Candles on the Cake

Last month marked the 15th anniversary of my aliyah to Israel.   The children who still live home with me are a decidedly surly bunch, and when I suggested that, together, we do something special to mark the day, their suggestions included “Give me the car, so I can visit some neat friends I met on a beach up north!”; “Go away with your friends, Mom, since they’re also emotional types.”; “Give us the house for a party!”; and “Don’t you want to get married or something, Mom?  You’re sounding kind of lonely.”

Still determined to celebrate this red-letter day with an activity that would, hopefully, provide perspective and meaning, I was drawn to a posted notice that made all the niggling comments dissipate.   I called the offices of Nefesh B’Nefesh (Soul to Soul) in Jerusalem and said, “I’m a journalist.  I’d like to cover the arrival of the next planeload of western immigrants.”

And as soon as you can say “Edmund R. Murrow,” I was assured that a press pass and information packet would be waiting for me at the arrival gate.

I arrived a few minutes after 8 a.m. and was whisked past the long and jovial queue of registered guests who were still passing through security.  Entering a cavernous hall that once comprised the entire Ben Gurion Arrivals Building, I found myself taking a precious moment to compose some very bewildering memories and subsequent emotions.

Three large screens flanked the flag-draped stage, and we were treated to a slide show replete with breathtaking photographs of the hours before take-off.  The departure terminal of Kennedy Airport proved to be a dramatic backdrop for the unfolding tale of these new immigrants.  Fathers and mothers who were twelve feet tall hugged their departing children and grandchildren in majestic Technicolor.

It was astounding to behold, and the plane hadn’t even landed!  Throngs of relatives and friends mingled about carrying “Welcome” signs and balloon arrangements; some wore corny T-Shirts saying things like “Watch Out, Israel!  Mom is Here!”  There was an unmistakable carnival air, and I was only sorry that I hadn’t insisted on bringing any of my crabby kids.  And as with any good Jewish party, tables groaned beneath baskets of fruits and cakes and even an elegant espresso bar was pouring out steaming concoctions at an alarming rate.

Familiar and inspiring Israeli music blared out of every speaker, and the hallway was peppered with beautiful soldiers, men and women who appeared splendid in their khaki best.

It was a far cry from my 1995 arrival.

A brother-in-law had sent a limousine to ferry us away from our Long Island home, attempting to soften the shock of my family and friends, but it was to no avail.  Despite my having been the one to put the stamp of approval on the “aliyah plan,” my condition was one of near grief on the morning of our departure.  My mother displayed such heroism that, even as I write these words a decade and a half later, I am crying without restraint.  She sat in the departure lounge with the granddaughters she adored and played game-upon-game of “Go Fish” and “War” as though it were a routine Shabbat afternoon.  I cannot tell you what stoicism she wore on her face, because I didn’t dare look.

And when the time came to pass through the gates toward the waiting aircraft, we were not bolstered by cheering friends and fellow olim (Israeli-immigrants).  I felt the pain and silent pleas of those I loved who were watching my departing back as they controlled their own anguish; passing through the security station with a toddler in my arms, I distinctly remember telling myself, “Stay standing, Andrea.  Don’t collapse.  It will all be all right.  You can do this.”  My husband displayed great sensitivity throughout the entire flight, entertaining the children, so they would not disturb my tormented reverie.

We landed and passed, silently, through Passport Control into an Israel that was hot, foreign, and filled with uncertainty.    We had rented a house in Jerusalem that would not be ready for another week; I had no friends or family of my own and did not speak Hebrew.  We hadn’t spoken with anyone about schools, and I wasn’t certain what synagogue was near the house. I didn’t understand the money.  And for reasons that are too personal to explain at this time, I would not become a citizen until seven years after arriving, and, by the time that paperwork was completed, I had lost eligibility for any previous benefits that were available in the pre-Nefesh B’Nefesh days.

So did I feel any jealousy on that Wednesday morning as I stood to the side and “took in” the scene that was denied to me so long ago?  A little, perhaps, but to belabor that which has passed would have meant losing out on the bubbling euphoria that was my privilege to observe.  Because within minutes of the announced “landing time,” buses began to arrive at the bustling terminal, and I was swept out to the tarmac with hundreds of strangers who were, in fact, my brothers and sisters.

We beat drums, cheered, danced, sang, and threw confetti.  Soldiers who spoke no English ran out to grab the youngsters and twirl them overhead in the delightful frenzy of bringing them home.  Stepping into the harsh light of the morning sun, many appeared to be dazed.  And we gave them no time to catch their communal breath; we were too crazed from the joy of bringing them home to The Promised Land.

Witnessing heroism is an all-too-rare phenomenon, especially when it is not wrapped in flowing capes or accompanied by the flash of blazing guns.  The heroes who disembarked on that sunny Wednesday morning wore scraggly beards, denim skirts, tank tops, yarmulkes, and dreadlocks.  They schlepped tote-bags and pushed strollers.  These men and women made difficult decisions and, in many cases, broke the hearts of those they left behind.  They dared to “come home,” because we have our own country, and it is good to live where you belong.

The challenges they face are many, and they will face many moments of doubt that are certain to confound the process.  Nevertheless, what unites us is the memory of the moment that it was decided to not “let life happen,” but, rather, to define our personal destinies and let fate and/or Divine intervention handle the rest.

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