The wheels touched down. Half the cabin starts clapping, albeit half-heartedly – the remnants of an old El Al tradition. I buried my nose further into my book, acutely aware that letting myself revel in the moment would surely end with an eruption of emotion (which I was not so eager for the sabras around me to witness). I look up for a moment: a thumbs up from a former chanicha and a silent applause from her mother – a lump swells in my throat. I turned my attention to the logistics at hand, successfully repressing the moisture rising towards my tear ducts.
Ten minutes later I handed in my brand new Israeli passport to the immigration officer in return for his warm welcome to the country. In gruff Hebrew –
“Ah, you are making aliya? Mazal tov… a big mistake… but mazal tov nonetheless.”
Not exactly the first thing I was hoping to hear after fulfilling my lifelong dream, a dream shared by our entire nation for 2000 years. But nothing could’ve wiped the smile off my face. Not even the supposed horrors of Israeli beaurocracy succeeded – in fact, I was pleasantly surprised. At 4:30 in the morning I was whisked through the entire Aliya process in half an hour, with teuda zehut, teudat oleh, residency and citizenship, my first sal klita instalment (payment upon making aliya) and free sim card, all in my back pocket.
In the car from the airport, as I watched the rolling hills float by I considered properly what the words of the immigration officer. Had I just made the biggest mistake of my life? And if according to the immigration officer, my choice of living in Israel was a mistake- then surely everyone who lives in Israel would be better off somewhere else? And if everyone is better off living elsewhere, is there a point to the existence of Israel, as a state for the Jewish people? This was not really the impression I wanted to get in my first encounter with an Israeli in my new home.
However a few experiences in my first week reminded me why I made Aliya, and why my friend at Ben Gurion airport was mistaken about Israel’s existence and the privilege I have to live in it.
Firstly, when running through my cousin’s yishuv on my first day to get my blood flowing again after 40 hours in transit from Australia, I ran passed a group of school girls. Whereas in Australia I would have shut my ears off to their piercing squeals and annoying giggling, here I found myself mesmerized and clinging to their every word. A group of normal children, using Hebrew to express themselves, as if it was the most natural thing in the world! Hebrew – our national language, being used by children?! No longer is our national language confined to holy books, but it is being used daily by millions as a means of communication and means of national expression. Hebrew is something that has pervaded the Jewish people’s identity for thousands of years – yet was not used nationally in daily life until recently. Today it is used to learn, work, form relationships, debate the way our state should look. How am I so privileged to live in such a time?
My second experience came when I boarded my first bus in Jerusalem. As the bus approached, I strained to see which line was arriving. Damn, no I did not want to catch the bus to ‘Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach’, I guess I would have to keep waiting. What?! I just realised the bus had wished me a Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach! Firstly, I have never seen a bus anywhere else in the world wish anyone anything. But for a bus to remind me that we are in the middle of Pesach?! Where else in the world does Jewish culture and religious identity permeate into national life? And if that wasn’t bad enough, a few days later the busses started counting the Omer! It is easy to take for granted, but for me – seeing this the first time, reminded me how lucky I was to be living in a state for the Jewish people. Where the prevailing culture is Jewish culture. Where the Jewish religion is not only tolerated or accepted but celebrated in the public sphere! How am I so privileged to live in such a time?
A few days later I found myself in Tel HaShomer Hospital, visiting a cousin who unfortunately is sick with cancer. Midway through my visit I was introduced to the second patient in the room – a man from Gaza. I knew that Israel treated patients from Gaza and the West Bank, and from the conflict in Syria, but that could not prepare me for the surprise I felt when I experienced it first hand (the situation was made all the more surreal by the fact that my cousin lives a few kilometres from Ramallah). A few moments later, he was sharing fruit with my cousin, and we reciprocated with food that my cousin had received from guests throughout the day. I was elated – I realised I was living in a time in which we as the Jewish people are able to practice the principle of or l’goyim (light unto the nations) on a national level. What better mechanism is there than a nation-state to propagate Jewish values to humanity? To ensure our Jewish morals and ethics are influencing our actions as a state, to show the world what it means to be a Jew and to create a perfect world. As a player in the international community, which only statehood can enable – we have the ability to actualise tikkun olam, by the very actions such as one that I saw before my eyes – the treatment of the sick from hostile or enemy territory. How am I so privileged to live in such a time?
The next day I was fortunate to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of a former chanich of mine in the Beit Knesset Hurva in the Old City of Jerusalem. As his voice sung the kriyat HaTorah I looked around the synagogue – seeing new walls built upon ancient stones. Afterwards, walking down to the kotel, the notion of the Jewish history in the land of Israel – our history, consumed my thoughts. Eretz Yisrael is the cradle of Jewish history and development of Jewish civilisation- every inch of it reverberates with the Jewish story. And here I am, in 2014, praying freely at the kotel, celebrating a Bar Mitzvah in the rebuilt Hurva (literally the destroyed synagogue, ironic, no?), and embarking on a journey to contribute to the rebuilding of our nation in the very place where we were originally built as a nation. How am I so privileged to live in such a time?
The final experience was on Yom Hashoa as the siren sounded, resonating throughout the country. I stood in silence along with every other Jew in Israel. In that moment the unity was palpable, bustling highways came to a standstill, lessons stopped, court cases are put on hold. Apart from the whine of the siren in the distance, everything and everyone stands still, it’s as if in that moment we are all different cells of the same body. All remembering and existing together. In unison. As one. Jewish memory is a very powerful force – it binds Jew to Jew. Yet dispersed around the world, it is hard to collectively commemorate and celebrate the triumphs and tribulations of the Jewish people. However in Israel, a whole state remembers as one through a collective Jewish conscience. How am I so privileged to live in such a time?
These experiences allowed me to realise how being an oleh privileges me to appreciate the beauty of our homeland through fresh eyes. There I was reveling in the significance of the minutia of daily life in Israel, something that a native Israeli would probably never do – because it all seems natural.
So as we move into Yom Ha’atzmaut I would like to remind my friend from Ben Gurion Airport why we are celebrating. We are not just celebrating Jewish independence or victory in the Independence War. We are celebrating that we are lucky enough to live in a time in which we have a Jewish state in our homeland after 2000 years of exile. A state in which Hebrew is used for national expression . A state in which Jewish religion and culture informs our national identity. A state in which Jewish values shape our national mission in the international sphere. A state built in the homeland of the Jewish people. And a state that serves as a vehicle for the expression of Jewish memory.
And there is no denying that, just as any other country, Israel has its problems (and some major ones at that) – but at least they are our problems. Self-determination has allowed for the elevation of the Jewish nation into the international sphere, as we deserve – and finally allows us to charter our own course. No longer are we at the mercy and whims of others – we are shaping the Jewish destiny as a nation- solving the issues that face the Jewish world, ourselves.
So, leading up to Yom Ha’Atzmaut I ask myself – was my aliya the biggest mistake of my life? I think not. We are finally fulfilling tikvatenu – our hope: Hatikva – The hope of 2000 years, to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem! And I am a part of it – I am so privileged to live in such a time!