It was about 10:30 at night at Ben-Gurion Airport. Tired from security checks, shlepping heavy baggage, and dealing with irritable children, it was time to present my passport.
Two sets of booths lay ahead of me: “Israeli” and “Foreign” Passports. I trudged toward the latter, but not without first registering a bit of dismay.
How is it that I had to present a “foreign” passport when I had just spent 12 days in my homeland celebrating my son’s bar mitzva, dressing up for Purim, volunteering for a national food bank, and conversing in Hebrew while doing my laundry at a Jerusalem laundromat?
Did my common heritage, tradition, and religion count for nothing when exiting the Jewish state? What does it really mean to bear a “foreign” passport?
Flashback to 12 days earlier, when my family and I landed at Ben-Gurion at the crack of dawn. This was my fifth trip to Israel, while only the second for my husband and the first for my two sons. I couldn’t wait to experience the country through their eyes.
It was far from an immediate adjustment for my kids. They had no experience with pushy Israelis, let alone the sheer numbers of people asking for money, including children. The Jerusalem light rail train was crowded, our hotel was in a somewhat isolated area, and we remained exhausted from a flight that had landed around midnight Eastern Standard time.
And the days leading up to the bar mitzva were tense ones, in which I felt the pressure building up in my son as we were going through the motions of trying to explore Jerusalem. And there were still final details to handle for our simcha at the Kotel, the Western Wall.
But once the big day arrived, the whole tone of our experience changed. Not only did the service at the Kotel go smoothly, it felt as everyone gathered there that day was celebrating with us! Friends from past and present showed up that day, including one I had not seen in 22 years and some I had only met on Facebook. And in an impromptu manner only possible in Israel, a local family joined our minyan, further enhancing the bar mitzva with their Sephardi-style ruach and candy pelted from the women’s side of the mehitza.
Over the next week, the reality of not only being in Israel — but being a Jew in Israel — sunk in. At the Kiryat Moshe light rail stop on a Friday morning I saw a little girl adorned with a “Ema Shel Shabbat” (Shabbat mommy) crown — where in America outside a Jewish preschool would you see such a sight? Once on the light rail, you couldn’t miss the presence of gun-toting Israeli soldiers, with and without kipot.
Driving back to Jerusalem from our archeological dig in Beit Guvrin we stopped a driver to point out the direction to the main highway. “Yerushalayim?” he proclaimed. “Ir HaKodesh!” I ordered pizza in my hotel room that night and was greeted by the delivery guy in a Purim costume. And even the mere task of doing my laundry in a Jerusalem laundromat led to the question from the manager of when I was planning to make aliya. The list goes on…
And of course the whole atmosphere of Purim was pervasive throughout the country, with bakeries selling hamantaschen in all their assorted flavors, Israelis sporting costumes days before the actual holiday, and bus signs wishing passengers a Hag Purim Sameach. You didn’t have to go to synagogue to experience the festivities, although we enjoyed hearing the megilla reading in Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue and watching the chagiga that followed afterward. Our final activity in Israel was attending a Shushan Purim seuda at my friend’s house before heading out to the airport.
Now, a week since our return, I find myself pondering existential questions such as “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?” My rabbi explained it to me the best, saying that when he left Israel last summer, he felt like a “plant uprooted from its native soil.”
Exactly. So that explains why — when directed toward a separate airport line for “foreign” passports — I wanted to yell, “Anachnu yehudim!” “We are Jews!”
I’ve been pondering the question of aliya for some time but have found lots of excuses for not doing so. I now feel like I have run out of legitimate reasons. (After all, if I could handle driving a minivan through the streets of Jerusalem and dealing with honking, aggressive Israeli drivers, what can’t I do?)
So yes, I need to work toward making my goal of living as a Jew in a Jewish state a reality. It won’t be easy or immediate — but nothing worth striving for ever is.