When I finally decided to cut my ties in the USA and make aliyah, I went through stuff that current immigrants don’t ever have to do. From what I understand, they are handed their teudat zehut—their Israeli ID cards—and indications as to where to live, whom to contact, how to reach the various Ministries, banks, health funds and so on before they even reach Israel. It was not thus at the end of the 80s. It was tough. (Apologies to those who came before me. You had it worse, by and large, but I can only speak from my experience.)
The first challenge was to get myself to the nearest Israeli consulate so that someone could assess whether or not I was aliyah material. My daughter assured me that if I were alive, Jewish and breathing, I’d qualify. Not so easy, pardner. When I finally located the right office, I was hot, weary of the heavy traffic and anxious about the parking space I had found, which was not clearly marked YES, YOU CAN DEFINITELY PARK HERE.
The man who was to interview me introduced himself as Col. Blahblah Levy. He was not wearing a uniform, or a kippa. I mistakenly took that as a good sign, which turned to instant dismay when he began to question me closely on my connection to my ‘religious community’. I didn’t have one, I couldn’t fake one and I was beginning to panic. I prayed for the appearance of my daughter, who said she’d meet me there.
After many, many long minutes of my fumbling and flunking answers, my dear daughter opened the door. Shaaalom! she sang, and Col. Levy levitated. Who is this chavera? My daughter. And she speaks Hebrew? (As in: How could the child of one so Jewishly ignorant be so…Israeli?) Yes she does, and she did. In excellent Hebrew she explained that ‘our rabbi’ was the senior rabbi of the biggest synagogue back in Montreal; that my whole entire family attended that synagogue regularly and perhaps even that I was confirmed there with the requisite choir of angels. I didn’t understand a thing except the Colonel’s face, which was beatific. When she told him she had already made aliyah, I thought he was going to faint with pleasure.
The truth was that the rabbi’s daughter and mine were friends, had attended some classes together at university and shared an interest in Yiddish, taught there for the first time as an academic course. And yes, her father was the senior rabbi. Not exactly the whole truth but very near it. You could even say close.
I passed with any colours you’d care to name. I left my passport with the secretary who was to take care of the necessary visa and other information; she promised to have it back to me by mail, along with my free airline ticket, within a few days.
You know what happened, don’t you. The ticket arrived; the passport didn’t. And no one could find it, not the Consulate, not the Post Office and not my postperson, who was very concerned. I had to travel again to the Big Heat to acquire a laisser passer with a visa in it; return to my flat, get my baggage, travel back the next day to the airport and fly to New York City. Also, I missed having the company of others who were making aliyah on the flight I was supposed to take; I had to travel alone, by myself, at night—oh, get over it, you’re a grownup.
Arriving at JFK in the early morning, I dragged my gigantic suitcase (no wheels) with much of my worldly goods—you could do that, in those days—into the designated El Al waiting room. Never in my life have I seen such a room. It could have passed for Monaco, but it was completely, totally, resoundingly empty. Just me and my suitcase, and hours and hours to wait. At least I had two good books in my handbag and with not a single chair in the room, my case to sit on. There have been worse situations: Guantanamo, for example.
Heavily into Book #1 and freezing from the excessively enthusiastic air conditioning, I didn’t notice the couple coming into the barn until they Hallooooo’d me across the space. Are you travelling to Israel? he hooted. Yes I am! Wonderful—is there anywhere to sit down? Not in this barn, what time is it? Almost four. I had been turning pages with not much attention to content but endlessly assessing, instead, the likelihood that I was completely crazy. What I was doing gave new meaning to the expression ‘change of life’.
They approached me; I struggled my case toward them and we soon made a tiny knot of warmth in the middle of the freezer we were in. When they found out that I’d been there for hours, the Mrs told the Mr to go out and find some hot coffee for this poor woman before she ends her journey right here. Obligingly, he did just that. I am still grateful.
After my teeth stopped clattering I introduced myself, as did they. Your family name is the same as that of my late aunt’s former husband I said, making the opening move in the grand game of International Jewish Geography. Really, what was his first name? Dave, I said, drawing on a memory that might have preceded my fifth birthday. OH MY GOD, he said, That’s my uncle David! Was your aunt named Dora? Yes she was. Never let it be said that playing IJG is a waste of time. Is he still alive? Yes, he’s in his 90s. Oh dear, there was still a chance that he was someone else’s rotten lousy husband, but definitely not my concern. He wouldn’t live forever.
As often happens, when others filled the room and the flight was called, I parted from my almost-used-to-be relatives and never saw them again.
When I arrived in Israel in the middle of the night, I was taken to a small empty room, overheated variety. Nice change from JFK but feeling mighty like the KGB would soon arrive. I waited awhile until a young woman came in with a big smile. I kicked my new Israeli IQ into gear and established for myself, from the evidence of her modest clothing—much too warm for August—and her hair covering, that she was religiously observant. Answering questions in the middle of the night was uphill, but it was OK until she realised my birth date was Tisha b’Av, one of the holiest and most tragic days in the Jewish calendar. She actually physically recoiled from me and I covered my mouth against my looming laughter. Madam, I said, there are only 365 days in the year and people are born on Tisha b’Av just as on any other day. I’m sure you’re right, she muttered, accelerating her stamping and paper shuffling and ‘sign here and here and here’—moving me out of there ASAP.
I took a sherut—a community taxi—from the airport to my daughter’s flat in Jerusalem. Unloading in front of her apartment building I heard a young mother call to a very small child who was crying fiercely: DIE, MOMMY. Holy cow, what on earth is that? Well, it was Hebrew for Enough, sweet child.
Did I have a lot to learn.
cross posted IsraelThrives