Proud to be Jewish

Having experienced anti-Semitism at a young age, a young Belarusian girl fulfills her dream by visiting Israel – and falls in love with it

Inna Guelfand521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Inna Guelfand521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twelve hours on a plane is a long time. Especially for someone like me, who has difficulty sitting in one spot for more than 30 minutes.
My back was aching, my right leg kept falling asleep, and I had to get up at least eight times.
I couldn’t sleep. I can never sleep on planes – I have to be physically comfortable in order to relax. Tommy, on the other hand, is out like a light the second he buckles himself in. I scowl at him, jealous of his talent, trying to curl up with my feet on the seat and squeeze my entire body into the tiny space. I get the bends, like scuba divers who come up to the surface too fast.
I’m always cold. But this time I couldn’t sleep because I wasn’t tired. My heart was racing and I would periodically catch myself holding my breath. I felt as if I had drunk three cans of Red Bull and one of those five-hour-energy shots, chasing it all down with a double espresso. I watched two very forgettable movies, ate a few servings of airplane “food,” and counted the hours.
I was anxious. This wasn’t an ordinary trip. It wasn’t New York or Paris lights that would wink at me through the round acrylic window. It wasn’t Miami, or Mexico, or an island in the Caribbean that looked exactly like every other island in the Caribbean, stretching its palm-tree arms out to embrace me and whisk me off to a fluffy sandy beach. It was a different soil awaiting me at the bottom of the airplane staircase. The soil of the Promised Land.
You see, some kids grow up on bedtime stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and Cinderella. I had those too, lots of them, and not to mislead anybody into thinking otherwise, I hereby confirm that my childhood was full of color, joy, innocence and warmth. But the stories I remember the most, the ones that took center stage, weren’t stories – they were events retold by firsthand witnesses, events of the Holocaust – of loss and survival, of hatred and pain.
About how all four of my grandparents, each with their own hair-raising set of circumstances, got through it all and made it out alive. About how most of their loved ones did not.
I was a product of these events. I carried them with me everywhere I went because they form part of who I am. In fact, they formed part of my everyday life then, since in the USSR Jews weren’t liked nor were they welcome.
I was spit on, pushed around, singled out and called names that I did not understand.
Once, in third grade, before a surprise math test all my panicking classmates were praying and crossing themselves.
With a quivering lip I turned to Tanya, my blonde-haired, blue-eyed best for me! Please! If you don’t, I’m going to fail!” Because what do Jews do for good luck? For protection? I didn’t know.
One day, when I was 10 years old, I marched into our living room and announced to my parents that I was quitting ballet. The first Sunday Hebrew school ever had opened in Minsk, Belarus, and that conflicted with my recital schedule. My mom laughed: “You want to study instead of dance?!” I did. I needed to find out who I was. I needed to find out why everyone hated us so much. I needed to find out what Jews do for good luck.
For protection.
I got a silver Star of David necklace for my birthday that year. I wore it on the bus. “You can’t do that! Don’t let people see it!” my grandmother exclaimed, hurriedly tucking it into my shirt with her dry, weathered hand... that beautiful hand that braided my hair, the hand that knitted me sweaters, that made me my favorite pastries in the shape of delicate swans. I remember holding it, standing in line at a grocery store. A big sweaty man reeking of home-made vodka cut us off and barked in my grandmother’s face: “Get the f*** out of our country, you dirty Zhidovka [a pejorative Russian word meaning ‘Jewess’]! Go back to your precious Israel!” And we did get out. A year later. Sitting on our packed suitcases in our now empty, sold apartment, hugging relatives and friends who had just found out they’ll probably never see us again. (It was 1994, after all – not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse. You didn’t tell anyone you were leaving until you’d already crossed through immigration.) We quietly got into a car at 5 a.m. and left for the airport. Tanya was standing at her kitchen window from where she had a clear view of my building entrance. Pulling back the curtain, her nose pressed against the cool glass, she was crying. I didn’t see her, but I knew she was there.
WE DID get out. To Canada. And now, at 27, I was making this journey to Israel for the first time. I have always dreamed of it, pictured what it would be like, but I never dared go. I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t with the right companions. I waited 27 years for the perfect moment.
That moment was here. It was now. I was coming home. The home that the sweaty alcoholic years ago in Minsk demanded we go “back” to. I’m calling it home, because even though I’ve never lived here, even though it was my first trip, it is, as I later came to understand, the only true home of every Jew. A home where we forever would be free of persecution, of being the perpetual scapegoats of the theory that “if there isn’t water in the tap, the Jews must have drunk it all.” I was nervous, really nervous getting off the plane. What if I don’t like it here? What if I don’t belong? What if they don’t understand me? What if they laugh at my broken Hebrew? All my fears, all my questions, all my doubts melted away in the humidity of Tel Aviv. I swam them off in the frothy sea. I danced them off at Galina’s nightclub.
