Coming on aliya is not always what you expect.

Aerial view of Tel Aviv (photo credit: BENITA LEVIN)
Aerial view of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: BENITA LEVIN)
IT IS the start of a new chapter for my husband, 10-year old son and 9-year old daughter.
The El Al flight is mandatory for anyone making aliya – not only because the country pays for that one-way ticket to Ben-Gurion Airport, but, because from a sentimental point of view, flying in on the national carrier is part of the immigration experience. It’s a flight we’ve been lucky enough to make before as holidaymakers from South Africa over the years, but this time is different. We don’t have return tickets booked. We are arriving as olim hadashim – new immigrants. So many different emotions. It’s exciting, terrifying, surreal.
The woman sitting next to me is a vivacious thirty-something American, Rachel, who is heading back home to Tel Aviv, after traveling around South Africa. Her eyes light up when she talks about the freedom she knows to be normal in Israel. She walks home alone after work at midnight. (Many people here work so-called “American” hours.) “Tel Aviv doesn’t sleep,” she explains. She couldn’t understand why people in the Kwa- Zulu-Natal Midlands warned her about driving alone at night.
“I was born in KZN,” I smile. Fabulous childhood memories will always stay with us.
Rachel’s effervescent take on life in Israel, is just what I needed to hear as the pilot announced in Hebrew that we were about to land.
The plane flew out over a massive expanse of ocean before turning back to make its descent.
The view was breathtaking. Sky-rise buildings, a stunning beach, adjoining promenade and the deep blue sea. Hard to believe we were flying over a desert. Hard to believe we were flying over our new home.
So, nu, how long does it take to become an official Israeli citizen? The airport is bustling. A colossal, modern building. Before we even arrive at customs, we were met by a tall man holding a sign with our surname on it. We are the only family on this flight making aliya. Avram takes us upstairs to the Department of Absorption. (What an apt name for the man taking us to enter our new home country!) We’d been warned that the bureaucratic process could take a while.
That wasn’t the case at all.
We were ushered into a warm office and offered coffee and snacks. An older woman sat across from us at a desk, stoically asking a range of official-sounding questions in Hebrew.
(The fact that my husband can speak the language is a huge plus.) I am making out every couple of words, answering tentatively where I can with “Nachon” (correct) or “Beseder” (that’s fine).
I thought of my fabulous Hebrew school teacher in Durban, Issy Fisher, and smiled, thinking an urgent refresher course is going to be a priority. Luckily, a Hebrew Ulpan (course) is offered to olim (immigrants) here.
Note to self: Sign up soon.
The question-and-answer session includes watching the woman spell out your English name in Hebrew letters. She hands us each a small blue book with a plastic cover. The ID with your photo and your somewhat different- looking name. Then she gives us our medical aid certificates. The hard expression on her face softens into a warm maternal smile.
“Bruchim haba’im,” she says. “Behatzlacha!” (Welcome and good luck.) That was quick. Thirty minutes. We’re officially Israeli citizens? Free medical aid and all. I think back to a few months earlier, as I waited for the same length of time in a line at a post office in Johannesburg, trying to renew my car license. This felt like a good start. “Rak rega!” (One moment!) Avram calls us as we make our way out of the office. We turn around to see a woman coming toward us with large see-through bags with new duvets.We look back at her, slightly confused.
“Take the duvets,” she smiles. “They’re for you.”
Not exactly what we were expecting. Not the warm welcome many immigrants are experiencing in various parts of the world right now. We left feeling upbeat, positive and ready for what lay ahead.
Now let’s go and try our first official shwarma in our new home....
The phrase I used most this weekani lo mevina (I don’t understand)
The phrase I heard others use most often this week zehu (That’s it)
Smile of the week – Chatting to a friendly Israeli woman who asked about our move, “It’s good that you’re here,“ she said. “You’re right”, I replied, “it is good for us that we’re here.” She smiled, “No, it’s not only good for you, it’s good for us too.”