Our little Jewish community in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (as it was called, back then) was small, but warm and close-knit. Although people flocked to shul on Erev Shabbat for the prayers, it was more than that. It was a social gathering, one which we tried hard not to miss. It was a central part of our Jewish identity.
Not that we were that observant, we weren’t. Most of us would go to shul on Shabbat morning, with our tennis equipment in the boots of our cars. We would shake hands Good Shabbos at the end of the service and then make the pilgrimage from the shul to the Weizman Sports Center in convoy, to spend the rest of the day playing tennis and socializing in the bar-restaurant, looking all sporty and white in our tennis togs.
Everyone knew where everyone else lived. I remember one time on a Friday night, we went to shul and then went home for the Shabbat meal. As we were about to sit down, there was a knock at the door, and when we opened it, we found my five year old sister standing there with one of our Jewish neighbors. In the rush and confusion of extricating ourselves from post-prayer socializing to get home for dinner, we had forgotten her, and our neighbor, seeing her standing there, brought her home! And, the funny thing, is that it was no big deal. We felt safe in that community. We trusted and supported each other. The community lived predominantly in one suburb and on any given day, as adolescent youth, we would crisscross the streets visiting friends on our bicycles, until well after nightfall – and our parents never stressed about it. Looking back now, growing up Jewish in Bulawayo was a gift, a rare privilege, compared to today.
Yet, for all that, subconsciously, I always felt that something was not quite in sync. I couldn’t put my finger on it but there was something not quite in balance in our Jewish existence there. Perhaps it was the seasonal thing, with Rhodesia being in the southern hemisphere so that we would be celebrating the Jewish festivals in the wrong season. I remember for instance, that for Shavuot we always had a ceremony of bringing bikurim to school, in a symbolic identification with the pilgrimage our forefathers used to make to the Temple on this festival. The problem was, that in Rhodesia, it was autumn, our “first fruits” were last fruits, and I would line my basket with leaves colored yellow, red and brown, taken from the deciduous trees that were shedding at the time. Or, we would build a sukkah in the spring, with clear, blue skies, where the only clouds were white and wispy, as we said the prayer for rain. Pomegranates were hard to find – they were not in season. Anyway, whatever it was, there was a sort of underlying disconnect in our lives, between us living in Rhodesia, and us being Jewish.
I made Aliya in February 1982 to a brand new kibbutz, Kibbutz Tuval. In the whirlwind of those first months in my old-new country, I was too involved with developing what could be best described as my Aliya survival skills, to notice the change. Our Aliya group went to an intensive Ulpan program to learn Hebrew, on Kibbutz Matzuba, on the northern border. My life revolved around three things: Learning Hebrew as fast and as well as I could, so that I could be self-sufficient in my new language, visiting the kibbutz I had come to build as often as possible, so as not to miss a single experience of this exciting pioneering project, and turning Borochov’s Triangle upside down – becoming a laborer, getting in touch with the earth and bonding with the land in the most fundamental way. The last part was hard — very hard — but I was determined.
And then, there was experiencing first hand my first war. On Matzuba, I had the surreal experience of spending a night in a musty bomb shelter, listening to the booms at non-rhythmic intervals. On Tuval, in the space of one hour, two-thirds of the men on my kibbutz disappeared in army buses, leaving us open mouthed in shock and with worry and fear in our eyes, as we stared at one another. That, and an acute manpower problem, which provided those of us on the ulpan with an excuse to take time off and stay on Tuval. The shock became tangible within two days, when one of our members was killed in battle in Lebanon and a fellow member died in a car crash the following night, on the way back from his funeral. The bitter experience of war was rounded up for me two months later when a third member of our young kibbutz was killed in a freak explosion after his unit had left the front in Lebanon and he felt safe at last, away from the front.
It was the following year that everything began to fall into place with regard to my Jewish identity and my existence. It was Pesach, the festival of spring, and I was looking out over a field blossoming with the rich colors of red, blue and deep purple anemones. At the kibbutz seder, when we got to the part to say “Next Year in Jerusalem”, we all sang it heartily, and the feeling of togetherness as we sang it was as liberating as the feeling I felt that this year, I had done it! I had fulfilled the promise, I was home. No more wandering.
However what really hit home was the following day, when we all went to Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan and I witnessed for the first time the ceremony of the Omer. It was a sunny day with a cool wind, and we sat on bleachers, looking out on a golden field of wheat. Then, traditional Israeli music started to play from loudspeakers and a row of about twenty strapping young men, dressed in white so bright that it seemed to shine in the sunlight approached in a row with long-handled scythes in their hands. They started to cut the wheat, while women in white skirts and flower wreathes in their long hair, gathered the wheat and tied them in bushels. It was pastoral. It was romantic. It was just right. A serenity came over me, starting from the breath in my lungs, and descending throughout my body, a confident calm of feeling at home, at one. I think it was at that moment, when I felt everything was aligned, at last. This feeling of “completion” that I felt, was like feeling my roots entering the soil beneath me, delving deeper and stronger. It was then that I realized that I didn’t want to live anywhere else.
Today in Israel, the focus has become more on the observance of the kashrut of Pesach and the religious expression of the festival. I do not identify with that aspect of Pesach. For me, my Pesach experience of 34 years ago is what makes it such a special festival for me. On Pesach I experienced my cosmic alignment. Israel is I and I am Israel.