The contrast was stark as we waited on an endless line at Ben-Gurion Airport to register as new immigrants. Barely an hour before, we’d been sipping Chardonnay at 29,000 feet — upgraded by the El Al flight attendants when they discovered it was our Aliyah flight. Not a lot of Americans were moving to Israel in 1992 and while coddling us in Business Class, the crew thought we were nuts.
Now upstairs in the old terminal where aspiring citizens were processed, the meager air conditioning spewed and whistled, barely cutting through the damp July air. Tired and sweaty, we waited to receive the official stamp in our passports. But when we entered the free cab for immigrants bound for Jerusalem, the excitement started to build. Not the eight exhausted Russians crowding into the vehicle, or the basket of yelping puppies they smuggled from the Soviet Union for resale — not even a flat tire and the three-hour wait for a replacement cab — could crush our enthusiasm for what lay ahead.
We were newlywed lawyers living the dream. Leaving behind the skyscrapers and subways, we passed up jobs with mind-boggling salaries to reinvent ourselves in the Middle East. In previous trips as tourists, everyone urged us to come back for good — the cab drivers, the mini-market owners, the bank tellers, even the lawyers in job interviews told us that Israel should be our home. Life would be ever so much more fulfilling, Jewish Agency representatives promised us.
Then we landed and reality kicked in.
Israeli bureaucracy is a strange and evil monster. Everything we knew in New York was irrelevant here and the new rules didn’t make sense. We felt like we were talking to walls; no one understood us and we didn’t understand what they wanted from us. We were billed for opening phone lines, gas and, and even for the right to watch television. We had to pay to open a bank account, then they told us we couldn’t touch our money for two weeks — even though we’d deposited cash. When we called to complain they put us on eternal hold.
We consoled ourselves that at least we had jobs starting in a few months. We could relax by the beaches until then. But when we casually dropped by the Bar Association on our second day in Jerusalem to let them know we’d arrived and were ready to start work in October, they dropped the bomb. Before starting our jobs we would have to take nine exams about Israeli law, of which we knew nothing, including one testing our ability to draft court papers in Hebrew. And surprise! Our jobs were in fact classified as internships, with no promise of being hired at the end of one year. Worst of all, even if they offered permanent jobs, I would have to first pass the Israeli Bar exam. Almost 70% of all foreigners fail.
It felt like someone had slapped a sign on our backs that read “freier”, the Israeli equivalent of sucker. We definitely felt like freiers those first few years, struggling with the language, not knowing how things worked, not knowing the local customs. Freier is that feeling that every Israeli is laughing at your naiveté and taking advantage of your trusting disposition. They seem to charge you more, give you a bigger runaround and generally make your life that much more difficult because: “What kind of sucker leaves the good life in New York for Israel?”
But there were positives that helped get us through. We woke up to beach weather every day. The cool Jerusalem breezes at night were a far cry from the steaming subway platforms on Broadway. The views were amazing — from the rolling hills of Jerusalem and the ancient walls of the Old City, to the elegant churches and mosques that are scattered throughout.
The food was simple and incredible. We didn’t need to speak the language well in order to come back from the outdoor market at Shuk Machane Yehuda with packages bursting with the freshest hummus, the reddest and sweetest cherry tomatoes, 15 types of different cheeses and 8 different varieties of olives. There was fresh pita right from the oven, chocolate yeast cakes, sesame cookies and much more.
People were different here. In New York we were surrounded by lawyers. Sure there were lots of other people with interesting lives, but we were entombed in our offices from 9 am to 10 pm and the whole city seemed to be made up of lawyers. In Jerusalem we encountered a whole new variety of individuals. Each community was unique, each person had a story. We met Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists. Living side by side were young and old, people with roots in Syria, Iran, Yemen, Poland, Kiev, Paris, Uruguay, Toronto and, of course, New York. They were religious and secular, new immigrants and old timers, some tracing their families in Jerusalem back more than seven generations. Then there was our warm and utterly unique neighbor, an Ethiopian Christian whose parents, in the Sixties, sent him to Jerusalem at age seven to spare him from bloodshed in their homeland.
All around us there was history. Every street we walked, any alley we turned into was a page from the past. The monuments, signs, memorials — all for people and events we had read or heard about. Now we were living in this old/new world, a society where virtually everybody has strong opinions and doesn’t hesitate to fight about politics, religion sports — you name it. But somehow, the seams of the city stretch to include everyone.
We tumbled into this beautifully bizarre land and watched the show unfold before us, enjoying our days of freedom before we would actually have to begin our new lives.
Minna Ferziger Felig is co-founder of the legal recruitment agency Machshavot Smartjob.