Rebirth through aliyah

Aliyah Day (November 5) triggers personal reflections on the blessings of living in Israel

New immigrants from France disembark at Ben-Gurion Airport last year (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
New immigrants from France disembark at Ben-Gurion Airport last year
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The day of our aliyah has become a key personal date; paralleling a date of birth on earth, it marks a virtual rebirth in our land of Israel.
It makes perfect sense that David Ben-Gurion’s grave is simply and sparsely etched with his name and three dates: of his birth, death, and the date he made Israel his home – the bare essential bones, omitting unnecessary commentary.
June 23, 2015 – this was the date when Joe and I moved to Israel, re-birthing layered depths of new emotions and experiences, possibilities and passions, unity and understanding. An ever-expanding array of Israeli life stories, vignettes and moments in a land vibrantly thronging with her young who are living longer lives than ever.
It struck me last Lag Ba’omer when two of our grandchildren, independent and responsible Miss 11 and Master 9, went off by themselves to a nearby bonfire, that an early autonomy seems more typical of kids here than elsewhere in the Jewish world. And some months ago, President Reuven Rivlin hosted in his residence a sizable group of mostly mobile and active Israelis at least 100 years old, some of the more than 2,400 centenarians in this small country – there must be something in the air here that preserves the elderly into the old. Israel is the right place to fulfil the wish articulated by American-British anthropologist Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu (born Israel Ehrenberg!), “I want to die young at a ripe old age.”
Without fanfare or flourish
The land I see is free of vacuous pomp and ceremony, its passionate people cutting straight to the core and although they may be prone to ready bursts of emotion conveyed by loud voices and animated gestures, their sting and heat are harmless and fleeting, badges of caring rather than indifference.
Recently a relative was one of a small group of full-time and reservist IDF soldiers called to the stage in a brightly lit army hall to receive their new high rank of colonel and be presented with three shoulder pips (or felafels, as Israelis call them). On one shoulder, the felafels were pinned on by the Chief of General Staff of the IDF, while the other epaulet was pinned by a close relative of the recipient. Without fanfare or flourish, a crowd of ordinary people, guests and soldiers, lauding plainly and honestly the deserving defenders of our nation and entrusting them with ongoing leadership.
Becoming Israeli is a multi-level experience extending to the food we eat, as regional culinary influences are embraced: spices such as sumac, zaatar and hawaij; magenta-hued pomegranate syrup; lashings of home-made hummus and tehina; eggplant in myriad forms and combinations; staples of tomatoes and peppers; and with everything, viscous fragrant dollops of extra virgin olive oil.
The cooking melting pot is matched by the human one created by the inflow of immigrants from across the globe, who each add a unique essence and flavor to enriching our daily lives and future generations. I was reminded of this on a recent Shabbat at synagogue when captivated by the only woman with a deep brown silky complexion – a regal slender young Ethiopian mum, in a soft mustard dress, up-swept hair hidden under twisted gold and black satin, and white dangly earrings. She must have sensed me watching her, for she turned my way, and with a small nod her full lips parted in a tiny smile which telegraphed an inexplicable wave of warmth. Such are the un-choreographed memorable moments.
Where else but in Israel would Jerusalem’s daily English newspaper delivered to our door, twin with a gift: the story of Purim through the complementary Megilat Esther which arrived with the newsprint. And in the same week, ahead of Passover, the government ulpan teaching Hebrew to new immigrants gifted every student the Absorption Ministry’s publication of the Haggadah.
Unique Israeli stories
A highlight of our family’s past year, the inauguration of a Sefer Torah in memory of our children’s four grandparents, presented its own unique Israeli stories. The clapping, singing procession in the street accompanying the Torah wound its way towards the synagogue as a police car and police officers directed traffic around the moving multitude, while from overlooking apartments people spontaneously shared in the celebration by throwing down lollies from upstairs windows onto the musical parade, and two uniformed community policewomen joined in the singing, busily snapping photos.
One of the policewomen decided to follow the crowd into the synagogue, where during the formalities, she enthusiastically and loudly commended the mitzva of dedicating a Torah, as all eyes turned to her bottle-blonde head and bright red lips matching her vivid nail polish, with quiet gasps and amused, incredulous, delighted looks from the assembled.
The pulse of Israeli life is reflected in the teaching of Hebrew to new immigrants at our ulpan. We learned vocabulary relevant to the elections last April (and relearned those words in September), and, sadly, needed to become familiar with the Hebrew words for injured, lightly and heavily wounded, killed, terrorist, fled, arrested... Many lessons centered on learning through song lyrics, expanding vocabulary while being stirred by the increasingly familiar soulfulness of Israeli music reaching deep inside.
At a recent unplanned visit on a Shabbat to a major Jerusalem hospital emergency room, each nurse or attendant taking blood pressure, or making ECG and other medical checks, would part from the patient with a “feel well, be well” – such a Jewish thing to say and not the standard hospital patter in the Old Country. The highlight, besides being discharged, was the havdala ceremony at the end of Shabbat, as those patients who could, relatives and medical staff circled a young staffer booming the blessings loudly – as if at a gathering of a large family whose members unite in farewelling Shabbat.
Work continues
Our aliyah coincided with retirement from full-time busy professional working lives, which meant two major life changes simultaneously. I was startled recently when a neighbor greeted me with a question using the four-letter word: “What work are you involved with at the moment?” Work – which had always been a central pursuit linked to identity, self-worth and productivity – has taken on a different significance.
Working now meant studying Hebrew, creating new social circles and fitting into a new community, continuing to build family bonds and learning things there was no time to learn before, and reaching out with a helping hand, sharing and passing on knowledge and experience.
A gift of rebirth through aliyah, giving fresh choices in how we fill the hours, weeks and years of our lives in this land which we yearned to call home.

The writer was a lawyer in Melbourne, Australia before making aliyah with her husband Joe in June 2015.