Ilana Spitz Epstein
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My first real Yom HaAtzma’ut

After 3 months in Israel we thought we knew how to celebrate. Then we saw our neighbors dragging sofas and dining room tables to the park
The day we made aliya, the 5-month-old and his bible quoting father.
The day we made aliya, the 5-month-old and his bible quoting father.

We made aliya in February of 1998. Before Nefesh B’Nefesh, before it was made easy, before there were people cheering you on when you got off the plane. In fact, our welcome was anything but welcoming. We came off the plane from London with our 5-month old son, at 3:30 in the morning, into the old Terminal One building of Ben Gurion Airport. We were ushered into a small windowless room to the left of passport control and told to wait until someone would see us. It felt like hours later. I want to tell you that it was probably only five minutes, but no; It was hours, with an infant and a husband whose Hebrew had a distinctive yeshivish bent to it. 

Finally, an officious official walked through the door, looked at my Israeli passport – not that I felt in any way Israeli, but being born to an Israeli mother meant that I couldn’t make Aliya without it – and started to speak to me in rapid Russian-accented Hebrew. I only caught every other word, and what I heard sounded a lot like a telling off. For making aliya. 

From that point forward, the months of paperwork involved in making aliya in 1998 all felt like a telling off. Very much a case of: “Why are you bothering us? We were perfectly fine and then you came along and disturbed our bureaucratic machine!” 

My Bible-quoting husband’s Hebrew improved rapidly with the number of people who were shouting at us. He figured: “I’d better know what they are getting so aggravated about and witty comebacks in Biblical Hebrew aren’t working!” 

The same officious official at Ben Gurion Airport went as far as changing our infant son’s name from Stephen to Stefan (“ph” is pronounced “ff”; not “v”, he told us!) and we spent the subsequent five years trying to change it back to Stephen, for which, I can inform you, he is grateful. 

If I’m being truly Israeli, I can rant and rave about the woman who told me I was a bad mother for putting socks on a child in April, or the same woman who then started berating me for taking the same said socks off. Or our neighbor in Tel Aviv who started playing on his baby grand piano (how he got that thing up to the fifth floor and into a tiny apartment is anyone’s guess). But nothing really matters when Chopin is banged out on the keys (even if it is beautiful) from 12am-2am every night. And on the other side of the parking lot opposite, we had the couple who started shouting at each other every evening at around the same time. 

I know that Nefesh B’Nefesh could have made the whole aliya bureaucratic process easier, but I’m not sure they could have done anything about the neighbors. 

And yet, amongst the years of frustration, and my husband telling me that this is ‘a land that spits out its inhabitants’ (more Biblical Hebrew), there were sparkling moments. Moments of fun and connection that we would get nowhere else in the world. 

After just a couple of months in Efrat, my husband was involved in what could have been a life-altering car accident on his way to work in the Mercaz (Tel Aviv/Gush Dan) area. Within a week we were living in Tel Aviv. The commute could have literally killed him. 

Now that we were living in Tel Aviv away from family and friends and feeling totally lost, real Israel started to happen. No one had prepared us for Yom HaZikaron (Israel Fallen Soldiers Day). Even though I have a cousin who was killed in battle, I didn’t know it was a thing. 

Before you feel shocked at our ignorance, remember it was 1998 – pre-social-media. In fact, we went for a walk on the eve of Yom HaZikaron and couldn’t understand why shops were closing early. Once the mystery was cleared up by the elderly couple who lived next door, our next big shock was Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day). We were both Bnei Akiva graduates, drinking in the aliya Kool-Aid from the first mifkad (parade) we got to stand ‘dom’ at. And yet we couldn’t really comprehend what was happening around us. 

We lived in an area of Tel Aviv called the Nachalat Yitzchak (please, under no circumstances romanticize what I’m about to describe). It was a run-down area of five or six square blocks, nestled between Givatayim, the Diamond Exchange (“Bursa”) and Tel Aviv proper with the Ayalon Freeway running as its closest neighbor. Built over an old oil refinery, pleasant it wasn’t but an introduction to real Israel it was. No easy Aliya Anglo-cushion here. 