I walked them off on Sheinkin Street, bit them off with goose liver kebabs, and lost them in the outdoor shuks. I laughed them off at Tommy’s aunt’s Shabbat dinner table, while her 18-year-old daughter (a tiny, pretty girl with long silky hair) told us about her life in the army as a tank instructor.
I made my way down the steps to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, thinking: this is it! The holiest of holies! This is the place we turn to when we pray facing East. This is the place where men, women and children all over the world bring their wishes, scribbled on pieces of paper of all shapes and sizes, to be tucked into the crevices between the stones. The remains of the old Temple, it is the center of all anguish and all hope for the Jewish people. I was eager to connect, to feel that magic, to be enlightened.
Going over everything I wanted to say in my head, everything I wanted to ask for, I stood at the Wall where those just like me stood for thousands of years. I brush my fingers over it, I lean against it with my forehead, I close my eyes. And I forgot... forgot all my words, all my requests. I’m so overwhelmed, I couldn’t pray. Couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t focus. I listened to the sounds of the women around me – whispers, sobs, rustling pages of siddurim – and I retreat backwards (as is the custom), uneasy and disappointed.
We were staying in the Old City, our bedroom facing the square in front of the Wall. I jumped up, startled, awakened by noise pouring in through the window. The clock says 3 a.m. I look out, sleepy and confused, at a sea of teenagers all dressed in blue T-shirts with the logo of the school that brought them there. With hands on each others’ shoulders, they were dancing in a tight circle, laughing, shouting.
They sang songs I remembered learning in that Sunday school I quit ballet for. I mouthed the lyrics along with them in my by-now-improved Hebrew. And then they ripped off their baseball hats, faced the Wall, stood at attention like soldiers during a drill, and belted out “Hatikva.”
I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe, and whatever I couldn’t force earlier that day at the Wall is pouring out of me all at once.
ISRAELIS ARE loud, blunt, often borderline rude, and they don’t grasp the concept of patience. But that’s because they don’t really have the time. They don’t have the time to stand in lines and beat around the bush and repeat themselves. Because the world as they know it could change at any moment.
The world as they know it could end at any time with every rocket, with every suicide bombing. Today is strained peace. Tomorrow may be war. Today we do what we want, today we celebrate, and today we love. They call up their friends at midnight to come over for a barbecue (“What? Of course the kids aren’t sleeping! No, don’t bring anything, just show up!”), they smoke cigarettes under non-smoking signs, and they serve whole watermelons at the beach. They are filled with hospitality, with passion, and with zest for life that is so strong, it’s contagious. And they have chutzpah – so much chutzpah! On the spot where a terrorist blew up 20 teenagers outside a nightclub in 2001, a memorial reads: “We will never stop dancing!” It couldn’t be truer: they will never stop dancing.
Blinding sun on my face, surrounded by mountains, racing down the highway in our rental car towards the Dead Sea, Idan Raichel’s greatest hits pouring in through the speakers with volume cranked to the max, I’m on cloud nine.
My hair tangled from the desert wind and my face hurting from smiling so much, I want to scream from the top of my lungs so that the whole planet could hear me! I’m in love! I’m in love with this country (my country), and with its people (my people), and with the man at the wheel, who was born here, who brought me here, and who knows exactly how I feel, because he feels it too. I want to burst from happiness! And I want more humous! I miss Israel every day. Every moment of the 11 days I spent there is etched in my memory forever. I think about it all the time because it is now in my blood. I hear it calling me, I feel it pulling me. I need it like the Beduin needs the desert, like a fig tree needs the sun. I know I will return. I cannot wait to return.
I wrote the following vow in Eilat, while basking in the 40-degree dry heat (considered mild for July), unwilling to get up from my lounger so as not to burn my toes. A lifeguard’s deep raspy voice in the background was blaring through a megaphone, directed at a very hairy gentleman: “Sir! Yes, you with the sweater on! Get out of the water!” “Here, surrounded by Tel Aviv lights, within the walls of old Jerusalem, deep in the salt of the Dead Sea, in the cold waters of Eilat, I bury a piece of my heart. It will remain here, listening to the whispered prayers at the Western Wall, dancing with hot winds of Ein Bokek and guarded by the Golan mountains.
It will wander in silence among the graves on the Mount of Olives, run by the shores of the Kinneret, and sing the blessings of Shabbat. It will mourn with those who enter through the gates of Yad Vashem and cry 2,000-year-old tears of ancients souls on the Temple Mount. It will fight fearlessly alongside every soldier to defend the true definition of life against those who wish to forever extinguish our flame. I bury a piece of my heart in this land so that I can return to it over and over... so that it can grow in the fields of the north, tall as the evergreens, filled with love that you will find here long after I’m gone.” ■
The author resides in Toronto, where she immigrated in 1994 from Minsk, Belarus. She experienced much anti-Semitism in her childhood in the Former Soviet Union, and while discovering her roots, became a proud Zionist and a strong supporter of the State of Israel.