A New Oleh (Immigrant) in Israel

Shalom from the Holy Land of Israel and the Holy City of Tzfat!!!

The transition to Israel has been like floating through a dream. 

I arrived in Israel on April 10th, which happened to be National Aliyah (Immigration) Day.  Because I was a new immigrant, a sweet welcoming Israeli man, with a wrinkled sign with my name written on it, met me at the gate. I was, of course, immensely grateful for this service. He is a volunteer who welcomes new immigrants to Israel. This man drove from Netanya, which is 40 minutes away from the airport. Within a five-minute ride on the moving walkway from one terminal to another, this man knew everything about me: why I moved to Israel, my religious affiliation, my family’s history, my marital status, my career history and my favorite deodorant. ;) It seems everyone here somehow knows how to extract all pertinent information from everyone else.  It’s like there is a national Mossad agent training. (I can’t wait to join!) Entering Israel is like entering your relative’s home who hasn’t seen you in 30 years and wants to know EVERYTHING.  No detail is too boring. Every detail is welcome with wide-eyes, frantic nods, and unyielding smiles “tell me more, but first, eat! You must be starving!!!"

The nice man walked me to the Absorption Center and transferred me to the group there - a plane full of Ukrainians. Israel granted overnight visas to any Jewish people who wanted to flee Ukraine because of the circumstances there. How much more poetic could this be? Being born in Ukraine and immigrating to Israel with a plane full of Ukrainians. That was one of those “nice-job-Universe-I’m-speechless-humbled-and-completely-amused” moments. 

It took five hours to get all of my documents.  There are many Ukrainians fleeing Ukraine. ;)

Once I got all my documents in order, I was escorted to a free taxi ride anywhere in the country.  I got into a taxi with a Ukrainian woman who left her entire family (children and grandchildren) in Ukraine.  Her children refused to leave, but she hopes that when things get worse (and she was sure that was imminent), they would also immigrate. The idea of the existence of a Jewish State, which is a refuge for global Jewry, became a sobering reality.

The taxi dropped me in Yavne, Israel, 20 minutes south of Tel Aviv.  A most gracious, generous and loving family named the Levine’s live there. They adopted me 18 years ago when I was volunteering for 10 months in Israel and are my family in Israel. When anyone asks me if I have family in Israel, I say yes and have them in mind and heart. They are always the first people I visit when I arrive to Israel and the last people I visit when I depart.  We spent the first few days of Passover with them and their beautiful families, and even met their new grandson, Ben, who was born a week before we arrived!!!!

New life is a common occurance here in Israel… not only in birth, but in rebirth.  You see it in the blooming spring flowers and vines, the new life that immigrants seek upon these shores, the different-accented Hebrew sounds from the 75 cultures who live in this tiny land, the land and all the energy and abundance it provides, the developments in science and technology, and the list goes on and on. If you are not paying attention, you may miss something being birthed in any moment.

We arrived to Israel the week of Passover. It seemed auspicious to begin our life at a time when the entire country is celebrating freedom and redemption.  We spent the Seder with the Levine family, 30 of us singing, eating yummy food and welcoming Elijah the Prophet into our home.  The Seder was led by Dudi, a Holocaust survivor.  Each story he told of his survival during the war was miraculous! He had so much light in his eyes and strength in his soul.  He wore this amazing Kittel (it’s the white shroud that men wear on Yom Kippur and grooms traditionally wear on their wedding day).  It was his grandfather’s.  During the war, his grandfather left the Kittel with a non-Jewish neighbor in Marseilles. After much devastation and many losses, Dudi miraculously was able to return to the neighbor's home to reclaim his grandfather’s kittel.  The neighbor held the Kittel for him, as promised. He wears it on every holiday and it has an ancestral aura around it.  His grandfather never saw the Kittel again.

The gracious hosts of the seder sat me (who understands some Hebrew but always misses very important words from time to time) next to a Russian speaker who is fluent in both Hebrew and Russian. He was my self-appointed translator.  And on my other side was Mordechai, who I would translate in English to.  The international game of “Telephone."  I was immensely grateful for this set-up because when a Holocaust survivor speaks, you don’t want to miss a syllable.

My family, the Levine’s, showed us Tel Aviv, introduced us to new friends and most importantly, offered themselves as support with whatever we need in Israel. And I know they meant, anything. We are both immensely grateful to them and all that they continue to do for us.  Little did they know when they “adopted” me 18 years ago, that they were stuck with me for life…. ;) 

This extremely generous family is a symbol of the kinds of people who live here in Israel: people whose homes and hearts are wide open.  Last year when I was traveling to Israel from Poland through Bulgaria, I met this sweet couple at the airport, who not only invited me to their home for dinner and a stay, they almost handed me the spare set of keys to their home! Generosity flows abundantly here.

