”I will only believe it’s actually happening when the plane lands” I thought to myself.
I had just opened the email accepting me as Israel Fellow to Johns Hopkins University. My heart was beating so fast that I swear it almost left my chest.
How else could I have possibly reacted after being told that a moment I’d always dreamed about was not a dream anymore?
In order to understand that dream, we need to go back, way back.
My story starts in 1931 in Baghdad: a city I’ve never visited, with views I’ve never seen anywhere but in old dusty pictures, in a house I’ve never lived in, yet know so well. That old house by the Tigris River was the home of a well-known Iraqi Jewish family called the Shina family.
The family Patriarch, Salman Zion Shina, a successful lawyer, served as the first and only Jewish member in the Iraqi parliament and doing anything in his power to take care of the large Jewish community of Baghdad. Salman was a well-spoken man, with phenomenal language skills which led the Ottoman Empire to recruit him for the position of main translator during the First World War. After spending two years in captivity in Pune India, he had returned to Baghdad and founded ‘HaMenorah’ (in Arabic ‘Al-Mazbach’)- a weekly published newspaper of the Jewish community that contained the some of the first short stories and romantic poetry ever published in Iraq, reports from the ongoing events in the holy land and some of the earliest original Arabic literature written by Jews.
According to stories and testimonies, even though he was a busy man, Salman was a kind person, always hospitable, wearing a constant bright smile on his face. His house was what Iraqis called ‘an open house,’ which is a welcoming space for anyone who needs a wise advice, wants to speak up their mind, share their stories, enjoy the company of others or simply connect with different people openly.
In this safe space, Salman had maintained one of his greatest passions: being a proud and active Zionist who had made the first ever connections with global Jewish institutions worldwide. From his old oak desk, he wrote countless letters, articles and legislations for the Iraqi parliament, the Jewish community and most importantly- The Jewish Agency.
Being a Zionist was no simple task for a public figure and often put Salman and his family in danger, but as he wrote in his own words in his book ‘From Babylon to Zion’, it was the “howling wind beneath his sails”, the one ancient and almost sacred desire he shares with his ancestors and fellow Jews all over the world: the desire to return home, to Zion, the land of Israel. That was the main reason he had tried to stay under the radar of the Iraqi authorities and did his best to ensure the safety of his family and friends by not sharing his vision out loud, even though at the core of who he was, it was his greatest mission. His secret was buried deep, especially as the climate in Iraq was starting to become increasingly hostile for Jews as a result of the Second World War and the Nazi ideology making its waves across the Middle East.
Salman is better known to me as my great- grandfather, Papa. A man I know so well but never had the privilege of meeting.
One day, one of his sons, Isaac, noticed that his classmates in the Jewish school ‘Alliance’ were going missing. Week by week, more of his friends were disappearing without saying a word. Rumors started spreading across the school, claiming they had left Iraq and made ‘Aliya’ to Israel.
Isaac, my grandfather, became very curious, curious enough to meet a person who he didn’t know was about to change his life forever.
That man was Yair, a young man serving as the Jewish Agency’s Shaliach (emissary) to Bagdad. Yair was interacting with different groups within the Jewish community and told them about the place he came from, a place Isaac knew too well from the ancient prayers at the synagogue and from stories he had heard from his grandparents. That place’s name was Zion, Israel, and as Yair called it-‘home’. As Yair departed, he had told the group that “no matter what happens, remember, you always have a welcoming home in Israel for you to be who you are and grow into who you want to be. I hope one day, if you chose, we will meet again there”.
It took my grandfather not longer than a split second to feel what he had always known deep in his heart- that there was something he had to do and somewhere he had to go. He felt like a life-changing journey was about to begin.
The next week he was on the plane to Israel, starting a quest of self-exploration and self-discovery, many memories he had tried to pack in one small satchel, the blessing of his family and a ‘Sidur’ book he had received from his father lighting the way.
“I will only believe it’s actually happening when the plane lands” he said to himself. The wind beneath his sails had started blowing.
I found myself saying the same thing as I sat on my flight to the U.S this past summer. Unlike my grandfather, I had been provided with 7 huge boxes to pack my most treasured belongings and memories into…
The wind beneath my grandfather’s sails began to blow on that flight for him. A strong wind that has continued to guide our family and is with me as I take part in this experience of a lifetime.
The word describing my position as an Israel Fellow in Hebrew is called ‘Shaliach’ and translates into: a person who is sent to a new place. The same word creates the world ‘Shlichut’ which translates both into: ’emissary’ or in Hebrew, a life purpose.
I often get asked the question why I chose to go on this life-changing journey and also ask myself the same question, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that the answer was lying in front of me for a long time, perhaps for even longer than I could ever understand.
That same special feeling has been running in my family for generations: a feeling that there is something we must do and somewhere we must go, combined with the honor of meeting many different people every day and allowing them to get to know us and our story, openly, just like in the ‘open house’ of my Papa. A feeling that had brought me to America. The notions of encouraging people around me to discover their own special stories, discover what is the wind beneath their sails, connect to their inner identity and start their own personal journey, just like the one my grandfather and I did, 75 years apart, are some of the core motivations I have in life and they reflect themselves every day within this new position.
It is the most poetic closure that I now have the honor of working for the same Jewish Agency my Papa built a connection with for his community, almost a 90 years ago, far away. In that home near the Tigris river that I have never been to but have always been a part of.
When I am asked how I chose my journey, the answer is simple. I did not choose it. Rather, it chose me.