Great expectations

50 years later, a Tunisian olah reflects on her first impressions of the Holy Land.

Peggy Cidor in Ashdod (photo credit: Courtesy Peggy Cidor)
Peggy Cidor in Ashdod
(photo credit: Courtesy Peggy Cidor)
The early 1960s in North Africa was a time of turmoil due to the struggle for independence by the Algerian people, who were fighting against the French colonization.
The border between Algeria and Tunisia, which had had independence since 1956, became a danger zone, with hundreds of Algerian soldiers seeking refuge from the French army. Soon, Tunisia itself entered a period of unrest because the imminent ending of the French regime in the region was considered a threat to the security of the Jewish community. Jews from Tunisia and Algeria began to leave their countries, mainly for France.
Only a few decided to make aliya and start a new life in Israel, which was also considered an inauspicious place, with a new language, a different culture and the constant danger of war.
The laws of the Tunisian government were strict and severe. Any Tunisian citizen who wanted to leave the country, whether a Jew or an Arab, was not permitted to take any possessions or property rights with him. Thus my parents had to leave behind their fully furnished home and my father’s jewelry shop, which included gold and precious gems. In fact, we had to fake an invitation to a family wedding in Paris in order to have the right to take a few dressy outfits and at least one piece of jewelry each for my mother and for me. We left what had been my family’s country for centuries with one suitcase apiece, as did all the Jews with Tunisian citizenship who chose to leave between 1961 and 1965.
Later on those laws were relaxed a little, with some improvement in the Tunisian economy. But no one was fooled. My father’s best friends, most of whom were Arabs, knew the truth. Two of them even insisted on accompanying us to the port, wishing us success “there in your land” as they used to call Israel without uttering the name.
Among our large family, my father’s decision to make aliya was considered foolish, and out of 12 brothers, sisters and brothers-in-law, we were the only ones who chose Israel instead of France. My father had already made a brief visit to Israel a few years before to attend the funeral of his his father, who had made aliya in 1957. After spending a month in the Tel Aviv region, my father understood that not all Israelis were religious and that Shabbat was not observed everywhere.
Still, nothing of what he saw then or anticipated prepared him for the culture shock of being welcomed by an official representative of the State of Israel that started out with an overt desecration of Shabbat. Whether what happened was the result of stupidity or ignorance, or worse, a deliberate effort to break something right from the beginning, it was disrespectful, unnecessary and totally unsuccessful, as my parents remained exactly as they were back in Tunisia – committed to Jewish traditions but open to modernity and education. They didn’t need to violate Shabbat to understand that many things were going to change in their life, as they came here out of their own free will and belief that this was the right decision to make.
The following are my memories from that fateful journey.
FRIDAY, MARCH 16, 1962, was a cloudy day in Israel – so cloudy that the plane arriving from Marseilles, France, bearing a couple of hundred new olim from North Africa was unable to land at Lod airport and was sent to Nicosia, Cyprus, for a few hours.
When we finally arrived in the Land of Israel we were exhausted and could conjure up none of the intense emotions we expected to feel upon coming to the Holy Land.
From the plane we were immediately packed into buses, which drove us to a large hangar. There, we saw long tables covered with blue maps. Seated at the tables were a few officials from the Jewish Agency, who welcomed us in a strange language I couldn’t understand.
All the olim families looked equally lost and weary, dressed in the same clothes they had been wearing for the past 72 hours. I remember that even the young children, who had made so much noise on the plane, fell silent.
The formalities were rather brief. Each family was given an immigrant ID in pale brown paper and was led out of the hangar to one of the two huge trucks waiting outside.
When our turn came, my mother, who was not usually very outspoken, asked one of the men sitting behind the desk if he spoke English. He did, and with a slightly surprised expression on his face (obviously he didn’t expect an oleh from North Africa to be fluent in English), he asked my mother what she wanted to know. Her question seemed to surprise him even more. She asked him where we would be sent once we were registered. The first reply was “You are in Eretz Yisrael now. Everywhere is Eretz Yisrael.”
I looked at my mother, who didn’t seem terribly impressed. She continued, “But where exactly in Eretz Yisrael? Can you show me on the map?” Clearly, my mother had created an incident, for the man rose from his chair and went to call someone, apparently one of his superiors. The two returned to us, and before our eyes – my father, my brother and me and, of course, the rest of the olim waiting behind us – unfolded one of the strangest scenes I witnessed in my entire childhood.
