Coronavirus casts aliyah through a different lens

As long as there's a plane flying that can land at Ben-Gurion Airport, new immigrants continue to arrive.

Jews making aliyah from Ukraine arrive on  International Fellowship of Christians and Jews sponsored flight (photo credit: ARIK SHRAGA)
Jews making aliyah from Ukraine arrive on International Fellowship of Christians and Jews sponsored flight
(photo credit: ARIK SHRAGA)
Five years ago we made aliyah from Down Under – a geographically apt moniker for Australia – but now, irrespective of location, we find ourselves in an upside-down world challenging us to identify the right way up.
In the past eight months darkened by corona clouds and untethered from taken-for-granted familiarity, some things that seemed important to us before March have lost their luster, and a number of things we significantly value now were barely considered then.
In a twist to the Passover question – and in honor of Aliyah Day on 7 Heshvan (October 24) – in our annual gaze back across the previous 12 months as immigrants, we may ask how this year is different from other years, even though into our sixth year we’re no longer such newcomers.

Everyday special Israeli moments
We cherish the nuggets of “only in Israel” experiences that link together to underscore the essence of this land that has continued to nourish and delight, corona notwithstanding:
• In early May we walked by official-looking A-4 sheets in transparent plastic protectors taped to a fence in front of a two-story Jerusalem stone building and expected them to be town planning notices of redevelopment, to discover on closer inspection that they were the blessings to say for the first fruit of trees growing in the garden along the fence line!
• A Jerusalem Post article about the alleged carcinogenic effects of Johnson & Johnson talc powder was topped by a headline that could only have been composed here: “J & J talc-based baby powder dries its last tush.”
• Recently we were sitting in front of a clerk at our health fund to inquire about a medical appointment that her call-center colleagues advised couldn’t be made during corona restrictions. The clerk insisted that was incorrect information and handed us a phone number for the relevant health service provider. In pidgin Hebrew I explained that we called that number and were told no bookings were being made, and asked if she would please call to make the appointment for me? “No,” came the gruff, terse retort. “We don’t do that; it’s up to you to call.” So I started to do just that while sitting there, knowing a struggle lay ahead with the impossible automated switchboard options in Hebrew, when with no sign of mellowing, the clerk got on the phone and even snared a cancellation to slot in an appointment that very afternoon!
Right before us was a true Sabra: brusque and prickly on the outside, resisting any act of assistance not within her rule book, yet secretly soft and malleable on the inside and in the end, prepared to reach out while pretending not to without even a hint of a smile or acknowledgment of our profuse thanks.

A test of national unity
There have also been occasions that made the cut – not for such heartwarming positive reasons – that have led to escalating public concern and frustration:
• The commencement in May of our first-ever trial of a sitting prime minister, a rarity anywhere in world history. The significance of the event was surreally dramatized by the half-faced images of the one accused, three judges and many lawyers all masked in the Jerusalem District Court.
• The unprecedented three elections within 12 months auguring a mushrooming disquiet about lack of decisive leadership while our nation plummeted from being one of the best corona managers in the early months to the dubious distinction of becoming one of the worst. Amid much apparent fumbling, bumbling, faltering, wavering, disagreeing and contradicting by those charged to do better, there was an absence of timely decisiveness characterized by a string of decisions to replace prior decisions that amended earlier decisions.
• I recall the shock I felt when our friend, who was raised as a tough Israeli on kibbutz and not easily prone to displays of emotion, started to tear up and whisper with a choking voice that never before in her numerous decades has she seen such division and lack of unity between different groups in Israeli society segmented by religious hue and politics, and protesting citizens – a time when vested self-interest seemed to gain ascendancy over the common good.”
• And yet even – or especially – during corona, aliyah inquiries from across the globe have risen sharply, attributed to growing antisemitism, Israel’s decent national health service, job losses in every country as a fallout of corona and the simultaneous realization that working remotely can be effective and extended family connections can to a degree be maintained virtually. Despite the pandemic, as long as there’s a plane flying that can land at Ben-Gurion Airport, new immigrants continue to arrive, even if they must head directly to two weeks of quarantine.

We are one family
When we reflected during the celebratory meal to mark the anniversary of our arrival, we knew there was absolutely no doubt that Israel is the only place that with bursting pride we wish to call home. It’s that essential character – rough and blunt, excitable and effusive, frank and fiery, passionate and compassionate – that remains uniquely Israeli and (excluding the present hopefully passing aberration) transforms a nation into a family:
• What else explains the charming chutzpah of our bouncy young waitress when we ate at an outside restaurant a couple of months ago and who, on hearing we were recent immigrants, exclaimed in English: “I don’t want to be rude, but isn’t it hard to make aliyah when you’re old(!)?” She deserved her tip.
• Or the female driver in her eighth decade who found herself driving in the wrong direction on a one-way Jerusalem street when she was swiftly pulled over by a policeman. “Geveret, didn’t you see you were driving in the wrong direction?” To which she shot right back: “Yes I did, officer, but I didn’t see you!”
• And the oncologist whose official correspondence, under his name, qualifications, position and title, has another identifying line: “Cautious optimist,” telling us this isn’t just a learned doctor perched on an erudite high stool but a caring healer identifying as one with his patients.

THIS PAST Rosh Hashanah we gathered to pray outside, masked and distanced one from the other, without paying for seats or worrying as we had in previous years about where our place in synagogue would be allocated, with the Torah resting on a humble cloth-covered table, everything extraneous stripped to the core essentials of our being as we acknowledged our Maker.
We contemplated privately and individually, many of us seeking to sense the flutter of the wings of hope for our future, our loved ones, our people Israel and beyond. It was from a program on Zoom this year featuring Jerusalem-based medical specialist Prof. Ben Corn who developed a framework for offering hope and meaning in the lives of people facing serious health issues, when I understood that hope can be a human need greater even than love, and differs from optimism in that it can be learned and practiced.
And hope we have – that in the end this health crisis should be a call-out for the uncommon unity in our family of Israel, the distinguishing reality of life in our land whose people need to pull together, despite any temporary detour from the path of strength in bonds that bind us.  
The writer was a lawyer in Melbourne, Australia, before making aliyah with husband Joe in June 2015.