Forty years ago...

...We were prepared to run to make aliya

Passover 1985 in the Old City: (from left) Tuvia, Rita, Elissa, David and Avie Geffen. (photo credit: AVIE GEFFEN PICTORIAL ARCHIVES)
Passover 1985 in the Old City: (from left) Tuvia, Rita, Elissa, David and Avie Geffen.
The Nefesh b’Nefesh aliya flights are filmed and become a keepsake. The actual aliya for us in August 1977 was a sprint in the airport corridor to get to the El Al plane before it took off. As fate would have it, there were five Geffens and one other woman making aliya. For whatever reason, it was a tough time for people to actually “fly upward” to Eretz Yisrael. Some 40 years ago, on August 17, we came here to live.
The plane that we were supposed to board at 7 p.m. was delayed. We were told to check in our luggage – and that we would will fly the next morning. Since our brother-in-law and sister-in-law lived in Long Beach, New York, very close to John F. Kennedy Airport, we returned to their home to sleep for the night. In the morning, about an hour and a half before our plane was to leave, we all dressed, had breakfast and then urged our brother-in-law to take us to the airport early. He refused, in his inimitable way, because he said that we should not have to wait. About 50 minutes before takeoff, we loaded ourselves into his car. Of course, he had not planned on traffic.
It was 15 minutes before plane was due to take off when we arrived at the terminal. We jumped out of the car with carry-on bags. As we entered the door, a woman from El Al screamed at us – “Where have you been? All passengers have boarded – the plane is ready to leave. Don’t know if the pilot will wait.”
She gave us the gate number. We ran as fast as we could, finally reaching the gate. Another El Al official shouted at us, “Where have you been?” We were pushed through security machines if that was what they were. We ran down the connector leading to the plane.
Completely bewildered and out of breath, we got on. The door was closed and off we flew.
Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport at 3 a.m., our family and the other woman were directed upstairs to the Absorption Ministry desk. No one was there. Finally a woman arrived; we could see we had awakened her.
About a half hour later, we were taken to a sherut to ride to Jerusalem. The absorption center in Gonen Tet awaited us. We were directed to a room – yes, one room.
We had to lug our suitcases up three flights. When the official opened the door – what a surprise. No beds. Just mattresses. Exhausted, we fell onto the mattresses – at a few minutes before 5 a.m. with dawn breaking!
Rita and I woke up about three hours later to discover that our three children, 11, 10 and six, were gone. No one at the desk had seen them. Rita asked to use the phone and called our friends, the Ben-Amis in Givat Mordechai where we were going to live in two weeks.When Rita asked Miriam Ben Ami if she knew anything about our children, she replied calmly, “Hem nimtzaim kan” (They’re here). Our aliya had begun and anahnu nimtzaim kan (we are here) 40 years later.
“Home, heart and hope are inextricably intertwined when I consider Jerusalem. It has been my home, my physical abode, the place in which I was privileged to reside. My heart’s spiritual yearnings and myriad emotions have filled my days and nights. My hopes and prayers for a better future are invariably directed to the Holy City.
Home, heart and hope are finely attuned one to the other and all find their fulfillment in Jerusalem,” wrote Rita Geffen in her essay for the 3,000th birthday of Jerusalem.
HERE IS a slightly random list of some of the things I see in Jerusalem today.
1.The light rail: The light rail cars are filled almost all the time. Fortunately it has a schedule that it maintains. Jerusalemites love the train so much that in the past five years the ridership has been 20% higher than expected. The train riders provide a sense of what Jerusalem is like: haredim next to Ethiopian Jewish women. Men and women soldiers rubbing shoulders with young girls, fully attired, who attend religious high schools. Women and men with their shopping wagons headed for the shuk, seated next to boys with black kippot and with tzizit out. All of us side by side with Arabs.
God has blessed the light railway. More lines are planned. Hopefully, the government will give encouragement and provide the finances to enable the trains to reach new destinations.
2. Kindness: People of all ages show hessed (kindness) to one another. An elderly woman has a shopping bag filled with purchases from the shuk. Suddenly, her hands weaken and it falls, sending fruit and vegetables all over the street. Boys and girls, Orthodox and secular, young soldiers and elderly people all scurry around picking up what has fallen. The woman’s bag is refilled; she cannot thank them fast enough – they are gone.
3. Egged drivers: Egged buses now have their schedules posted. Illuminated signs indicate how much time remains until the next bus arrives. Sometimes there are handicapped passengers in wheelchairs that they drive on their own; sometimes a helper is there to push a wheelchair. The bus stops; the driver leaves his seat and goes to the back to let down the ramp on which the wheelchair and its occupant can get on the bus. Then he closes the ramp, goes back to his chair and drives on.
4. US connection: As Americans, we are proud that Marcus Street exists and descends to the Jerusalem theater, a treasure of the city. “Mickey” Marcus was a noted US army veteran from World War II. When David Ben-Gurion sent out a call at the end of 1947 that our beleaguered fledgling nation needed capable military experts, Marcus answered the call. He used his military organizational skills to strengthen the IDF.
The “Burma Road” was his idea, going around the Arab-held territory to get to Jerusalem. Alas, his fate was to be killed before the state of Israel was born – right after Ben Gurion made him the first Jewish general in 2000 years.
5. Mahaneh Yehuda: I have been going to the shuk for 54 years, making my presence felt there even before we made aliya. Where I grew up and in the many places we lived before making aliya, the outdoor markets were far from our homes. We were supermarket consumers. I go to the shuk because I think the produce is fresher and sometimes costs less. I also go there to see and to hear and to talk with Jerusalemites. Many times when I go, I will see musicians, Chabad emissaries, those who should be working, asking for handouts. Little boys and girls skirting around the shuk purchasing produce for their parents and grandparents. I feel joy there. I hear shuk stall owners of all political persuasions voice their opinions aloud. I return home with my purchases ready to meet the day to come (yes I go to the shuk early).
6. Culture: The billboards of Jerusalem are plastered with announcements for concerts, plays in various languages, exhibits at museums and lectures on all aspects of Judaism and Israel, and one must not forget all the inspirational classes at almost every hour of the day and night. There are so many options available that it would take almost 24 hours to attend everything offered. The colorful range of adult events is complemented by the science museum, the puppet theater, the interactive plays for the young. One comes to Jerusalem to breathe the air and enjoy and learn.
7. The heavens: One aspect of Jerusalem that has never changed is the sky. When we first arrived as students, we marveled at the blueness of the sky, at the wispy clouds. We watched the sun go down as a fiery ball. When there were no clouds and the moon was full, it was quite a sight to see and we blessed it shortly after it began to fill out again each month. That sky is the same. Our children all saw it as they grew up in Jerusalem. Now they see that sky and the heavenly bodies in the parts of Israel where they live.
IN THE words of Rita Geffen, “According to rabbinic literature, Jerusalem exists on two planes, the earthly Yerushalayim shel mata and the heavenly-ideal Yerushalayim shel ma’ala. The heavenly Jerusalem lies just above the earthly one of tension and conflict. The one above is a city of perfection, with streets of gold and buildings of sapphire and pearl, where everyone lives in perfect harmony with his/her neighbor and God.
“The ideal city is built up and knit together; all its inhabitants, friends with one another. As we end the celebrations for the 3,000th anniversary of Jerusalem and reaffirm the continued growth of the modern State of Israel, my hope is that Yerushalayim shel ma’ala shall take its rightful place here on Earth.”
This article is in honor of those who truly made this aliya work: The writer’s wife Rita; their children – Avie, Elissa and Tuvia and their children’s spouses; and their eight Sabra grandchildren.