On the morning of our first Yom HaAtzmaut, as card-carrying members of Israeli citizenship and thinking “we got this!”, this was to be the celebration of us making it to Israel and surviving three months of our own personal hell. 

As soon as we spied our neighbors early in the morning dragging their belongings into an array of cars and cabs, we knew we didn’t get this at all. We didn’t spy the grand piano making its way down the road but I wouldn’t have been surprised. What we did see slowly moving down the road, were sofas, dining room tables and chairs in a procession. Was this the new migration? Was the building on fire? Did we have a termite problem? 

Once more, our neighbors, the Katz’s, were our guides to the mystery of Israel and Tel Aviv. They grabbed a picnic basket (when I say grabbed, keep in mind they were both in their eighties and Hungarian Holocaust survivors) in a very slow and dignified manner and we joined the procession along with the rest of the neighborhood’s furniture and occupants towards the local park. What awaited us was incredible. 

Considering this procession set off at around 8am, by the time we slowly entered the park at 9am, areas of the park had been unilaterally cordoned off and families from all over Tel Aviv were setting up their living room furniture in artistic arrangements on the grass. While the women cut up vegetables for Israeli salads, men raked coals in their portable barbecues. 

This was a block party unlike any that existed in my fantasies of Americana. The native Tel Avivians who don’t have a terrace, let alone a yard to speak of, had come out en masse to celebrate the day of independence, with each one making himself king of his patch of grass, enjoying the national Yom HaAtzmaut dish of barbecue. 

The Katzes, more old-world than new-Tel-Aviv, led us further into the park where we found a picnic table, totally unoccupied – as what is the point of a picnic table when you have a three-piece living room suite to sit on? We joined them in a meal of schmaltz herring, pickles, and eierkichel (Ashkenazi egg crackers) followed by a poppy-seed cake – don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Anything al fresco tastes better! 

As we made our way back to the neighborhood, the makeshift living and dining rooms were in full swing, Maccabi and Nesher beer was being drunk, garinim (sunflower seeds) were being shared and the shira be’tzibbur (public singalong) never sounded better. 

It was all so alien and yet so familiar.

After sixteen and a half years in Israel, my husband and I returned to England where we took on our current community roles. Everything we learned in Israel has impacted the people we are today and our approach to community. Our biggest lesson was that you don’t need to understand it to make it your own. Make it your own, and understanding will come. Our love for Israel hasn’t wavered.

The 72nd anniversary of Israel’s independence is huge for us. Not only is it “Corona Year,” but it is the first year we haven’t yet been back to Israel, and we don’t know when we will get back. The thing that many of us have taken for granted, poked fun at, been frustrated with, and loved is at this moment inaccessible. Our prayers and focus have never been clearer, never before have I felt my prayers: my longing for ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ has never had so much meaning before. In fact, I don’t think I have truly understood it until now. 

“Hashiveni v’ashuva el ha aretz ha tova.” (from the Naomi Shemer song “Al Kol Eileh”. The sentence means: “return me, and I will return to the Good Land”)

When we first made aliya, all I could see were the difficulties, I would wake up every morning determined and say: “What could I do today to make this work?” Every day was a challenge, we worked hard, we gave it our all. We dressed the part, thinking positively, even when it felt like Israel was beating us down. Yet today, all I want is to go back and embrace the difficulty because no matter how hard it was, it was home. 

Once the Corona bans are lifted, our commitment, for now, is to our community, but another folk saying which reads: Ani b’Ma’arav aval Libi ba’Mizrach (“I am in the West, but my heart is in the East”) has never been more true than it is today. 

About the Author
Ilana Epstein is a dedicated member of the senior rabbinic team at the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in Central London, partnering with her husband Daniel. As a Educator of Jewish history, culture and tradition, she imparts her knowledge and passion to the community. Ilana studied at Yeshiva University Stern College, where she acquired a strong foundation in her field. She was selected for the inaugural cohort of the prestigious Rabbi Sacks Scholars programme. With a deep appreciation for the beauty of Judaism, Ilana seamlessly connects the significance of small traditions to the grand tapestry of Jewish history, fostering a profound sense of belonging and understanding within the community.
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