I have been to Israel many times. My recollections are not the typical tourist ones. They are mostly personal and not necessarily chronological. One memory that stands out is about trying to find a cousin who had come to Israel on aliyah from the Soviet Union.
The family had moved into Bat Yam, a brand-new neighborhood that it wasn’t on any map. (This was long before GPS or cellphones). We walked to the nearest police station. Surprisingly enough, the officer on duty only spoke Hebrew. In Israel, often even the butcher can speak six languages. When I told him the address, he didn’t have a clue.
I asked if I could use the phone. He handed me the phone. I called a cousin from Uruguay to whom I spoke in Spanish. She gave me the phone number of the Russian cousin. I called the Russian cousin and spoke to him in Russian. We got detailed directions. I returned the phone to the policeman and his only comment was “ma od?” meaning “what else?” He had just heard me speak four languages in less than 10 minutes. That is, counting English, which I used to tell my husband what was going on. Okay, so I know how to impress an Israeli policeman!
When we arrived at Bat Yam, we saw a beautiful, airy apartment with rosewood furniture and a happy family. The cousin seemed two inches taller than when we last saw him in Kiev, two years earlier. Then it dawned on me, he was standing up straight! In Kiev he tried to look invisible. In Israel he even felt comfortable enough to criticize the government!
Many of my other memories involve my cousin Ben Siegel. He passed away quite a few years ago. Even that he did his way. He had suffered a massive heart attack just before Passover. He checked himself out of the hospital, went home and conducted the seder. He died the day after.
Here’s a little background on this amazing person. Ben was born in Poland along with the rest of the family. His immediate family remained in Poland and was exterminated in various ways. He was a college student and ended up in the Soviet Union, like my immediate family. He enlisted in the Russian army.
When he found out what happened to his family, he didn’t care if he lived or died. Consequently, he took wild chances, which made him a hero. When the Russian army entered Poland, he switched to the Polish army. He was tall and handsome.
By the time he was 24, he was a major. The Polish army wanted him as a career army person. They gave him a fully equipped house (formerly German). There was just one problem: they wanted him to change his name so it would sound more Polish. Thanks, but no thanks.
He packed up his belongings and he and his wife moved to Israel. There, he studied law, became a judge and later a renowned prosecutor. He was incorruptible, so much so that his name became synonymous with justice in Israel.
Once I was in the movies with my girlfriend in Ramat Gan. It was a locally made “shoot ’em up.” When the good guys started winning, the audience started yelling “Siegel, Siegel.” I asked my friend what they were yelling, and she said, “they’re referring to your cousin Ben Siegel.” To us, he was just Benek (a Polish diminutive of his name). As long as he was alive, I always stayed at his house.
Almost every day, weather permitting, he went scuba diving after work. Once he talked me into joining him. He wanted to show me something. This was before I ever tried a dive. He reassuringly put his arm around my waist, added a contraption to his tanks so I could breathe from his, and down we went. Not so far down, he pointed to the wreck of an old ship. Later he told me that that ship dated back to pre-Christian times.
He was so well known, that whenever I arrived, he picked me up on the plane and when I was leaving, he would escort me to my seat, buckle my seat belt, salute the pilot, and leave. I felt like a real celebrity. I have other “Benek stories.” Maybe another time.
Once I went on a hike with my friend from Ramat Gan hosted by The Society for the Preservation of Nature. The most memorable thing about that outing was the announcement the guide made while still on the bus. He said, in Hebrew, “There are trees here, who wants to make peepee?” I guess that is an international word. I would be afraid to go on that hike now. My memories date back to happier times. Let’s hope those times come back soon.