Real Israel: From London to Jerusalem

London was fun, but Jerusalem is home.

London skyline 370 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
London skyline 370
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
What’s in a name, asked Shakespeare, whose own name became synonymous with British culture. It was the name change that struck me almost as soon as I landed in London on a recent trip that combined a (rare) vacation in the land of my birth with a family wedding.
In the 33 years since I left, I had been baffled to note that increasingly people referred to the country as the United Kingdom, but with the Olympics, the British decided to put the “Great” back in Britain and the success of Team GB was feted everywhere. Pride in Britain was clearly on display – union flags waved not only from public buildings but also private homes, and even decorated one or two vehicles.
In the new, more open London, I revealed my Israeli identity with pride mixed with caution. For the first few days, when asked where I was from I answered “Jerusalem” before adding “Israel” according to the response. Later, having met more friends and family who still live there, I loosened up (“chillax” is one of those annoying buzzwords heard in Britain as elsewhere in the almost-English-speaking world). Parts of London, of course, also barely count as English- speaking – I happily eavesdropped on conversations in Mandarin and Arabic, but heard little of the Cockney rhyming slang that came so naturally to my mother’s skin and blisters (sisters), for example.
Mention of Israel raised more interest than ire. There’s obviously a whole world out there beyond that of the BBC World Service.
One stranger with whom we got chatting at the railway station asked with concern: “Isn’t it dangerous there?” (Chatting with strangers in England was a relatively new experience; delays on the rail service, more familiar.) Strangely, despite the rising violence here, it is much, much safer to walk out at night in Jerusalem than in London, but when we passed a building marked “Shelter,” I wasn’t the only Israeli member of my family to immediately associate it with missile protection rather than a place for the homeless.
Security during the Olympic/Paralympic games was higher than I ever recall it. When I grew up in London, an armed policeman was a rarity. This visit, I saw police officers at Kings Cross Station (site of one of the 7/7 bombing atrocities) armed not only with revolvers but with semi-automatic weapons.
(This, ironically, was not reassuring – if travelers’ bags were checked, I’d have had more peace of mind, and I recalled being warned during IDF basic training never to use automatic fire in a crowded, closed-in area where the innocent passersby are more at risk than the terrorist).
The obsession with what people think of Israel is very Israeli (or a peculiarly Jewish trait). My holiday reading material included the deservedly award-winning The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, which ruminates on Anglo-Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and that special breed of Jewish anti- Zionists – the fictional Sam Finkler’s “ASHamed Jews.”
A lecturer at the Hebrew University once told my journalism class that the difference between the British and Israelis is that the former read the paper on the way to work and the latter read the paper once they have arrived in the office. I picked up the freebies on the Underground on trips to and from central London and realized that Israel does not figure high on the list of British concerns.
There were items on the atrocities in Syria, an awful lot about Prince Harry’s crown jewels, and plenty of stories on the education system and recession. The only item on Israel I read in Metro during a twoweek stay was a brief mention of the beneficial role of medical clowns according to a study by Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
We came across a couple of Israeli names in the least likely places. The name of late Israeli shipping magnate and philanthropist Sammy Ofer, appointed an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) in recognition of his support for maritime heritage, graces the gallery constructed under the legendary Cutty Sark clipper and a wing of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, while in the excellent Royal Fusiliers Museum at the Tower of London special mention was made of David Ben-Gurion, who served as a member of the Jewish Legion (in the days when Jews in this area were known as Palestinians).
Throughout my visit, I found it strange that although British soldiers (the Royal Fusiliers and Prince Harry’s mates among them) are still serving in Afghanistan, the general public barely notices, certainly not with the type of identification we have in a country where we all know soldiers and where they serve so close to home they travel home by bus for the weekends.
The vacation component of our trip was dedicated to several obvious sites – the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, the highly recommended Royal Air Force Museum, the Planetarium at Greenwich, a London bus tour, boat tour and for those who, unlike me, have no fear of heights, the iconic London Eye.
My son and I also spent many pleasant hours at Hatfield House and Gardens, where we absorbed English history, pageantry and tradition that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.
The Hatfield Country Fair is held annually in the Queen Elizabeth Oak Field on the family estate of Lord and Lady Salisbury (where Queen Elizabeth I learned of her accession to the throne in 1558 while sitting under one of the trees in the grounds of her childhood home).
The fair included all the best of local tradition – a parade of vintage steam engines; shows and competitions of farm animals, hunting dogs, racing terriers and work horses including incomparable, massive Shires; fishing in the lord’s private pond; falconry; and a good old-fashioned game of tug-ofwar for the kids – all presented with typical British sense of humo(u)r and banter that mixed snobbery and inverse snobbery, double entendres and misogyny (“trouble and strife” is Cockney rhyming slang for wife, after all).
But love was in the air: We had, of course, traveled for the wedding of my nephew – the best reason for relatives dispersed over three continents to get together. It was a traditional, Orthodox Jewish wedding with its promise-threat: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem....”
But there was no chance of my forgetting Zion. As holidays go, it went perfectly. I was reminded, however, not only of the best of Britain that I’d left behind (along with the benefits of a two-day weekend and relaxing on the River Thames), but also of what I’d gained by making aliya.
Landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, the border control officer took one look at my son and asked why I’d let him miss the beginning of the school year. When she learned that we’d been at a wedding she wished us “Mazal tov!” and waved us through. Stocking up at the local supermarket, I didn’t have to worry about dairy desserts containing pork gelatin.
The “super,” in fact, is readying for the High Holy Days with special deals on the traditional apple and honey products and a free talk by a dietician on healthy eating habits during the hagim.
And be it ever so humble, particularly compared to the green and pleasant gardens that surround Hatfield House, the yard outside my Jerusalem tenement block has a pomegranate tree whose fruit has ripened just in time to grace our Rosh Hashana table.
London was fun, but Jerusalem is home.
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