The email instructions from Nefesh B’Nefesh were clear, if mysterious: When you arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, you will see a yellow phone on the wall at the end of the moving walkway, right before the baggage claim. Pick it up.
I picked it up.
“You’re here? All of you?” a voice said in a thick Russian accent.
I turned to the kids and counted.
Three was a big number to face after a transatlantic flight with no leg room.
“We’re all here,” I confirmed.
From the end of an unnoticed narrow hallway, a short and stout woman emerged and shuffled toward us, prompting me to glance at her feet in search of house slippers. A minute later we were in an elevator, rising at a steady pace until we could rise no higher.
When the door opened, we followed the smell of burnt toast down several more narrow hallways until we reached a room with a sign that read “MINISTRY OF ABSORPTION.”
“Who wants a sandwich?” the woman asked.
I sat at a desk, and the questions commenced.
“Place of origin?” “Charlottesville, Virginia.”
“Virginia?” “Near Washington.”
It’s true, the word was a mouthful.
“Let it be Washington,” the woman said, and wrote it down.
In czarist Russia, when the government discovered record-keeping as a way to manage its populations, Jews were faced with a difficult choice: surrender to the paperwork and the watchful eye of the authorities, or dispense with the documents and try to slip through the cracks and away from all those restrictive laws. Of course, if the authorities caught up with you, you would need to find a creative way to evade 20 years of military conscription for your eightyear- old son, say, by chopping off his ear.
I was more than happy to surrender to Miriam’s questions, even when they got weird.
“Your son’s mother’s name?” “Son’s mother’s name? Wait, isn’t that me?” I pointed to my growling, gluten- free stomach.
“Dalia,” I said with confidence.
By the time we got around to confirming my third son’s mother’s name, Miriam’s eyes narrowed, and the suspicion with which she suddenly regarded me sent a wave of something through me that in any other country might have felt like the fear of being found out, but that in Israel felt more like the approaching punch line to a pretty good joke.
“Rosenfeld, Gidon,” Miriam read from my 13-year-old’s passport. “Born September 19, 1927. Correct?” “Correct,” I nodded, because I was falling asleep.
“Aha, I got you,” my interrogator flashed me a gold tooth. “1927? You’re not listening.”
I had been found out; any minute now the laminating machine creating my identity card would cough, sputter and die.
“And where are you from?” I asked by way of diversion.
The smile that Miriam had flashed me a second earlier left her face with the same spontaneity. “Better not to ask,” she said, with utter seriousness. “From Siberia.”
And then a man walked into the room, dragging a wet mop and a bucket, and inserted himself right between us.
“Nu, Yitzhak,” Miriam spoke disapprovingly out of the side of her mouth.
“Olim hadashim – new immigrants – from America. Can you do the sponja a little later?” Olim hadashim: I would use those two cute rhyming words wherever I went in the weeks to follow. Mostly they would elicit smiles and mazal tovs, sometimes a discount, once a ululation, but invariably a string of questions that would require a minimum of several hours to answer, if they could be answered at all.
Why now, when the Middle East is on fire? What’s wrong with America? Who will you vote for when the coalition crumbles? Will you stay when Hamas starts up again? How do the kids like it here? Why do you have a French accent? Olim hadashim, Yitzhak muttered, and leaned against his mop like an old friend. Hey, that was us! All three – no, four – of us, my three sons and their mother (Dalia), moving to Israel when the moment felt right, and before the next moment could come along and knock us back down again. For what is aliya about if not getting off your butt and beginning anew? There are some accidents of history that can be rectified.
“Nu, Yitzhak? B’vakasha.”
Mulling over Miriam’s request, Yitzhak adjusted the black velvet kippa on his head like a radar. Then he plunged his mop into the soapy bucket and bellowed to the five of us: “L’harim raglayim!” The authorities had spoken. The order was unambiguous.
We lifted our feet. I am confident that going forward, they will carry us far.
The author is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recently made aliya from Virginia with her three sons. She currently lives in Tel Aviv.