In the middle of Passover week, Mordechai and I took a train to Acco, heading north, to our home in Tzfat. Our friends Eliezer and Diane picked us up from Acco and the moment the good people of Tzfat found out the “newlyweds” were home, we were invited to meals and visits and all kinds of excursions, a beautiful welcome!  Our shabbat meals were booked from now until our child will graduate from college. We brought honey to each meal.  Usually on Shabbat, we eat our challah (braided bread) with salt, but for the first year of a newlywed’s life, we replace the salt with honey, as a symbol of sweetness wished for the newlywed’s life together.  We were drinking and eating from the "land of milk and honey" in all aspects. ;)  

How can I describe Tzfat, the city where we currently reside? It is an energetic vortex.  In the center of the city, there is a cemetery where righteous Jewish sages are buried.  As many religious traditions find spiritual enlightenment and salvation in their houses of worship (temples, churches, etc.), Jewish people pray by the cemeteries of their righteous.  The cemeteries are filled with tears, wishes, prayers, and prostrations. In the next town over (Meron), on the anniversary of the passing of Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most famous Jewish Sages,  500,000 black hatters flock to his gravesite for blessings and prayers - 500,000!!!! It’s like Woodstock for Religious Jews.   

In Tzfat, everywhere you look, you see art: pottery, paintings, jewelry, calligraphy, and everything in between.  The city is made up of stone, steep and windy stairs, cobblestone streets, charming alleyways, roses growing out of ancient stones, domed homes, stray cats  who are never hungry (God forbid) and religious people shuffling from one yeshiva (Jewish house of study) to another.  This town is known for the birth of the mystical tradition of Judaism.

Whenever you meet someone in town, they shower you with blessings. Everything is a reflection and direct creation of God. Artists are channels of the Divine Energy.  For those of you who know Burning Man, it is like you are constantly struck by Playa Magic. ;)

There is an artist in our neighborhood whose window is always open when he paints. He peers out into the ether and I ask, “what is your inspiration?.”  He pauses, looks into the distant mountain range and whispers “TTTTTTTTTZZZZZZZZZFFFFFFFFFAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTT!”  Yes, there is something in the air here.  In fact, whenever we travel to other places in Israel and tell people we live in Tzfat, they all respond with the same distant stares, dreamy voices and the long-exhaled TTTTTZZZZFFFAAAAATTTTTT.  Yes, they all know and feel Tzfat inside their souls.  One night here and your technicolor dreams will tell you all you need to know about this place! ;)

Although this place is majestic on many levels, Mordechai and I are still trying to find our place in Israel.  There are so many communities: religious, spiritual, activist, atheist, musical, artistic, organic, you name it, some people have made a community of it.  It may take us an entire lifetime to find our perfect one, if it exists!  In fact, we met a couple last year who researched 66 different communities before they found the perfect one! 66! The country is not that large!  Two Jews, Three Communities. ;)

We have already experienced two sirens, a Holocaust Siren and a Memorial Day Siren. The Sirens are an amazing testimony to humanity.  Here is what happens. Everyone knows that at a certain hour on a certain day, a siren will ring to commemorate those lost in the Holocaust or Israel’s wars or terror attacks.  Everyone stops for a moment of silence. Cars pull over on the freeway and everyone gets out of their cars.  Crowds of people walking stop to a halt and just stand and honor.  It is incredible. 

The first month since we’ve been here, I have had two dear friends lose their parents.  One lost his mother in Jerusalem and another lost his father in San Francisco.  Both were imminently linked to the land of Israel. Esther lived in Israel on and off from the year of it’s statehood in 1948!  Like a loving mother, she has nurtured and watched this country rise and fall, make mistakes and strides, at war and at more peaceful times and she embraced it with unconditional love that only a mother could have for her child.  David was a Holocaust survivor and has been a beacon of support for Israel throughout his life, living in Israel and in the US, doing everything in his power to give what was needed.  David’s arm had the number 1179 tattooed on it during the Holocaust.  The numbers 1179 when added equals the number 18.  In Judaism, the Number 18 is a symbol for Life.  Perhaps that is why David not only survived the Holocaust, he also lived a long life, until his mid 80s.  I felt like these two beautiful souls represented a generation of pioneers in this land. A generation that were willing to do everything and anything for the betterment of this land and its people. They would plow the fields. They would fight when necessary.  They would raise white flags when opportune. And they would always sing Israel’s National Anthem HaTikvah - “The Hope.”  Their Yahrzeit Candles burn in the hearts of many and through the veins of this country.  When you live in a country that has only 8 million citizens and is only 66 years old, every person and every generation makes an immense impact. Although one generation is slowly and sadly coming to its retirement, another generation rises with its own ideas, inventions, victories, and Hopes. Such is the cycle of perfection.

Although I still am not sure what this land will inspire in me (and us) and what I / we can offer it, I feel that the opportunities for birth and rebirth are infinite.

There is something about Israel that builds character. I always tell people, just come to Israel for one week and your character, the essence of your soul, not your personality, will never be the same.  I am looking forward to witnessing what unfolds for my own soul. ;)

Written on May 20, 2014