The two officials spoke between themselves in that strange guttural language. My mother stood there, one of the few people who were rather elegantly dressed (a green tweed suit, high-heeled shoes and a matching leather handbag, her hair nicely fixed, and even some lipstick!), while my father – usually the dominant person in our family – stood quietly behind her; he didn’t speak English. After a while, the two men took my mother to the left side of the room, where a map of the State of Israel was hanging on the wall. My father, my brother and I immediately followed, along with some other olim.
The man who apparently was the boss pointed to the lower part of the map, which was colored in yellow and looked like a desert to me, and named a small town. I didn’t catch the name he gave, but later on we understood that it was Ofakim. My mother looked at the map, turned to my father and then back to the man, and asked politely, “But isn’t there a seashore there?” The man looked so surprised that it took him a few seconds until he answered, “No, of course there is no sea. It’s the Negev Desert!” My mother’s polite smile faded, and she said very quietly, “Then we cannot go there. I must be near the sea.”
At that moment, an incredible drama began in which my mother and the representatives of the Jewish Agency were the main actors, surrounded by our family and the rest of the olim. Every point on the map close to to the sea that my mother showed to the representative was immediately rejected: Bat Yam, Rishon Lezion, Holon, Netanya, Ashkelon.
There was no place there for a family of new olim. We were told to wait on the side. The other families climbed, one after the other, into the trucks outside.
Finally we were the only family still waiting there.
Outside, the sun was already getting low, but my mother was still not ready to surrender. The two men looked at the map again, and after a short while, one of them called my mother and showed her a small point a little to the north of Ashkelon.
“Ashdod!” he said proudly. “A new city in the State of Israel.”
My mother looked closely at the map and asked, “Is it really near the sea?” The man answered with a big smile, “Not only the sea, but a new port is being constructed there!”
My mother looked at my father and said, “Then we’ll go to Ashdod.”
The two Jewish Agency men looked at each other with triumphant smiles and exchanged a few sentences in that guttural language. One of them ran out and told one of the families that were already inside the first truck to get out. Meanwhile, we quickly completed our registration. When my turn came, the clerk told my mother that I should change my name to a Hebrew one. Probably inspired by my mother’s unusually assertive attitude, I answered simply, “No.” And so I remained with my English name to this day.
With a surge of energy, the clerk told us to go outside with our few belongings A large black taxi was parked there. The driver, dressed in a blur of brown and green pants and shirt, was leaning on the car. He had curly red hair, he needed a shave, and he looked at us with total indifference. Clearly, we were just a source of income for him. Soon another cab arrived to take the second family.
Later on, someone familiar with the Jewish Agency’s methods told us that the other family had also been sent to Ashdod so it wouldn’t look as if they had caved in only to us but rather that they had decided voluntarily to send two families to Ashdod.
WE CLIMBED into the taxi. My father, back in business as head of the family, sat in the front seat beside the driver, and we headed toward Ashdod. The road was almost empty and lined with trees on either side. We passed some settlements. After a while, my father looked back at us and said to my mother, “I have no idea when it’s Shabbat here, but it’s getting late.”
He turned to the driver and, showing his wrist, tried to find out when Shabbat would be coming in. But alas, my father had a North African accent, which made it sound more like “When do we sit?” instead of “When is it Shabbat?” The driver looked surprised and said a few words, which of course we couldn’t understand. My mother suggested that they try some pantomime, so my parents tried to look as if they were praying and drinking the kiddush wine. The driver became rather annoyed – perhaps he thought my parents were asking him for something to drink – and he shouted something that we, again, couldn’t understand, but we got the message: Obviously he didn’t want to be bothered anymore and, as if to make it clearer, he turned on the radio.
For the first time since this adventure began, I had the feeling that my father was seriously worried. Years later, he told us that at that moment he wasn’t even sure the driver was a Jew, and for a few seconds he even feared we had been taken hostage and was trying to figure out how he would explain all this to my mother’s parents, who had been totally opposed to his Zionist ideals.
After some time the sky became darker, my father looked at my mother and said very quietly, “I’m afraid it’s already Shabbat. It’s lost.”
After a while I noticed that the landscape was changing. No more trees, no more small towns on the way. By now we were surrounded by high sand dunes. After a few more kilometers, under a sky that was almost completely dark, the driver turned to the left onto a dirt road, where a few people stood, apparently expecting us. We had reached Ashdod, with its only major street lined by a few two-story buildings, but the driver only slowed down and didn’t stop. A woman bent over the taxi window and asked us – in French! – if we were new olim.
