Israel Report

July/August 2003         

The Israel We Haven't Lost

by Paula R. Stern - July 15, 2003
Last week, 330 new immigrants from the United States landed in Israel. In the evening, I met five of them for the first time. They will be my neighbors for the next year or so, until we move on to the next stage in our aliyah and they continue with their own. They were exhausted, but excited, as they looked over the house that they will rent and their daughters played with our cat.

Like this new family, we made aliyah with three small children and were suddenly thrust into registration, kupat cholim decisions, identification cards, buying a refrigerator and a stove, a car and ultimately a home. So many things to do, to see, to remember. The first days are overwhelming and I couldn’t help but offer them the advice I remember receiving, or wishing I’d received. Remember to hold your original documents and only give out copies. Remember that if someone says “no” to something that seems eminently do-able, if you argue back, they’ll probably switch to a “yes” very quickly. Watch our for the landlord who knows you just got off the plane, and is trying to charge you well above the standard rate for the neighborhood. If you can’t say it in Hebrew, say it in English. It’s okay to say you don’t understand. Yes, that free cellular phone they gave you for one month is very nice, but there is an ulterior motive.

It’s been 10 years, but I still remember the special hamburger and chips they offered my boys on the plane, and the exhilarating feeling knowing that the stewards on the plane knew that this was my first voyage home. I remember the clerk who insisted on spelling my name the way he thought it should be written, and the feeling of walking into an empty apartment and searching for sheets to cover the beds and mattresses until our lift arrived.

I remember the neighbors coming and offering to help, and the first time I met friends that remain close to this day. I remember the exhaustion after weeks of packing and the emotional drain of having finally finished the journey. And I remember my joy over meeting the people of Israel and feeling a part of them, of finally being able to really say “we Israelis” and “our army.”

Today, I went into Jerusalem, to the center of town, to one of my favorite stores. It is a family-run business, one of the old-timer stores in the Midrahov. The owner once explained that the name of the store came not from Israeli’s current currency, but from the portion of the Torah that was read on the Sabbath following the long-awaited birth of a first child, a few hundred years ago in a far away country.

As I went to pay for my purchases, two young boys came into the store with a piece of paper and explained that they were collecting items for a charity event in their school. Even before they had finished, the storekeeper was moving. He never looked at that piece of paper. He went to a side rack, pulled out a skirt, a few shirts, some small cloth bags, and placed them in a shopping bag. He told the boys to come back any time for more, if they need it.

Does that happen in other countries as often as it does here? I thought of the falafel store owner who makes a last batch of falafel every night on his way home, and drops it off at the checkpoint for the soldiers who are on duty, guarding the entrance to Jerusalem. And my friend, who coordinates a coffee drop-off each night at 10:00 for the soldiers guarding Modi’in.

As the storekeeper totaled the purchases and double checked the numbers, I thought back to a particularly bad week of terrorist attacks some months back. I was in the store, the car meter was running out, and my 17-year-old daughter was in the changing room trying on clothes. The storekeeper told me to leave my daughter and go add money to the meter. I didn’t know what to do. Leave her, in the center of Jerusalem. What if a bomb went off? That’s how it is here sometimes. You think about the “what ifs”. What if a bomb goes off and I can’t get to her or worse, what if it is right here?

The storekeeper understood what I couldn’t say out loud. He told me he’d make sure my daughter didn’t leave the store. He could have told me, perhaps should have told me, that I was being ridiculous. That my daughter rides on buses alone all the time, is already taking driving lessons and with her excellent command of the Hebrew language, is more capable of finding her way around this country than I am. Instead, he just smiled and understood.

There’s a beauty to this country that we haven’t lost. A love of each other that transcends time and tragedy. It is in the eyes of the policeman who didn’t want to leave me on the side of the road when my car broke down, and in the smiles of the soldiers who insisted that I sit and drink something, out of the sun, while awaiting the tow truck. It is in the voices of people who explain something, and then explain it again, and sometimes even a third time and end their explanation explaining that they, too, once did not understand.

The beauty is why people get on a plane in the country where they were born, and fly here with their children and all their possessions. It is in the gold that shines as the sun sets over Jerusalem and the waves hitting the shore as the sun sinks below the horizon on the shores of Tel Aviv and Netanya. It is why we suffer the bad times, knowing that we would never leave, could never leave.

And, the beauty of Israel is in the tears of the soldiers and the settlers, as they each do what they believe they must. One following the orders of his superior, the others following the beliefs in their Superior. The beauty is in the heart of the non-religious soldier who covers his head at the Western Wall, and the religious soldier who puts his arm around a crying woman at a terrorist attack.

Yesterday, 330 new immigrants from the United States landed in Israel. They will soon learn all of the little things that drive us all crazy about this country. The bureaucracy, double copies of things that need to be stamped three times, in order to throw out one. The way the cable company rips up the road in front of your house, installs cables, and fixes the road, so that a week later, the water company can come and rip up the road again. Clerks who refuse to listen to you when you try to explain that your name in English might contain a “u”, but in Hebrew, it doesn’t have to contain a “vav.” Policemen who insist you move your car, so that two minutes later someone else can sit in the same place. People who smoke right next to a no-smoking sign and politely, or impolitely, suggest that you move. Mechanics who should have their licenses taken away, and doctors who should be forced to treat themselves. Government telephones that ring and ring and ring, and banks that say no to everything you ask until you ask it again, and so much more.

But beyond what they will learn in the days and months to come, I hope they will also know that what brought them here, the special, unique things that make this country what it is, will remain. And ten years from now, their eyes will most likely still fill with the simple joy of living in a place filled with people who are simply Israelis, for the good and for the bad… but mostly for the good. This is the Israel that we have not lost. Not in the last 10 years, not in the last 55 years, not in the next 10 years, and not in the next 55 years.

To the 330 who came last week, welcome home!

Paula R. Stern (website) is the Founder and Documentation Manager of WritePoint, a technical writing company.


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