Flying to Israel and then back in four days, sitting on an airplane for more hours than any sane human being would like to sit on an airplane, it’s hard not to pine for the days when you’d get on a boat in New York and sail across the Atlantic and then the Mediterranean, dressing for dinner, strolling across the decks, developing friendships with promising strangers…
And then you realize that you’re being ridiculous.
First of all, if I had been born into the age of steamships, it’s unlikely that I would have been rich enough to afford passage except in steerage.
Second, and far more important, although air travel can be extraordinarily unpleasant, it’s also fast. There is no place in the world too far to fly to.
That’s why Nefesh B’Nefesh can do what it does — take new olim to new lives in Israel — without entirely breaking the hearts of their families.
And much newer technology — Skype, FaceTime, and similar apps — keeps the way the people we love look alive in the hearts of other people far away.
Now, we can live far apart from the people we love without resigning ourselves to never seeing them again. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have steeled herself to that knowledge. Making aliyah then would have been so much harder than it is now.
Watching Nefesh B’Nefesh also made me think about the difference between galut — the Hebrew word that means exile — and diaspora, the Greek-derived English word that means dispersion. When you are in exile, you yearn to return. When you are in the diaspora, you can live in a happy, fulfilled life outside your ancestral homeland. It seems that people who make aliyah had been living in galut, while people who do not merely are in the diaspora.
Now that travel is easy and technology subverts distance, the differences between those people who make aliyah and those of us who do not seem less stark, and that can only be a good thing. Those of us whose hearts are in the East and those others of us whose hearts are in the East Coast can meet often.
We can help Nefesh B’Nefesh as it smooths the path for would-be new olim, providing them with the practical and logistical support that can make or break a transcontinental move.
We can help even more by going to Israel ourselves even if we don’t plan to move there. The physical beauty and emotional, moral, and spiritual complexity of the country is so much deeper than the caricatures it evokes, and the more we make that clear, the more we help.
When I looked at the new olim, I was struck by their wide range. Some were charedim, some were tattooed, with many uncomfortable-looking piercings. The only thing they seemed to share was the wild excitement that animated them when they stepped off the plane.
And it’s hard not to be struck by the range of people in Jerusalem, a city not celebrated in the outside world for its tolerance of difference. There are deeply devout Jews, Christians, and Muslims, each dressed in layers of cloth that seem to defy the beating sun, looking picturesque but sweating mightily. There are secular people — no doubt also Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but without the external signifiers it’s hard to know — wearing barely anything at all, even in Jerusalem.
On Emek Refaim, the trendy street at the heart of the expensive Germany Colony, there were posts at the sidewalk, separating pedestrians from traffic. Someone had put a hat on each of many posts. Each hat was different. It was charming. It was hilarious. It was brilliant. I have no idea what it was and can find nothing about it on the internet.
One hat, though, had fallen off its post. As I walked by it, I saw a Muslim woman, in a hijab, casually reach down, pick up the hat, and replace it where it belonged.
That’s the kind of world we should live in. That’s the kind of world that sometimes exists, sometimes in Jerusalem.