New music in Israeli rhythm

Reflecting on aliyah.

‘THIS IS surely the only country where job descriptions for police would include regularly closing off roads when a new Torah scroll is being danced to its synagogue.’ (photo credit: AMIRA_A/FLICKR)
‘THIS IS surely the only country where job descriptions for police would include regularly closing off roads when a new Torah scroll is being danced to its synagogue.’
(photo credit: AMIRA_A/FLICKR)
We were checking out the pre-yom tov vibe at Mahaneh Yehuda. We had admired the sculptural red pomegranates, avoided the queues (and smell) of the fish sellers, and were being tempted by the plump fresh dates when I sneezed, and immediately a loud chorus of “L’briut!” (“To health!”) echoed back from stall holders and shoppers, as if surrounded by a caring and responsive family.
It brought to mind the time we were staying in Elazar for a relative’s bar mitzvah. We slept over at the house of a family we didn’t know. As our hosts’ 10-year-old daughter set up the Shabbat candles, I counted nine, one candle for each of the eight family members. “And the ninth,” I asked? “Why,” the girl said, “the ninth candle is for Israel.”
Aliyah Day this year began on the night of October 15 (7 Heshvan). We have now clocked into our fourth post-aliyah year. With each annual rotation the feeling becomes ever-stronger that in Eretz Yisrael we are part of one large family where – especially at times of need – each cares for, supports and relies on the other.
An American comedian in Jerusalem brought the message home in a different way: “This is the first place I’ve been where I see a group of teenagers with automatic weapons who are supposed to make me feel comforted. In other places, teens wouldn’t even be trusted with car keys!” Yes, these young boys and girls are our brave protectors, and if one should stumble or fall, we all feel the pain.
Making headway, slowly
In three years of acclimating, we’ve notched up some successes, even while some things continue to challenge us. Recently I triumphed after eleven (11!) telephone attempts in a row to finally get past the automatic menu options – always in Hebrew, even when the initial menu is in English – to speak to a real person – an English-speaker – at our cell phone carrier.
Another time, we were at a meeting where the guests were given a leather-covered notepad. We vacillated whether to use it from the right side as Israelis, or from the left like Anglos. In the end, with only a little self-prodding, our growing Israeli identity won out and we started page 1 from the right, and satisfyingly observed that the ratio among Anglos there was 2:1 in favor of the Hebrew direction. The little steps we take all count.
Learning the language is still a struggle, perhaps more so because of our years and because we can get by passably in our neck of Jerusalem with English. But we did derive pleasure earlier when our language class practiced reading the news in Hebrew about the royal wedding of “‘Hari’ and his kallah.”
It’s the daily fast-paced banter that will take the longest (if ever) to achieve, such as at the hairdresser, where the usual friendly chatter between stylist and client is for now merely a memory. But even as we felt like the second graders we were, and our kita bet Ulpan class battled for weeks with future tense conjugations, we found comfort in numbers as the burdened heads of all class members were spinning together.
And what better demonstration than Ulpan of Israel’s magnetic pull, resulting in an incredible melting pot in which Naomi from Japan sits next to Tova from Ethiopia who sits next to Malka from India? Each one enriches our land.
It could only happen here
A close second to my bizarre interest in gathering kernels of truth about people for their virtual epitaphs, is an active preoccupation, shared by many immigrants, with an ever-growing collection of “only in Israel” moments.
Like last April, when we scored entry to the official ceremony for Yom Hashoah and received a courtesy reminder call the evening before from the organizers, advising that we dress warmly for the outdoor event and – just like a Yiddishe mama – saying that we should eat something beforehand so we wouldn’t get hungry!
Or like when four of us were eating out and the only dessert ordered was served – and without having asked – with four spoons.
Or when a niece’s 40th birthday was celebrated with a sing-along of songs about Jerusalem, and I wondered where else a milestone birthday would be marked that way, while here it feels wholly apt and natural, a typical Israeli night of songs, lips and hearts moving together.
And this is surely the only country where job descriptions for police would include regularly closing off roads when a new Torah scroll is being danced to its synagogue. That has happened four times in as many months in our neighborhood. Each time, people – both religious and secular – were enticed out of their apartments onto the streets by loudspeakers booming music as they joined the clapping, singing procession.
It also didn’t take long to get used to Israelis’ signature cultural gestures. The two-shoulder shrug and lifting of hands is used, as if to ask, “What can one do?” And the cupping of one hand with fingers pointing up and meeting the thumb, sometimes accompanied by the word rega – wait a second – is offered, as if to say, “Hold your horses, calm down.” The two-shoulder shrug is not to be confused with the somewhat annoying one-shoulder lopsided up-and-down jerk that every Israeli kid instinctively adopts from about the age of two, and which signifies a few things, including, “I don’t want to, don’t ask, I don’t care.”
Building our land
As a family builds its home, so our land is built. We saw a striking example of this as new apartment blocks were being built in Sderot. This is a mere couple of hundred meters from Gaza, where the periodic rain of rockets allows for less than 15 seconds’ warning to residents to find safe ground. Yet the city’s population is growing and there are eager buyers for the new apartments, even when their balconies are a front-row seat to the Iron Dome missile-defense system at work. The occupants must surely live by the philosophy, “The more they try to beat us, the more we grow.”
Another time, we were at Kibbutz Sa’ad, 10 km. from Sderot. Despite a mere nine-second warning to residents of incoming rocket fire, and despite an environment that has inevitably led to trauma and hardship, there is not a vacant house, as communities along the borders steadfastly act as security buffers.
The same applies to Naveh, two kilometers from the Egyptian border and 7 km. from Gaza. In 12 years, the area has been transformed from a stretch of sand, when 50 families who were evacuated from Kerem Atzmona settled there, to an impressive community of some 350 families today.
As olim, we witness and are sometimes part of these and similar stories throughout our land. Who would have dreamed in 1917, 1948 or 1967 that Israel would become home to most of world Jewry and be the vibrant, ever-evolving nation it is today?
Life here balances on a thin edge. Too many of those who serve to protect us or who become victims of terrorists pass before their time to their final resting place, in air thick with longing and pain.
Yet simultaneously we are surrounded by the marvels and miracles of modern Israel: the staggering technical and economic achievements of our tiny Start-Up Nation; our small voice amplified to be heard on the world stage because of Israel’s enormous contributions; our skill and persistence in making the desert bloom; our welcome home to eager immigrants, who in 2017 numbered 27,000.
And beyond all this and more, what calls to me most in this country with the highest fertility rate in the West, are the next generations sprouting in our midst; the children running, playing, calling out in the streets and parks, filling our kindergartens and schools. Like birds in spring reaching tentatively toward a promising future, they put the sublime in the everyday.  
The writer was a lawyer in Melbourne, Australia, before making aliyah with husband, Joe, in June 2015.