I admit I was moved to tears, stirred by two articles in the Hebrew press that prompted me to reach for the box holding modest-sized Israeli tissues. Both articles were written by Israeli columnists who were sent to New York for 3-4 days to return accompanying a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight of new olim to Israel. Each columnist described his journey as he experienced it.
The first article was written by Jerusalem’s Yedidya, who found himself spinning in a vast American wonderland filled with jumbo kosher sandwiches and drinks, huge garbage containers, broad extensive roads and sidewalks, big-hearted people … all gigantic and colorful, including siddurim and the largest chumashim he had ever seen or held, stacked on shelves in spacious synagogues.
The second article, written about a month later, had Tel Aviv’s Yotam on a shopping spree in Manhattan fulfilling his part of a bargain he made with his wife for permitting him to participate in this free get-away. After four days, Yotam was no longer an accidental tourist; he was sold on America, on the big apple that was not poisonous. It captivated him.
Both journalists ended their extravaganza at Kennedy Airport where they each met over 200 fellow travelers boarding the El Al flight to begin their journey toward building a new life in Israel. Among the inspiring passengers they met and interviewed were youngsters anxious to join elite army units, others who signed on to yeshivot, large families who left their loved ones, their jobs, and homes; and older folks fulfilling not only their own lifelong dream of aliyah but also the dream of elders who never experienced a Jewish state. I visualized those hundreds of Americans leaving the land of opportunity to follow in the footsteps of ancestors, taking leave of the land where they were born, their father’s home, the luxuries they were accustomed to, and starting anew.
Rejoicing when they landed, some kissed the ground as they disembarked; some kissed one another… Israeli flags waved at a reception with speeches and musical renditions were offered by Israeli performers, while tears for the past, and sniffles for the unknown gushed forward. Envisioning these scenes warmed my heart, eliciting memories that day, fifty-five years ago, at the end of October 1960, Parshat Lech Lecha, when my husband and I left the United States on a flight to Europe and then Israel.
We were newlyweds, prepared to conquer the world. Nothing seemed too challenging and we both had dreamed of spending a year or two, maybe three, in Israel. Neither one of us ever imagined we would remain here. At that early stage, I couldn’t even imagine staying married three whole years!
No Israeli journalists appeared on the flight that landed at little old non-descript Lod airport at two a.m. No flags waving, nor cookies or drinks greeted us. We didn’t even know where we would sleep that night… or the next. We made our way out of the airport and found a driver who took us to the insignificant small Hotel Atlantic on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv where we spent the remainder of the night until 11:00 a.m. the following morning. Then we walked to Meltchett Street surprising my mother’s cousin Bina who, with her husband, were the most welcoming Israelis, hosting us until we continued on to Jerusalem.
Fifty-five years ago, aliyah was truly disconnecting. Was it easier to cut oneself off in 1960 than it is today? Phones were rare, most people didn’t have one, and a phone call to America entailed filing a request in the post office for a call that would come through, with luck, perhaps a day or two later. One waited at the post office at a given hour hoping the party sought two oceans away would answer the call. Both parties would have a shouting match transmitting a short message over the seas. It wasn’t worth the effort or the cost.
A telegram was the preferred method for quick notification, notwithstanding the rate for each word; a ten-word sentence was generally the maximum. Air letters were the most common means of communication. Only two weeks to reach their destination.
Were we speechless or hungry? Were we abandoned or lonely? Definitely not! Nevertheless, we were homesick… very homesick and not only for family and friends. We coveted American soft drinks, delicatessen, blueberries and pineapple, ketchup, central heating, and so much more that was missing. We left a wealthy western country, the most developed and modern, with every electrical and domestic device available in 1960, to enter the Land that had not yet outgrown the Middle Ages.
Jerusalem was a small town; barbed wire and concrete walls surrounded the western part of the city. We climbed atop buildings to observe the eastern section, and on Chol Hamoed we ascended Har Tzion where we prayed and rejoiced at King David’s tomb, seemingly the closest spot to behold Har Habayit. We longed to visit sites such as Kever Rachel and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Chevron, and the many biblical cities and towns that were cut off from the young State. Searching and yearning for our heritage, we met the eyes and the loaded rifle butts of Jordanian Legionnaires.
Fifty-five years in Israel is reason to celebrate. Our cake has many candles and we have a lot to wish for, yet mostly our hearts are filled with sincere gratitude for our home and a life that was by choice, not force. Perhaps the most relevant wish would be to see brothers and sisters, who thus far have been unable to disconnect from America the Big, come marching home. I may still feel a slight lump in my throat when I sing “America the Beautiful,” but I need to have a tissue available when courageous new olim arrive.
Chazal teach that Eretz Yisrael is obtained with “yissurim,” just like childbirth is accompanied by labor and pain. Ask any woman how many times she is willing to stand the pain of childbirth for the joy of cradling an infant in her arms. It’s not even a question… like the Land, it is G-d-given.
“V’eescha l’goy gadol v’avorechchicha v’agadla shemecha v’heyeh bracha – And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you…and you shall be a blessing.” With a promise like that, clearly scripted in Parshat Lech Lecha, shouldn’t every Jew be enthusiastic and ready to sign on to the next NBN flight? Our sages were correct in their assessment, “All beginnings are difficult,” and painful, and yet, in time, it can be overcome, as generations of blessing indeed follow..