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Aliyah, Step 1: Bureaucracy

On her Kafkaesque path to prove she’s Jewish, so she can make that move of all moves -- to Israel
Illustration. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)
Illustration. New immigrants arrive to Ben Gurion airport in Israel. (Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90)

The first step to making aliyah is proving to the Jewish Agency that my ancestors Moshe, Menachim Mendel, Szlomo and Yitzak were in fact Jewish. This is a lot harder than it sounds. My rabbi said in frustration, “If only your family were Orthodox, it would be so simple!,” but the problem is that there has not been a ketubah in my family for generations. I traced a number of ancestors to South Chicago, but Chicago Jews have all abandoned the South side and the shuls there have shut down. I emailed a rabbi on the North side, where one of my ancestors was once the shul treasurer, but he declined to reply. I also emailed the rabbi in my hometown, but he did not reply either. The “Dispersed of Judah Cemetery” in New Orleans is brimming with my Sephardic Cazeres and Sacerdote ancestors, but they are many generations in the past.

My cousin tells me that her DNA test shows she is 97% Jewish, but the Jewish Agency is not yet accepting DNA tests, and I have no official documents. Initially, I was told that I’m not allowed to order a copy of my grandmother’s birth certificate without first acquiring her death certificate, but I don’t even know if her birth certificate will state whether or not she was Jewish. As for finding a ketubah, I think I have a better chance of finding the True Cross.

I can supply photographs of my great-grandparents’ graves, one of which has Hebrew on it, which perhaps is sufficient evidence. Both my grandmother’s parents are buried in an all-Jewish cemetery, but I need to prove that they are the parents of my grandmother. One joker suggested I exhume the body and do a DNA test, but I pointed out that this would prove I’m NOT Jewish, because we don’t disturb graves. I then discovered that my grandmother died in Florida, not Illinois, and because it was over 50 years ago, I CAN apply for her death certificate in this case, but there is a charge, and they don’t take credit cards, and I need to write a cheque in American dollars but don’t have an American chequing account. However, I know there was a synagogue service when she died, so I looked up shuls in Miami — and found there are 72. Which one was it?

Eventually, I traced my grandparents (and one great-grandmother) to a cemetery in Florida. I have also obtained an apostille stamp to prove that my husband and I are truly married and did not forge our marriage certificate, and today I will submit the remainder of the paperwork. Hopefully this will go through okay, but I’m not optimistic. The Jewish Agency is angry that all this is taking so long, and the last time I rang them, they hung up on me.

We are excited, but we are also anxious. Those who have never moved countries before cannot begin to understand the stress and anxiety that is brought on by landing in a country you don’t know, and where your understanding of the language is limited. When I was 5 years old we moved to Germany for a year, and my mother described the travails in a letter to my aunt: ‘My plan is to bring you up to date on the domestic front. There seems only one tone possible when describing the Daily Disasters: I represent truthfully, coolly, objectively, those events which have filled us with horror and disbelief, and you respond with light laughter.’ Each difficulty involved endless rounds of phone calls, unreliable repairmen, and unresponsive bureaucracies– until my father learned to use his title when making demands. My mother says that people nearly fainted when they heard the word ‘Professor’, and that sped things up considerably.

Sadly, the Dutch do not believe in using titles, so when I went to the Netherlands as a Professor (officially ‘Professor Doctor’), I was called ‘Mevrouw’. That was the least of our worries. I will never forget the day I filled out the three lengthy import licences for our motorcycles in Dutch, which involved looking up every word on the forms in a dictionary and then trying to make sense of the bizarre sentences that evolved (‘backwards ran sentences until reeled the mind’). When we arrived in the Netherlands, the motoring authority replied with two pages of further questions which made no sense, even with my Dutch dictionary, and so I cycled 5 miles to the agency which is supposed to help foreigners. The lady there sighed in exasperation and said, ‘can’t you get a neighbour to translate?’, but we didn’t know any neighbours. She added that they could not translate letters for every stray foreigner who wandered into their office, but relented when I burst into hysterical floods of tears.

