Today, exactly 40 years ago, on the Thursday between Bereishit and Noach, I made aliya from England. (The exact date was 13th October 1977, Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5738).
In the beginning…
I fell in love with Israel long before I ever saw it, though I cannot explain how or why that happened. Certainly my upbringing played a crucial part in this love story, and my family connections in Israel added to the plot.
My first memories to do with Israel are connected with my grandparents’ first trip to Israel, back in the mid 1960s, when they met up with their siblings who had escaped the Shoah and reached Israel one way or the other. My grandparents came back with stories about Israel that fired my childish imagination, and brought back photos that filled me with a longing that I couldn’t describe at the time, and even now it is hard to understand.
My parents were the next ones in the family to visit Israel, leaving us children behind with cousins – and I was so jealous of my little brother (RRW here’s looking at you!) who went along with them because he was too little to be left behind. My mother described how disappointed she was when she landed in Israel. She said she had been expecting an Arabian Nights type of landscape, with small domed buildings, palm trees and camels. But what she found, already in the 1960s, were bustling, busy (and dirty!) cities.
But again, the stories of family visits, and the photos and cine film of their visit ignited within me an intense longing to see this beloved country for myself.
I finally got my chance in 1972 when we came on a family visit for the summer. My grandfather had by then bought a flat in Petach Tikva to be near my aunt, but summers were too hot for him, so the flat was empty, just waiting for us.
My first impression of Israel was the heat! In those days there was no “sleeve” from the aircraft to the airport building. You had to descend a flight of stairs and push your way onto a bus, where you hung on for dear life as the bus careered across the tarmac to the building. The heat as we left the plane felt like a hot wet blanket across my face. Coming from soggy dull England I was amazed!
We stayed in that apartment for 6 weeks, living like Israelis, going to the corner makolet (grocery store), travelling by noisy, smelly buses (no air-conditioning in those days!), and of course visiting our family. My parents were determined that we should get to know the country properly, so we went on trips all over Israel, sometimes visiting more cousins, and sometimes simply sight-seeing.
That summer was when my love for Israel solidified into something more concrete. I loved the open, relaxed way of life. I loved the scenery, the holy sites, the beaches, the mountains.
I can hardly describe my excitement on our first trip to Jerusalem, a few days into our visit. I felt the excitement building up as the bus crawled up the steep hills (no Route 1 in those days either) and as the scenery changed from the coastal plains to the foothills of Jerusalem. As we approached the Kotel I could hardly contain my emotions. This was the epicenter of my identity, my religion, my whole being. I have never managed to recreate that initial overwhelming emotion, but I have never forgotten it either.
More than anything I was overcome by the fact that almost everyone in Israel was Jewish! From the bus drivers to the shop-keepers to the street cleaners, the guy selling ice-creams or renting deckchairs on the beach, the beggars on the corner – they were all Jewish. When I mentioned this, my mother admitted that she was horrified at this. But I felt that this proved Israel’s normalcy, in line with Ben Gurion’s famous dictum that Israel would become a normal country when its thieves and prostitutes were Jewish too. Of course that is not an ideal to aspire to, but the reality that I saw didn’t upset me. On the contrary, I felt at home, as if I belonged, and this was a feeling that was never to go away, and 45 years after that first visit, I still feel the same.
Returning back to dull old England I was determined that I would make Aliya at the first possible moment. My work as a madricha (youth counsellor) in Ezra, my hobbies, all were centered around Israel. We returned to Israel several more times to that same apartment every summer, and I also joined a machane avoda (work camp, though not in the gulag sense! – it was volunteer work as a group) in Kibbutz Shaalvim where I had a blast of a time with my friends.
And at the grand old age of 19, one year out of high school, I went and did it. I got on that plane and flew to Israel- with my parents’ blessing but quite a few misgivings I must add, from leaving my good friends behind, to missing my family, and all the worries about how I was going to manage. But I already had a job lined up, as the secretary to the hospital engineer of the new Shaare Zedek hospital, where the buildings opposite Mt. Herzl were just starting to go up, so at least on one front I was sorted. I settled in to work, finding a flat and friends pretty quickly, which in the words of my uncle, the late Rabbi Yissachar Meir זצק”ל, I saw as a סימן ברכה – a sign of blessing, that I had chosen the right path.
