew that she had left some mountains unscaled in Wadi Abu Jamil, and they called to her. Even deeper, she could feel that all the mountains she had climbed since were only shadows, echoes of that call.
In her old age, one of her grandchildren had turned to internet sleuthing after hearing her childhood stories at Pesach. The synagogue had been renovated in the late 2010s, the work of influential Western nations and good PR. No one was allowed inside, but Adriana had cried in front of the screen, reaching out her hand to images of the building, to memories of a life long gone. Wadi Abu Jamil had been purchased by a large development group, turned into one of the more expensive quarters of the city. Most of the original inhabitants had moved to other neighborhoods, eager to distance themselves from the place they had once called home. Did their children roam the streets of Beirut, anonymous and free in their anonymity? Would her children or her grandchildren ever join them?
She had faced enough monsters. The mountains in Wadi Abu Jamil weren’t going anywhere, but she knew she must pass them on, a gift and a curse to the next generation. Only time would tell which of her dreams would die as unfulfilled fantasies. Deep inside, though, the seed that was hope refused to die. She would make sure it lived on, if at least through one person, for one more generation. It illuminated her days still, as she gazed out at her family, the life they had built, the world they had made their own. It was hope that had made any of this possible. And, resolutely, she would stay in its light for as long as she could.