Together, my 11-year-old daughter, Naomi, and I took the plunge. Nervous and uncertain of what lay before us, we waded into the water of the Sea of Galilee and began swimming, alongside thousands of Israelis — young and old, all shapes and sizes.
The annual tradition of swimming across the Sea of Galilee predates the State of Israel. In 1944, a few dozen competitive male and female swimmers crossed a nine kilometer course. In the early years, the swim was only for the very athletic and competitive. Over the years, it has evolved and been transformed into a massive event, that enjoys corporate sponsorship by Speedo.
Early in the morning there are the competitive legs, with prizes and medals for individuals and combined times of swimming leagues from across the country. But the big event, open to the public, is the “People’s Swim.” It is anything but a race. Every few meters, there is a raft where swimmers can hang on, climb up, or take a rest. Teenagers stop and dive or do cannonballs off of the cruise ship anchored halfway across the course. Families swim together — some of them holding ropes and pulling younger children along on rafts. For locals, it is an annual tradition.
In order to qualify for membership in an organization called “Sea of Galilee Swim Veterans,” one is required to have swum the long course at least 40 times. Even if I swim diligently every year, considering the advanced age of my first swim, it is extremely doubtful I will ever qualify to join this impressive group.
And there I was — firmly in middle age — no athlete, swimming along, doing it for the first time. What was I doing there? For the answer, all I had to do was look at the young girl beside me.
Like so many parents, my focus in life at the moment is providing a safe, supportive warm home that will serve as a launching pad for my kids to go off into the world secure and confident. In my eldest son’s and younger daughter’s case, it works. They come home for food and fuel and comfort and heads out to meet challenges.
My middle child, Naomi, however, is cautious in nature, a bit shy when it comes to new situations outside of her comfort zone. And like her mother, sports and athletics are well outside that zone.
I try to act as a cheerleader and a role model for Naomi. I tell her of stories of challenges over the course of my journalism career when I was a newspaper reporter in the field chasing stories. She knows I lived in major cities on my own, and, of course, that I left all that was familiar behind and moved to Israel and adapted to a new country and a new language.
But at a certain point, I thought to myself, what does she see every day? There I am, planted at the computer writing articles or in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher or in the car shuttling kids to afterschool activities or heading to a volunteer community meeting. Granted, it is more than a full plate. But new challenges? Taking chances? Doing something where I might falter, or possibly fail? She never sees me in such a vulnerable position. She sees me playing it safe.
Call it a mid-life crisis or meeting a parental challenge, but in recent months, it has become clearer to me that at this point in her life, pushing my daughter means pushing myself. On Rosh Hashanah, I resolved that this was the year I would push myself outside my comfort zone and show my daughter that I was willing to try things that are new and a little intimidating. I announced — to my children’s (and my husband’s) shock — that this year I was swimming across the Sea of Galilee and I invited my two older children to join me.
And so, after spending the night at a little hotel in Tiberias, we registered and headed for the starting point. Bizarrely taking the journey in a shuttle bus filled with strangers dressed in bathing suits. Almost immediately, my 14-year-old son sprinted ahead of us on the beach and headed out fearlessly into the water. My daughter and I, after wading in, spent the next two hours in the cloudy waters, slowly making our way across with the breathtaking views of the hills around us. It wasn’t easy: There were cramps, there was chafing, there were whining and complaints; at some points, it seemed endless.
But there was no turning back, and we made it. When we finally arrived, sunburned and weary at Tzemach Beach, where we collected our gift bag, which included chocolate milk, Speedo beach umbrellas, and a medal with a ribbon to hang around our neck. But the proud confident smile on my daughter’s face — and her chatter about how we would do it again next year — was the only prize I needed.