What’s in a name, asked Shakespeare, whose own name became synonymous with
British culture. It was the name change that struck me almost as soon as I
landed in London on a recent trip that combined a (rare) vacation in the land of
my birth with a family wedding.
In the 33 years since I left, I had been
baffled to note that increasingly people referred to the country as the United
Kingdom, but with the Olympics, the British decided to put the “Great” back in
Britain and the success of Team GB was feted everywhere. Pride in Britain was
clearly on display – union flags waved not only from public buildings but also
private homes, and even decorated one or two vehicles.
In the new, more
open London, I revealed my Israeli identity with pride mixed with caution. For
the first few days, when asked where I was from I answered “Jerusalem” before
adding “Israel” according to the response. Later, having met more friends and
family who still live there, I loosened up (“chillax” is one of those annoying
buzzwords heard in Britain as elsewhere in the almost-English-speaking world).
Parts of London, of course, also barely count as English- speaking – I happily
eavesdropped on conversations in Mandarin and Arabic, but heard little of the
Cockney rhyming slang that came so naturally to my mother’s skin and blisters
(sisters), for example.
Mention of Israel raised more interest than ire.
There’s obviously a whole world out there beyond that of the BBC World
One stranger with whom we got chatting at the railway station
asked with concern: “Isn’t it dangerous there?” (Chatting with strangers in
England was a relatively new experience; delays on the rail service, more
familiar.) Strangely, despite the rising violence here, it is much, much safer
to walk out at night in Jerusalem than in London, but when we passed a building
marked “Shelter,” I wasn’t the only Israeli member of my family to immediately
associate it with missile protection rather than a place for the
Security during the Olympic/Paralympic games was higher than I
ever recall it. When I grew up in London, an armed policeman was a rarity. This
visit, I saw police officers at Kings Cross Station (site of one of the 7/7
bombing atrocities) armed not only with revolvers but with semi-automatic
(This, ironically, was not reassuring – if travelers’ bags were
checked, I’d have had more peace of mind, and I recalled being warned during IDF
basic training never to use automatic fire in a crowded, closed-in area where
the innocent passersby are more at risk than the terrorist).
obsession with what people think of Israel is very Israeli (or a peculiarly
Jewish trait). My holiday reading material included the deservedly award-winning
The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which ruminates on Anglo-Jewish
identity, anti-Semitism and that special breed of Jewish anti- Zionists – the
fictional Sam Finkler’s “ASHamed Jews.”
A lecturer at the Hebrew
University once told my journalism class that the difference between the British
and Israelis is that the former read the paper on the way to work and the latter
read the paper once they have arrived in the office. I picked up the freebies on
the Underground on trips to and from central London and realized that Israel
does not figure high on the list of British concerns.
There were items on
the atrocities in Syria, an awful lot about Prince Harry’s crown jewels, and
plenty of stories on the education system and recession. The only item on Israel
I read in Metro during a twoweek stay was a brief mention of the beneficial role
of medical clowns according to a study by Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
came across a couple of Israeli names in the least likely places. The name of
late Israeli shipping magnate and philanthropist Sammy Ofer, appointed an
Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in
recognition of his support for maritime heritage, graces the gallery constructed
under the legendary Cutty Sark clipper and a wing of the National Maritime
Museum at Greenwich, while in the excellent Royal Fusiliers Museum at the Tower
of London special mention was made of David Ben-Gurion, who served as a member
of the Jewish Legion (in the days when Jews in this area were known as
Throughout my visit, I found it strange that although
British soldiers (the Royal Fusiliers and Prince Harry’s mates among them) are
still serving in Afghanistan, the general public barely notices, certainly not
with the type of identification we have in a country where we all know soldiers
and where they serve so close to home they travel home by bus for the
The vacation component of our trip was dedicated to several
obvious sites – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the highly
recommended Royal Air Force Museum, the Planetarium at Greenwich, a London bus
tour, boat tour and for those who, unlike me, have no fear of heights, the
iconic London Eye.
My son and I also spent many pleasant hours at
Hatfield House and Gardens, where we absorbed English history, pageantry and
tradition that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
The Hatfield Country Fair
is held annually in the Queen Elizabeth Oak Field on the family estate of Lord
and Lady Salisbury (where Queen Elizabeth I learned of her accession to the
throne in 1558 while sitting under one of the trees in the grounds of her
The fair included all the best of local tradition – a
parade of vintage steam engines; shows and competitions of farm animals, hunting
dogs, racing terriers and work horses including incomparable, massive Shires;
fishing in the lord’s private pond; falconry; and a good old-fashioned game of
tug-ofwar for the kids – all presented with typical British sense of humo(u)r
and banter that mixed snobbery and inverse snobbery, double entendres and
misogyny (“trouble and strife” is Cockney rhyming slang for wife, after
But love was in the air: We had, of course, traveled for the
wedding of my nephew – the best reason for relatives dispersed over three
continents to get together. It was a traditional, Orthodox Jewish wedding with
its promise-threat: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem....”
But there was no
chance of my forgetting Zion. As holidays go, it went perfectly. I was reminded,
however, not only of the best of Britain that I’d left behind (along with the
benefits of a two-day weekend and relaxing on the River Thames), but also of
what I’d gained by making aliya.
Landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, the
border control officer took one look at my son and asked why I’d let him miss
the beginning of the school year. When she learned that we’d been at a wedding
she wished us “Mazal tov!” and waved us through. Stocking up at the local
supermarket, I didn’t have to worry about dairy desserts containing pork
The “super,” in fact, is readying for the High Holy Days with
special deals on the traditional apple and honey products and a free talk by a
dietician on healthy eating habits during the hagim.
And be it ever so
humble, particularly compared to the green and pleasant gardens that surround
Hatfield House, the yard outside my Jerusalem tenement block has a pomegranate
tree whose fruit has ripened just in time to grace our Rosh Hashana
London was fun, but Jerusalem is home.