My mother, with her biggest smile, answered that we had just landed. The woman looked at my mother, probably noticed the elegant suit and the well-coiffed hair, and said with an equally big smile, “Olim hadashim, mahar turia [new immigrants, tomorrow you’ll plow],” while the few people behind her joined her in chanting the slogan.
The woman translated the song for my mother, whose smile faded. But by then, our driver was racing toward the sand.
A few minutes later he stopped beside a large container and, with his finger, instructed us to step out of the car. My father looked at the driver, then at the container, then at my mother and obviously didn’t know what to do. He was sure that our new home in the Holy Land was a container, and he was really becoming upset. The driver, apparently understanding my father’s feeling, barked at us in that rude language, which we began miraculously to understand: He was ordering us to leave his car, and now.
HAVING NO choice, my parents, my brother and I stepped out and retrieved our suitcases from the trunk. I looked at my mother and, despite the darkness, I could still see her elegance and delicacy.
Though I was less than 11 years old, I suddenly had a heavy feeling that we were now in another world where that kind of thing didn’t matter anymore.
Out of nowhere, Shoshana appeared – a large, tall woman who welcomed us in French with a baritone voice. The local representative of the Jewish Agency, she led us forward, leaving behind the odious container, and took us to our new home. It was a sort of bungalow, a small wooden hut in the large caravan camp of olim situated not far from the port of Ashdod, which was still under construction. It was dark inside, but not for long.
With unexpected nonchalance, Shoshana removed an oil lamp from a shelf in the kitchenette and lit it. My father almost fainted! Not only did he have to swallow the fact that for the first time in his life he had ridden in a car instead of going to synagogue to welcome the Shabbat, but on top of that, on his very first day in the Land of Israel, he had to see another Jew blatantly desecrating his holy day.
“But Mrs. Shoshana,” my father said painfully, “it’s already Shabbat. Why did you light this lamp for us?” Shoshana didn’t seem to be bothered by the remark and answered in her deep voice, “Adon Shimony, this is the State of Israel. We don’t use any Mr. or Mrs. We’re all comrades.
Soon you’ll get used to it and to all the other things,” she said.
My father looked totally desperate, and my mother suddenly looked terribly tired. But Shoshana didn’t seem to care.
She pointed to two small packages we hadn’t noticed on the kitchenette floor. “Here you have some canned meat, some bread and biscuits and olives, too. That will do until Sunday.
By then, you’ll come to the office and get more and some money to start your new life.
Good night.”
We tried to do as she said, but there was no opener for the cans of meat. The bread was black and hard. The only thing we managed to open was the box of black olives. No hallot, no wine, no Shabbat atmosphere whatsoever. After a while, we were so tired that we fell asleep in our clothes, and since we didn’t even think of putting out the lantern, we woke up in the morning with our nostrils black with kerosene smoke and our heads as heavy as lead. We washed our faces with freezing water from the only tap we had and looked at each other with mixed feelings.
As my father explained years later, he thought that, after all, it was too late to change our direction. We were here, in the Land of Israel. For him it was the fulfillment of his dreams.
My father opened the door of the hut, and we went out. The fragrance of tangerine orchards filled the air, and it was the sweetest smell I had ever breathed. Unlike the day before, the sky was clear blue, the air was pure and light, and everything around looked brand new and wonderfully welcoming to us. One by one, the neighbors came to meet the newcomers. Pretty soon, coffee, tea, cookies, as well as hallot and a cup of wine for kiddush, appeared. The neighbors – new olim like us, from North Africa, from Romania, from Poland, from Iraq and Yemen – brought their chairs and began to tell their stories,in a blur of languages that, miraculously, we all managed to understand. We quickly realized that they all had gone through the same harsh welcome, the unwillingness to understand their customs, and some unspoken expectation that they would overcome somehow and find their way.
A young woman, the mother of three little children, asked my mother what my costume would be for Purim, which was to be celebrated in three days.
“Costume?” my mother asked, looking at me, still in some of the clothes I had been wearing since our flight two days before.
“Yes, on Purim in Eretz Yisrael children and even adults wear costumes,” the woman explained.
But then my father asked if there was any synagogue around we could go to hear the megila. The men answered as in a chorus, “Yes, there are plenty of synagogues here, with all the rites you can imagine – Tunisian, Moroccan, Iraqi, Ashkenazi. You can choose whatever you like.”
My father looked at my mother and smiled for the first time in 48 hours. He answered slowly, “I’m only interested in a place where Jews can pray.”