Bear with me, if you will, for a bit of nostalgia.
A few weeks ago – Jan. 19, to be precise – I celebrated the 30th anniversary of my becoming an Israeli.
I thought readers might enjoy the telling of that tale.
I flew out of New York in an ice storm on Jan. 18, 1981, and arrived at Ben Gurion Airport the following afternoon, local time. I had gone to the Jewish Agency offices in Cleveland two months earlier to get set up. I entered the office of the shaliach – the emissary for those making aliyah.
“I am moving to Israel in two months,” I announced.
“You can’t,” he responded. “There is just not enough time to get set up.”
“There is nothing to set up,” I answered.
“But we cannot get you into an absorption center in so little time.”
“I do not want to go to any absorption center.”
“But we cannot get you into a Hebrew language ulpan in so little time.”
“Not needed – I already speak Hebrew fluently.”
“But we cannot help you find a job in so little time.”
“I already have a job there. The salary is awful but who’s counting?”
“But we do not have time to help you find an apartment in which to live.”
“I will go rent my own apartment, just as I do here in Ohio, thank you very much.”
“Well, in that case, if everything is taken care of, what are you doing here?”
“I just need a form from you so I can buy a one-way El Al ticket,”
Thus ended my “absorption” preparation.
I arrived in Israel on Jan. 19, the only immigrant on my flight, during a month that saw a record low number of people immigrating to Israel. The Ministry of Absorption people at the airport sent someone to the gate to conduct me to where I could pick up an ID card. I was also offered tea, stale bread and margarine.
“All right,” I said, “I am ready to head for Haifa.”
“No, not yet,” I was informed. “We cannot send off a driver and a taxi to take you to Haifa until we have some additional immigrants to share the ride, so you have to wait for the next flight to come in.”
“I would rather pay for the taxi myself and get going,” I said.
“You cannot, it is against regulations.”
So we waited for two more flights to arrive, neither of which had any immigrants. Finally I announced I was suffering from jet lag and had to leave right away, regulations or no regulations.
At that point they called out the Ministry of Immigration driver, himself a relatively new immigrant from Soviet Georgia.
“Where to?” he asked.
“To Haifa,” I said.
“Haifa? Where is Haifa? How do we get there?” the driver asked me – the fellow who had just got off the plane.
“I will show you,” I said.
And so off we went to Haifa.
“Is that over there Haifa?” he asked.
“No, that is Tel Aviv,” I explained. As we got closer to Haifa, he pointed at the water and said, “Look, you can see the Sea of Galilee.”
“That is the Mediterranean,” I corrected him.
Once inside the city, we needed directions. I had to get to a certain crummy hotel, having reserved a $30-per-night room.
“How do we get there?” asked driver.
“Beats me,” I said. “Can you ask those people standing on the sidewalk where the hotel is?”
“I can’t,” said the driver. “My Hebrew is not good enough. But you speak Hebrew fine so you should go over and ask them.” (I would later hear horror stories of new immigrants being driven aimlessly around Israeli cities for three hours or more because their Ministry of Absorption driver spoke no Hebrew.)
Eventually we found the hotel, a dive that has since been converted into an office building for municipal welfare services. After I checked in, I asked if I could have something to eat. I got more tea, stale bread and margarine.
The TV was on in the dining room, showing the news on the one Israeli TV channel that operated back then. The joke in Israel at the time was that one was better off sitting in front of a washing machine than a television set because at least with a washer you have a choice of six programs.
I sat back and watched. The Begin government that very evening had announced the appointment of a new minister of finance, Yoram Aridor. And Aridor was being interviewed about his new policies. He planned to expand money printing, while freezing the exchange rate and flooding Israel with new cheap imported consumer goods to buy off a public that was sick of rising inflation.
After watching Aridor, I ran to the front desk.
“Call my taxi back,” I said. “I want him to take me back to the airport!”
“Sorry, he’s gone,” said the clerk.
I later found out the driver stopped for coffee on the way back to the airport, got lost, and was never heard from again.
As for me, thirty years later I’m still in Haifa. The rest is history.
Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.