Today is the first anniversary of my aliyah, my rebirth as a citizen of Eretz Yisrael. Since so many people in Italy and the USA and around the world asked me why I would leave an exciting life in Rome to live in Jerusalem, this article (translated from the Italian) is my reply:
ROY DOLINER INTERVIEWS ROY DOLINER
Over two years ago, my friend Fabio Perugia – then the editor of the Italian Jewish magazine Karnenu – had asked me to do the Herculean task of interviewing the enigmatic Roy Doliner. To put it mildly, I feared the worst. I knew very well just how difficult it would be to get ahold of this character, always running around, always overbooked with too many projects at the same time, always writing in the wee hours and then in coma in the morning. At the end, however, I got the interview (in the style of the late great Oriana Fallaci) – and just in time to mark my first anniversary of making aliyah (the spiritual ascent of immigration) to Israel. Here it is:
It took several months, but I finally caught Roy Doliner in a very rare free moment. I had to practically nail him to the wall, but I was able to ask him the following questions:
Doliner: Mr. Doliner, how should we call you – Doctor? Professor?
DOLINER: Nothing of the sort, no titles. In Italy and America, I answer to “Roy”, and to “Ro’i” here in Israel. I answer even faster if they call me to dinner. Please, let’s you and I be informal here; after all, we’re almost like family.
Doliner: OK. The main question that everyone wants to know is this: after living in Rome for 20 years, doing so many lectures and receiving so many honors from the Jewish community and from the city of Rome and from the Vatican, why did you decide to move down to Israel to make aliyah?
DOLINER: First of all, we never say “move down” when we speak of Israel or Jerusalem. Even when we are in the geographic north above the Holy Land, coming here is always a spiritual ascent. So, someone makes aliyah – literally “ascension” – when they move – I mean, when they move up here.
Doliner: Got it, thanks. So then, why did you decide to move up here; that is, to make aliyah?
DOLINER: Good question. In Hebrew prayer, we say ki va mo’èd – “because the right moment has arrived.” For me personally, it was the right moment to shake up my life, to turn the page, to explore another 1,000 years more of history and secrets, to face new challenges, to write a new chapter in the book of my life.
Doliner: Um, yeah, that was a nice load of clichés. OK, another question: why did you decide to make aliyah?
DOLINER: Ah, but this question is very different! I made aliyah because we pray day after day “Sound the great ram’s horn… gather us together, from the four corners of the Earth, into our own land.” To pray for this every day without doing my part, without returning to the Land of Israel, for me personally made no sense anymore. In these past 20 years in Italy, I learned so much, I delighted in the countless things of beauty, I accomplished so much; however, all connected to the past. Now, I want to be part of the future – and for me, this means to be part of the Jewish State that was reborn only 67 years ago.
Doliner: OK – another question, completely different this time: why did you decide to make aliyah?
DOLINER: Wow, what a surprising question! In the Torah portion called Ma’asseh, Moses reviews for us the 42 rest stops or encampments (ma’asseh) that we made during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. We know that many of these stops were in beautiful locations, with water that was fresh, pure and abundant, with shady palm trees that bore enormous, sweet dates, and surrounded by magnificent landscapes. Not one of these great places, though, was HOME. So, in spite of all the obstacles, doubts and enemies, we went on ahead, until we finally arrived at the Promised Land; that is, until we got back HOME.
20 years ago, on my way to Rome’s Fiumicino airport to fly back to New York, I burst into tears. It was obvious that I no longer wanted to return to live in America; I was pining to remain in Italy… and so, I made the decision to move to Rome, a decision that I have never regretted. Two years ago, heading to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, I found myself in tears again. I recognized this scenario. In that moment, I realized that the Belpaese, the beautiful country of Italy, had been for me my 42nd stop on the way to my home, Israel.
Doliner: I see…. But why, though, did you decide to make aliyah?
DOLINER: Hmm, let me think about that one… all right, let’s talk about the Talmudic story of the pagan nephew of an evil Roman Emperor (some say it was Hadrian, but it’s more likely historically to have been Titus). Titus had given this nephew some of the gold that the Roman Army carried off from the Holy Temple, as part of the war booty brought to Rome after the conquest of Israel and the destruction of the the Temple. The nephew asked Titus: “Uncle, what do you advise me to do with all this gold?” The Emperor replied: “You must find something that is disparaged by everyone, and then invest exactly in that thing that is scorned and hated by all. You will see what a great investment that will turn out to be!”
The nephew nodded, then left and went far away. After a long time had passed, he returned to Rome and presented himself again in front of his uncle Tito. However, the nephew was greatly changed, apparently much for the worse. He no longer wore a royal purple toga, but instead a very humble, simple tunic. He had a long, full beard (considered quite unfashionable in Roman society) and wore plain sandals and no jewelry as he used to wear when he was part of the imperial court.
The puzzled emperor asked: “Nephew, did you lose all your money? What happened – did you not follow my advice?”
“On the contrary, uncle, I followed your advice to the letter. I searched high and low for the thing that was most disparaged in the world, and I found it. After you laid waste to Israel, Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, nothing on earth is more scorned and hated than the Jewish people and the Torah. Ergo, I decided to invest myself in it: I’ve converted, and now I am a Jew!”
This formerly-pagan nephew chose a new name after his conversion: Onkelos, the genius who translated the Torah into Aramaic (the common language then), thus rendering the Hebrew text more accessible and understandable to the Jews of that time. In this way, the nephew of Titus, the merciless enemy who sought to wipe out the Jews, saved the Torah and Judaism in one of its darkest moments by writing the most perfect translation in the history of literature.
Today, Israel is the scapegoat for all the sins in the world, the hated target of all the false liberals, pseudo-intellectuals, politicians who sell themselves for oil money or votes, and fanatical jihadists. Now, being a writer as well, I decided to follow the example of Onkelos. The time had arrived for me to invest myself in Israel.
Years ago, I was on the bus riding up the hills that embrace Jerusalem. I was chatting with a young Israeli ballerina, born and raised in the Holy City. Very proudly, she pointed out the spectacular forest all around us: “Out of all the capitols in the Middle East, only Jerusalem is encircled by a beautiful natural forest, like a green crown.” “I’m sorry to tell you”, I replied gently, “but this forest is not so natural. Decades ago, almost all of the landscape here was rocks and dust, that’s it. As a little boy in America, I and all my classmates in Hebrew School brought in our pennies and nickels and dimes to put in the blue and white box of the Jewish National Fund. We paid penny by penny to buy, leaf by leaf, branch by branch, tiny saplings that were planted here. This “natural” forest that you love so much is a gift from your sisters and brothers in the Diaspora.” The young dancer shed tears of joy: “Ezeh ness! Ezeh ness!” (“What a miracle, what a miracle!”)
That young Israeli dancer was right: Israel is indeed one big miracle. The Hebrew language, not spoken in daily life for so many centuries of exile, is reborn. The rocks, sand and dust have been overwhelmed by the greenery. The desert is now giving way to food gardens, forests, ultramodern greenhouses and farms. A people who had been defeated, massacred, expelled and dispersed for two millennia has come home, now stronger than ever. There is no other case like this in the entire history of the human race.
Naturally, I will return every now and then to Italy to hug all my friends there, to do more research and lectures, and to get my fix of amazing traditional Roman cuisine “in piazza” – in the ancient Jewish Quarter. For now, though, I want to invest myself in this blue-and-white collection box that is called Israel. I want to be part of this miracle. I want to be HOME. Shalom, chaverim.