In plain language: It was 20 years ago today

Stewart Weiss recounts the 20 years he has spent in the Promised Land, and the impact they have had on his life.

Aliya (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I write these lines in the waning hours of the fast of Tisha Be’av. It is a strange and mystical time, as we wind down the weeks of semi-mourning, anticipating the reemergence of the Great Unshaven, returning to “normal” life – a life that includes the eating of meat, the sweet sound of live music and lots and lots of weddings.
Here, at this juncture, I am still in the grip of Tisha Be’av and all the many tragic moments that title implies, yet I know that just beyond the horizon – literally – the setting sun will usher in an Israel that is a whole lot more festive and fancy-free than the last 21 days.
This moment is a perfect metaphor for reflecting on our 20th anniversary of coming on aliya, which fell on Sunday in the secular calendar.
I moved to Israel 20 years after the first time I had set foot in the Holy Land, having spent a summer here just prior to the Yom Kippur War. It was a much different Israel then – more primitive yet more genuine, more rustic yet more heimish, and unquestionably less hi-tech and more “Middle Eastern.” I remember that I had a heck of a time meeting up with my cousins in Tel Aviv, where I stayed during my visit.
I had written them a letter informing them that I was coming – they, like many others back then, had no phone of any kind – and they wrote back saying that we would meet at the (old) Tel Aviv central bus station. I had no idea exactly where I was to meet them, and they had no idea what I looked like, so it took several hours until we finally found one another. That was just the first in a long list of miracles I would encounter here, in the Land of Miracles.
Though aliya was always on my radar, the “five-year plan” would inflate to two decades and pick up a wife and five children along the way. Trips to Israel became more frequent, and after I became a rabbi, there was always at least one annual Israel Bonds or Rabbinic Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
As a VIP visitor, I got to hobnob with all the movers and shakers during these missions, enjoying “debriefing” sessions with presidents, prime ministers and high-ranking generals. Little did I know that this was pretty much the closest I would ever get to the ruling elite; somehow our leaders have much more time for visitors from abroad than they do for local residents.
It also set me up big-time for the “Ah, but then you were a tourist” punch-line (and punch!) that every oleh experiences.
(If you are one of the few who don’t know the joke, write me.) We finally took the plunge and moved to Israel from Dallas, trading one Lone-Star state for another. I was just one of a handful of practicing rabbis, in the prime of his career, to come on aliya. Our aliya shaliah (emissary), God bless him, had tried his best to dissuade me from moving; for one thing, he loved my car and couldn’t bear the thought that I would give it up. At the same time, he said that being a rabbi in Israel was a hopeless profession, that “if you threw a stick in Israel, it would hit either a dog or a rabbi.” (I later learned you could substitute “lawyer” for “rabbi” and the joke still worked.) Our first day was quite telling, a microcosm of what was to come – traumatic and terrific all in one. The van that the Jewish Agency sent to fetch us from the airport broke down halfway to the absorption center, leaving us waiting in the sweltering summer heat for several hours. But then a group of our new neighbors from Ra’anana heard of our plight and decided they would come and pick us up. Israel’s legendary sense of camaraderie won out over bureaucratic bungling and put a smile on the day.
Since then, it has been one heckuva roller-coaster ride. (The comparison of aliya to a roller-coaster seems apropos; it is an enterprise you look forward to with great excitement and anticipation and pay a great deal to experience, knowing all the while it will fill you with dread and often make you sick to your stomach.) We have experienced all the highs – and lows – that one can imagine. We built a home, and buried a child. We witnessed war and countless terror attacks, but also brought a new child, a sassy, savvy Sabarit, into the world. We have experienced great pain and great joy. We have encountered enemies that are the lowest form of the human species, and met friends who are angels in mortal guise.
Above all, our faith in God has not wavered, and our optimism about Israel as the one and only Jewish homeland has not dimmed.
IF THERE is one area of disappointment – or challenge yet unfulfilled, if you prefer – it is the separation anxiety we feel vis-à-vis our fellow Jews still living in the Exile. It is a theme that is at the heart of almost everything I write, because it cuts so deep.
Now, I am not so naive as to think that every Jew in the world would just pick up his life and transplant here. But I really believed that over 20 years, many, many more of our friends and family and coreligionists would seize the opportunity of the millennium and rush through the door that the Almighty had finally opened. To be sure, some have, and that warms the heart.
But so many have chosen to stay right where they are, shrugging their shoulders in apathy, even horror, at the thought of living in the Jewish state.
More troubling yet is the frightening trend among Jews – particularly observant Jews – to seek shelter in an increasingly rigid and uncompromising approach to Torah and Jewish practice, as if that somehow makes up for not living in Israel, which, after all, is the natural habitat of Torah and one of the supreme mitzvot of that Torah. This scares me, because it threatens to deepen the chasm between us and create irreconcilable differences that may, God forbid, turn our separation into divorce.
Just prior to our aliya, my students put on a play. It was the famous Agnon story of the old, infirm Jew whose doctors told him that he must drink goat’s milk to stay alive. He bought a goat, which promptly ran away.
When it came back, its udders were filled with a milk so hearty and delicious that it could only have come from Paradise. This happened many times, and finally the man told his son to follow the goat to see where it went. The boy tied a string to the goat and followed it into a cave. It went down a long, winding tunnel for hours, then days, until it finally came to a beautiful, fertile place flowing with milk and honey.
“Where am I?” the boy asked a passerby.
“You are in Israel, of course!” was the reply.
The boy wrote a note: “Father, follow the goat; it will lead you to the Promised Land!” He placed it in the goat’s ear and sent it back through the cave. When the goat returned to its owner, the man was distraught and demanding: “Where is my son? What have you done with him?!” Day after day, he became angrier at the goat, until finally, he could take it no more.
He took his knife and he slaughtered the goat. As the goat fell to the ground, the note came tumbling out of its ear. The old man recognized his son’s handwriting, read the note, and convulsed into tears.
Dear friends, on both sides of the divide: We have slaughtered enough goats in the name of division and disunity. We have squandered enough chances to fulfill our long-sought destiny. It is time to read the handwriting on the note and come together as one – one nation, one People, one Land.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a Ra’anana city councilman.