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The revival of the dead: An aliyah story

Moving to Israel had not exactly been rational; an inner voice suddenly told me, Come to Israel (so I did)

So evidently, it isn’t only butter that is in short supply in Israel. It turns out that there is a shortage of aliyah success stories too! Or at least, so it would appear, since Israel’s Ministry of Absorption had to invent fictitious immigrant success stories. Fortunately, many fellow immigrants have taken to the internet to counter this lamentable state of affairs (for example: here and here).

And what about my own story? Well, I’ve already written a few thoughts on making aliyah. So now, I offer you a story within a story…

* * *

“So what brought you to Israel?” the rabbi asked. “Let’s hear some stories!”

I was sitting around a Shabbat table in Jerusalem, together with a dozen fellow travelers. We were young people from different countries and from a variety of backgrounds. Some had come from traditional Jewish families; others were getting their first taste of Jewish culture that night. The only thing we all had in common was our decision to make our homes in Israel.

Our host, a rabbi who taught at a nearby yeshiva, had led us in a lively discussion amid song and laughter. Now, he seemed suddenly more serious.

“What brought me to Israel?” said a long-haired boy sitting across from me. “A Boeing 747!”

We all laughed, and then took our turns telling our stories. Besides the humorous answers (“a desire for the quiet life”), there were also more thoughtful ones. In fact, for some of us, the question had no rational answer: recurrent dreams — or nightmares; vague memories from early childhood, now scarcely recalled; a persistent pull without any reasonable explanation….

“Would the three of you be willing to come back after Havdalah to help me with a project?” asked the rabbi.

And so it was that I came to be sitting with two of my fellow Shabbat guests in the rabbi’s living room the next evening, as he jotted down bits of our stories on index cards.

What brought me here?

I came to Israel at the age of 19, with $200 in my pocket and a six-digit number in my head.

* * *

The impetus for the move had not exactly been rational. I felt that the inner voice that had been part of my dialogue with God all my life had suddenly told me, Come to Israel.

“With what money?” I had asked. “I’m a student! My lab job with Professor Sharma is hardly going to buy a plane ticket to Israel.” The reply to that was, again, just: Come to Israel!

It was the verb “come” rather than “go” that was the clincher. I phoned a travel agent to inquire as to the cost of a ticket. That was as far as I got; the price was $800. It might as well have been a million dollars. So much for that!

About a week later, I was at the bursar’s office at the university to pick up my student loan check. It was more than it should have been. I double-checked the figures against the tuition chart on the wall. I’d been given substantially more than what I owed for tuition. A few other students were also exclaiming over the unexpected windfall.

“What gives?” I asked the clerk behind the desk.

“It seems the university administration had some government funds left over this year. If we send it back, we get that much less next year. If I were you, I would go out to a really fine restaurant tonight!”

“No,” I answered. “If I were me, I’d buy a plane ticket to Israel!” The surplus came to exactly $800.

The moment I boarded the plane, I experienced a strange disconnect: a feeling of exultation and completion — and utter dislocation. I felt as if I’d come through a door, but when I turned around, the door wasn’t there anymore. For a frightening moment, I had no idea who I really was.

Well, of course I knew! I had a clear picture of my childhood, growing up in Texas, training horses, teaching astronomy, and working toward a degree in physics. I had wanted to work in field theory, and my sights were set on the University of Texas at Austin, home of John Wheeler and his school of gravitational theory. My best friend was now a graduate student there, and regaled me with stories of his internship at the observatory in the Davis Mountains: “Once, a madman with a shotgun broke into the observatory and opened fire at the 80-inch telescope mirror.” Apparently the mirror, despite its wounds, still retained enough surface area to reflect starlight into the waiting cameras. Starlight became time — photons that had traveled for thousands of years across empty space only to go “splat” on a photographic plate and deliver a message from the distant past.

Story of my life.

Yes, I could remember all this; I knew it intimately. The trouble was, it was not my life story. It was not my past; it was as if it had all happened to someone else. And in its place was another past entirely. This one I knew just as intimately. Except that I could not remember it.

It swirled around in my mind, sometimes rising close enough to the surface that I could almost reach out and touch it. At other times, it would send out tantalizing hints; a random smell would trigger a flash of…what? A feeling, a momentary recognition of something that glimmered in my memory, just out of sight. Spices in the market in the Old City, the sound of an oud from the back room of some Arab restaurant. I would stop to listen, momentarily transfixed, as the multi-colored crowds of Middle Eastern shoppers, tourists, and pilgrims parted to go around me. For those moments, I was unreachable. I was home. And then it would hit me: a sense of loss and desolation so overwhelming that it left me speechless and sightless. Always the same pattern. Where was that home that I seemed to have lost so completely that no memory of it remained to me? And how had I come to lose it?

* * *

The rabbi carefully filed the cards away with dozens of others. I watched with a strange feeling of concern as my card disappeared into the file. For a moment, that card seemed to be all that separated me from oblivion. I shook off the eerie feeling with some difficulty.

“Are all those cards filled with such vague memories?” I asked.

“They are indeed!” the rabbi replied. “You see, at the yeshiva, we get a lot of people who come in search of something they feel they’ve lost. In most cases, it’s just a deeper, more meaningful lifestyle than the one they grew up with. Most of them come from secular homes, so learning for a bit at the yeshiva is a way to find out what they’ve been missing. Some stay and raise families. Others get a taste and move on to other things.

“But every year, we get a few who describe their journey in much the same way as you three did last night: rebuilding someone else’s life. Seeking relief from a nightmare they can’t clearly recall… Well, let’s just say that I think I understand the reason these people — people like you — are here.

“This index file here…. This is a record of a miracle that is happening in our day, right now, all around us.”

He paused and pierced each of us with his glance. Then in a voice filled with wonder, he said: “We, in our generation…. We are witnessing Techiat haMetim — the revival of the dead. And I am keeping a record.”

Adapted from Returning (Kasva 2018).

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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