As a new year is about to begin, I’m reminded of another year that ended all too soon. It was 1955, a mere seven years after the declaration of the State of Israel. There were no seminaries for American girls in Israel then, and very few tourists. Foreign students were unknown and religious American girls were definitely an oddity.
Israel was still picking up the pieces from the War of Independence and the country was raw. Lots of things were missing: apples, bananas, meat; decent safety pins, bobby pins, band aids, deodorant; and… phones! There were no cell phones yet, of course, but even house phones were a rarity, reserved for important people, like members of the Knesset or doctors. Everyone else sent letters or made their calls from public phones on the street. International calls were ordered at the main post office. In a week or two, you returned at the appointed day and hour and waited for your call to come through. For an entire year, my only connection to home was a weekly, tissue-like airmail letter (like dinosaurs, now extinct).
How my parents ever gave me permission to come was a miracle and a mystery. Perhaps because the opportunity to actually step foot in Eretz Yisrael was overwhelming and irresistible. Perhaps because it was so important to me. Perhaps because it was important to them. Whatever the reason, permission was granted. No one in our family had ever been here before; I was the first. I was exhilarated. As I descended from the plane, I wanted to kneel down and kiss the ground but (I ashamedly confess) was embarrassed. Besides, it wasn’t ground. It was concrete. However, the moment we left the airport, I placed a loving kiss on my hand and transferred it to the nearest patch of grass, hoping that was sufficient.
The “seminary” was Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz – a yearlong course sponsored by the Jewish Agency for leaders of youth groups from all over the world. I came, together with three friends, as a representative of North American Bnei Akiva. There were 21 religious kids out of a total of 120 students from six different countries. Some were traditional, some not religious, some anti-religious and some absolutely and utterly unknowledgeable. We spoke four or five different languages. The only thing we all had in common was an interest in, or a love for, the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.
Our entry into Jerusalem was at night. The low-lying buildings lining Rechov Yaffo were shuttered and dark. It was like driving through a time-tunnel, back into ancient history. Our “dormitory” in Katamon was a once magnificent, now decrepit, three-story Arab building, abandoned during the fight for the city in the War for Independence. The ten religious girls were given an apartment, straight out of Arabian Nights, on the ground floor. Three large bedrooms opened onto a main entry hall. The floors were an elaborate, eastern mosaic of colorful tiles; high-domed windows were encased in metal shutters. A toy-like furnace fed with packages of sawdust pretended to provide hot water for showers and a small kerosene heater (which smelled awful) gave off ripples of warmth in the cold winter nights. It was primitive, exotic and you hung up your laundry on clotheslines surrounded by large, untended gardens. I fell madly in love with my new habitat and promptly sat down to write my first letter home, explaining that the building must be from the Middle Ages. (It wasn’t, but I was in a very romantic frame of mind and my imagination was working overtime.)