An Only in Israel moment at Misrad Hapnim
Let me interrupt this story with an Only in Israel moment. I had been living here on a tourist visa for over 2 years because I didn’t want to use up my “zchuyot Olim” (the aliya benefits for immigrants) before I was married with a home of my own. But the Misrad Hapnim started making noises when I turned up to renew my visa yet again. After 2½ years I decided enough was enough, and on my next visit to the Misrad Hapnim, when the clerk said “Oh, it’s you again!”, I told him I wanted to change my status to an Olah.
Well, the change in the man was quite dramatic! His stern sour face turned into a beaming ray of joy! He opened a cupboard under his desk and took out: a bottle of wine, a packet of biscuits and a small vase with a plastic flower! 😀 He then shouted out “Mazal Tov!”, and entered the waiting room where he poured everyone little cups of wine and a biscuit. It was simply too funny! But so heartwarming. ❤
The story continues:
Very shortly afterwards I met my husband. He turned out to be almost the boy next door from London, a friend of my brother, but we had to travel 2,000 miles to Israel to meet! We got married in the Holy Land Hotel (alav hashalom, no thanks to Ehud Olmert 😦 ) with the beautiful landscape of Jerusalem as a backdrop to our Chuppah.
My love story with Israel
What does Israel mean for me after all these years?
Well, first of all it means family. I am both proud and humbled at the fact that we have a whole tribe of children and grandchildren living around the country, settling the land that our forefathers built, the Land that Hashem promised us and which for millenia was but a mirage, a far-off dream for our ancestors.
I am delighted that my parents and siblings and in-laws made aliya over the last 20-25 years, meaning that our families are now strongly established with firm roots in the soil of our promised land.
I love living by the Jewish calendar. I love that the country is run on Jewish time, so that for example Friday afternoons workplaces are closed, the streets quieten down, and a wonderful peace descends on the country. I love that as the chagim approach, I hear songs and music related to that festival being played over the sound systems in the supermarkets and shopping malls. I love that doughnuts appear as soon as Sukkot is over, and hamantaschen appears in the shops as soon as Chanukah is over! I love that Christmas passes by unnoticed and unmarked in most places in Israel (with no offence to my Christian friends), but Christians are still free to celebrate their festivals as they please.
I am so proud of our crazy little country which mere decades ago could hardly stand on its own two feet, and now sends aid to disaster zones all over the world, from Haiti to Nepal to Florida and even Houston, Texas.
I love my country for being a world leader in biomedical science and in hi-tech, producing some of the world’s leading drugs, medical devices and technological developments. This is just mere years after having to wait years for a telephone land-line! And not being able to buy decent coffee here!
I am even prouder of our brave little country that extends medical help and aid to our Syrian neighbours, even though Syria is still in a state of war with us and is one of our bitterest enemies. Through our humanitarian assistance we are making friends and good neighbours in a place where we could not have imagined just a few years ago.
I love Israel for the way it treats its enemies, despite what the anti-Semites say. Our IDF is the most moral fighting force in the world today, and no one can change that fact with lies.
I love Israelis for their caring attitude towards each other in times of emergency and crisis, whether on a national scale or on a personal level. They might try to trample you in the queue for the supermarket checkout but they will sit you down and bring you water, and help you to the car if you fall over. They might try to run you down as you cross the road, but you will never be left alone if you trip in the road, or have an actual car accident G-d forbid.
I love living in a Jewish country where I feel that I belong, that I am not just tolerated by a benign host but that I am welcomed here, that I am living and contributing and strengthening my own country.
In Israel I feel that I am part of something much bigger than me. I am living history, creating history in this country.
My son Zvi suggested half-jokingly that my 40 years in Israel are a tikkun (a “correction”) for the sin of the Israelite spies in the desert who reported back to Moses on how bad the Land of Israel was, how dangerous and frightening. The Children of Israel burst into tears and did not want to continue. As a result Hashem punished them with 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.
Maybe Zvi had a point. I remember learning about the sin of the spies in school, and our teacher, Mr. Grunfeld z”l made a great impression on me when he taught us about the absolute “issur” (forbidden-ness) of הוצאת דיבה על הארץ – spreading bad news about Israel. It became a kind of beacon guiding my life after that, and my blog is in fact based on this principle, whether consciously or unconsciously.
But really, to sum my entire Aliya story, I just want to say…