My first aliyah to Israel – a memoir

In those days,  I was a romantic idealist, filled with the joys of youthful adventure. I was keen to get to my destination and into the waiting arms of the Jewish Agency.

 The writer’s ID card issued in Apartheid South Africa. (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
The writer’s ID card issued in Apartheid South Africa.
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

This January, I will be commemorating 52 years since I emigrated from South Africa. The truth is, I could not wait to leave my native land. Having just graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of the Witwatersrand, I wanted to escape the asphyxiating climate of the apartheid regime and my reserve duty with the SADF. After three years of being caught up in the anti-apartheid protests on campus, I was ready to accept the fact that I needed to build my future in Israel. I had already committed to this by joining a Zionist youth movement, and so on January 18, 1971, I boarded an El Al Boeing 707 for Tel Aviv. 

In those days,  I was a romantic idealist, filled with the joys of youthful adventure. I was keen to get to my destination and into the waiting arms of the Jewish Agency, which was going to welcome me warmly to my new home. January is one of the rainiest months in Israel. As the plane landed at around 6 a.m., it was still quite dark. Rivulets of rain cascaded down the window. I took all my gear, including my portable typewriter, compact Phillips record player and stereo system and overnight case, and clambered down the gangway. As I walked toward the arrivals hall, I practically bumped into a group of ultra-Orthodox men who were wheeling a trolley with a coffin on it. It was clear that the coffin came from the Johannesburg flight. “Oh dear. What sort of omen is this?” I caught myself thinking. A harassed looking young fellow wearing a blue sweatshirt and jeans approached me with his clipboard. “Are you Robert Hersowitz?” he asked in a distracted voice. I nodded enthusiastically. My enthusiasm was not mirrored. Instead, he motioned to me, and I followed him. I was ushered into a dismally lit immigrants’ reception hall, where I was surrounded by over 50 Russians who had just flown in from Tblisi. Many of them were older people who sat on their zipped up overstuffed plastic bags, looking forlorn and bewildered. It took almost an hour before I was processed and issued with an A1 temporary resident’s student visa. After collecting my massive suitcase containing all my clothes and worldly possessions, I trudged toward the taxi ranks, where the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) representative guided me to the sherut (communal taxi) headed for Jerusalem. In those days, the sherut was an elongated black limousine that accommodated up to eight passengers, who sat on two rows of seats in the rear, while two other passengers were squeezed in the front, next to the driver. Because I was a youngster, I was made to sit between two elderly people in the very rear of the vehicle. My luggage, which included my typewriter and stereo set, had been placed on the roof rack under a tarpaulin. Despite being tired, I was extremely excited as we left Lydda Airport.

It was indeed a horrible day. The rain came pelting down as the vehicle wended its way past the orange groves, kibbutzim and small towns. The driver soon began the ascent to Jerusalem. The weather was a complete shock to me. A day before, I’d been in the sweltering suburbs of Johannesburg, enjoying a last swim at a neighbor’s pool. As we climbed the rocky hills, fog began to descend. One could barely see the rust-coated armored vehicles, remnants of Israel’s War of Independence, on the side of the road. Back then, the road to Jerusalem was steep, narrow and winding. The car’s windshield wipers could hardly cope with the force of the rain that seemed to be battering the car from everywhere. Suddenly, the sherut lurched to one side. The elderly woman sitting next to me let out a shriek. Our driver had lost control of the car, and we were all thrown forward and then backward as the car landed on its side. It took a good few minutes before all seven passengers were able to clamber out and into the pouring rain. The driver began to hail down any cabs or sheruts that he could see coming toward him. At one point, he turned to me and explained in broken English that he would be unable to find me a ride because I had too much luggage. He offloaded my suitcase and the other accoutrements and placed them on the side of the road. By now, the deluge had turned into fine drizzle.

 Lodgings on Radak Street, Jerusalem, where the writer lived for a short time  (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ) Lodgings on Radak Street, Jerusalem, where the writer lived for a short time (credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)

Finally getting to Jerusalem

“But…but…how am I going to get to Jerusalem?”

He shrugged his shoulders and waved down the next jam-packed cab, leaving me to my fate. I stood there forlorn and miserable, ready to burst into tears. There were no cellphones in those days.

“What the hell have I done?” I asked myself. “Why didn’t I listen to my friends and postpone my aliyah until next year so that I could come with the garin?” (youth movement aliyah group). It was far too late to indulge in such remonstrations. Cars sped by. I pointed to the road with my right arm outstretched as is the hitchhiking custom in Israel. No one stopped. Fifteen minutes went by, and a blue car pulled up. The driver rolled down the window.