The utility companies were equally trying. With no internet at home, we had to take the laptop to a spot about half a mile away, where we would sit outside a hotel for which we knew the Wifi code. Ringing the utilities was hopeless. You get an answerphone message that tells you that for this service, press 1, for that service, press 2, and so on– except that, it being completely in Dutch, we had no idea what they were saying. Sometimes, we discovered, if you kept pressing ‘1’, then eventually a live person would answer, but often the system would simply hang up on you because you did not provide a customer service number or an address, or did not answer some other question which was (to new immigrants) unintelligible. When that happened, I would cycle across Amsterdam to the offices of the company, take a number, and wait for over an hour to be called up, to explain what usually turned out to be a simple problem. The complicated problems– of which there were many– took longer. It turned out that our flat was not wired up for internet, which took several months, and also, each time we thought we had sorted out payment to the water authorities, we would find out that there was yet another water bill to pay to yet another agency. There are in fact three different water bills and taxes that have to be paid in the Netherlands, one of which is responsible for maintaining the pumps that keep the country above water.

I remember wondering where the buses saying ‘Buiten Dienst’ were going, imagining it was some outlying village. It was several months before we discovered that this meant ‘out of service’. My Yahoo Babelfish translating page was occasionally helpful for the c. 50 emails I received every day in Dutch, but I am still wondering about the one which spoke of the ‘University Feather Man’. To this day, I picture a severe looking angel wafting over the campus quad.

Moving to the UK was also a trial, although the language issues were less of an impediment. On first arriving, I rang a friend of a friend, but– despite this being a local call– I was cut off, and thus discovered that in the UK, you have to keep putting money in the payphone even for local calls. We spoke long enough for my friend to say something like, ‘do you have an eight-zed?’, which left me completely baffled. However, when I went to a nearby corner shop, I saw maps of London which said ‘A to Z’, and so I worked out that ‘Zed’ is British for ‘Zee’. My first encounter with an electric kettle was one of wonder and amazement, but many other things left me confused and bewildered. I discovered that the utility companies, which had recently been privatised, were in fact monopolies: when faced with poor service from the country’s only electric company, there was nowhere else to turn. Happily, the beer here is fantastic, once you get used to drinking it at room temperature.

So now we’re moving to Israel. I can read Hebrew (very slowly), but at least I speak it every week in shul, so I get some practice. In effect, this means that when we arrive in Israel, I will be able to stand on street corners and earnestly proclaim, ‘G-d rules, G-d has ruled, G-d shall rule, forever and ever Amen’, if I so choose. However, I expect that sorting out utilities will be the usual round of headaches.

And yet, I feel that this move will be different from the others. The Israeli government provides so much help for immigrants, and the friendliness of the Israelis is like no other people I know. Each time I visit, I have so many conversations with comparative strangers– not just casual chat, but real conversations about life, books, politics and world events. I look around, and I see people who look like my family. I see women who look like younger, prettier versions of myself. Everywhere, I see women who could be my sisters. This resonates, somehow; there really is a sense of arriving home, even though I know that this country will confuse, frustrate and occasionally infuriate me. The British often comment that they find the Israelis intolerably rude, but apart from the ruthless driving, I feel socially very much at home in Israel. I like the directness; in the UK, there are times when, even after 28 years in this country, I am still missing the wordless social cues; I alienate people, and have no idea what I said or did wrong. In the UK, you are not allowed to be earnest, and neither are you allowed to be too enthusiastic or analytical. In Israel, I have the feeling that I may be able to be myself: intense, earnest, intellectual, melancholy, but also friendly, sociable, and — I hope — useful. I have the feeling that many of the best friends I will ever have are people I have not yet met; people just over the horizon in Israel.

I can’t wait to meet these new friends.

About the Author
Rivka Bond is a retired Archaeology Professor living in the UK. She has lived in England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, America and The Netherlands, and has worked on excavations in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Greece, Ireland and the UK.
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