“Do you speak English?” I asked as I leaned into him. He nodded and asked me where I wanted to go. “Ulpan Etzion, 6 Rehov Gad in Baka, Jerusalem.” I told him. 

“Yes. I know where that is. I’ll take you.”

“Are you a taxi driver?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

There were no markings on his car. I was too desperate to be concerned for my safety or security. I just wanted to get out of the rain. I asked him how much he wanted. It was a reasonable price. He helped me with my luggage, placed everything in the trunk, and held the back door open for me.

“How could they have left you on the road like that?” he asked after I explained what happened. We drove on in silence. I was curious to know more about the kind stranger who had stopped to help me.

“For an Israeli, your English is really excellent,” I babbled as I explained how I was coming to make my new life in the Jewish homeland. He interrupted me.

“I’m not Israeli,” he said as he stared in my direction through the rear-view mirror. “I am Arab. Arabic is my mother tongue; I don’t speak much Hebrew. I live in east Jerusalem, and I learned my English from the British during the Mandate.” I was stunned into silence, and a little uneasy.

The car drew up in front of the ulpan building on Rehov Gad. My rescuer was a polite and respectful fellow with the manners of an English gentleman. He helped me with my luggage, and I gave him a good tip. Genia, the principal of the ulpan, welcomed me and got me to sign some documents.

“You’re a week late, and there is no accommodation in this building. We’ve assigned you a place in our annex at Pension Margoa, which is about half a kilometer up the road. Leave your luggage here and go up the road to check whether your roommates are there.”

I trudged up the road in the pouring rain. In those days, Baka was a poor neighborhood with many open spaces of land, which turned into a thick grayish brown quagmire during the winter. I arrived at Pension Margoa and found the room. I knocked on the door, and someone shouted in an American voice, “Come in, but take your shoes off before you enter.” There were two fellows lying on their beds. “Hi,” I said gingerly. “I’m Robert. Genia sent me.” 

“My name is David, and this is Menashe,” He said, pointing to his roommate. “Don’t take this personally, but you are the third person that she has tried to shove into this room. This room is not big enough for three people, so go back and tell her that.”

After shuttling back and forth to the ulpan at least three times, I marched back to the room with all my luggage and pushed my way to the bed. I was exhausted and angry. Menashe stood up.

“Listen to me,” he said in a Brazilian accent, “I have nothing against you. You can sleep here tonight, but you will not unpack your suitcase or we,” he pointed to David, “will throw your belongings in the mud.”

The next day, Genia sat with me and found me lodgings with a family in Rehavia. “They are not religious, but you will have your own electric plate in the room, and you can use their guest bathroom and their kitchen, too.”

Sadly, my stay with the charming family on Radak Street in Rehavia was short-lived. I soon found myself in front of Stephanie Cowan, a delightful young woman who looked after new immigrants at Hitachdut Olei Britannia, a branch of the British Zionist Federation in Jerusalem. 

“I have just the place for you, Bob,” she announced. She insisted on calling me Bob. and I didn’t correct her. “There are two London chaps looking for a third lodger. The flat belongs to Hershie. He would be your landlord. I’ll call him and see if he’s home.”

Thus began my sojourn in Jerusalem. I moved into 33 Rehov Hatayasim in the Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood and began sharing a room with Mike. Mike had just enlisted in the IDF, so I did not see much of him. While my roommates insisted on calling me Bob, Sarah, our Ulpan teacher, decided I should be called Rafi, which was the shortened version of my Hebrew name Refael. It was all very confusing. Nevertheless, Hershie took me under his wing and introduced me to his parents, Dr. and Mrs. Norman Goorney, and to all his friends, some of whom I am still in touch with.

Sadly, my stay in Israel did not lost long. The Hebrew U would not accept me to its master’s program, as my grades were not good enough. Hershie and Mike sent me to the British Council, which was housed in the Terra Sancta building at the top of Rehov Aza and Keren Hayesod.

“Consider finishing your studies in England, and then you can come back here and continue your aliya,” my roommates suggested.

I followed their advice, and five months later, at the end of June 1971, I arrived in London to continue my studies. 

It took me another 48 years to make it back to Israel with my American wife, Annie. We landed at Ben-Gurion Airport on August 20, 2014, at 6:30 in evening in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 war with Gaza. This time, there were no coffins to greet me, just a rocket that landed a few kilometers from the airfield. It took us almost 12 hours to get to our apartment in Jerusalem. Since then, we have settled very well, enjoying our busy retirement as full-fledged Hebrew-speaking citizens of this beloved country. ■