The Gift Horse

From my earliest memories, Israel “lived” in my childhood home; my parents followed the news, sponsored discussion groups, sent money and ached with indescribable despair when Israel fell under siege.  The ideal of Israel seeped into my psyche; first as a pipe-dream, then a potentiality and, ultimately, a daring reality.  Israel is beautiful, spiritual, earthy, fun, edgy and frightening, and there isn’t a day here that I don’t feel intensely alive.
When my late mother-in-law was trying to raise her eight children in the Bukharian Quarter of Jerusalem and later in the run-down Shkuna HaTikvah section of Tel Aviv, buying kerosene for cooking from a vendor who hosed the precious liquid into unwieldy jerry cans was standard practice in the early days of the fledgling state.  Milk for the toddlers was invariably purchased from a dairy farmer who rode through the narrow, pitted streets on a wooden cart, pulled by a tired nag.
A scrawny chicken – ungutted and unplucked – was occasionally purchased in the shuk by my father-in-law on his way back from synagogue.  If he had the money.  If the ritual slaughterer had finished his morning prayers.  If the poultry truck had arrived from the distant farm.  Tomatoes meant one stall.  Eggs meant another.  A replacement for a broken coffee cup meant a bus ride to the part of the city that sold dishes.  When children needed shoes or clothes, they rode several buses to the shabby Kiryat Shalom factory district that sported “castoff” outlets.
Examples of such arduous day-to-day living are endless, but a friend recently prompted me to assess whether or not my “Israel life” is more taxing than life in America.  She had just come on aliyah and was having a hard time adjusting to the subtle changes that such a traumatic life-move entails.
On our weekly grocery shopping trip she pointed out that the line at the meat counter was terribly long and that the “honor system” of knowing who was in front of you and who came after was tension inducing.  “Why don’t they have numbers?  There would be no confusion!”  I pointed out that I’d never said to someone “Excuse me; I’m next,” and been challenged, and even if I “gave up” my turn to avoid friction, wasn’t it amazing that one could observe the laws of kashrut (kosher) and shop in a reasonably priced local supermarket?  I recalled my “separate trips” in the States for a) kosher meat; b) kosher dairy products; c) kosher baked goods.  And when large, all-service kosher supermarkets came onto the scene, they were usually so over-priced that I broke the family budget in a fraction of the time.  For someone who enjoys shopping, all of this bouncing around might have been no big deal, but for someone like me, it was torturous.
Together my friend and I began to enumerate the delightful gifts that this life-adventure has given us along with a vow to mentally conjure up the “list” whenever we are having a crummy, “how-could-I have-come-here” day.
Upon stepping back, I always marvel that I’ve learned a new language.  A new ancient language and can talk to teachers, doctors and laborers from around the globe.  A new language means a new world, and I’ve encountered this new world during the peak of “middle age.”  If this doesn’t keep one young, I don’t know what will.  Admittedly, I speak it badly and don’t understand everything the first time but, damn, I’m still proud!  Translating for tourists always gives me a charge, and the first time I cried upon listening to – and comprehending – a stirring Memorial Day song, I knew that I’d accomplished something wonderful.  How many people accomplish “wonderful” during the second half of life?
My manicurist is from Uzbekistan and was a certified accountant before she took up the art of gel coats and eyebrow plucking.  My Yemenite plumber is an expert winemaker, plying this second trade in the kitchen of his city apartment.  Israel seems to demand “reinvention,” and trying something new is nothing new for most of us who have bravely begun life anew.  Financial officers become tradesmen, nurses become spinning instructors and few I’ve met are hung up on labels or the stigma of not having achieved the material success that so permeated my American life.
I doubt that I’ll ever tire of the uniform-heart that Israelis seem to possess in times of strife.  Whether during times of war, the burial of a national leader or the release of a captive soldier, Israelis of every stripe huddle around their television sets and breathe, cry, applaud and fear with one heart.
Most of my secular Jewish Facebook friends do not know about Shavuot, Tisha B’Av, Shemini Atzeret, Tu B’Shvat or Lag B’Omer.  And if, perchance, some secularists have a vague recollection, by-and-large their children do not.  In Israel, regardless of a particular Jew’s level of observance-or-non, the calendar plays a big part in this Jewish country.
Ideology builds character, and I’ve yet to meet an Israeli who is comfortable “sitting on the fence.”  The army and National Service weigh heavily on the Israeli psyche and lead to a certain homogenous maturity that appears to be lacking in the youth of other countries.  Sometimes brash, pushy, indiscreet and loud, Israelis are a “result” of several millennia of both hardship and an irrepressible will to survive; today’s “product” is always exciting and unpredictable.  From the Western Wall to Masada, from the Haifa Bay to the beaches of Eilat, Israelis are fiercely proud of their land, and every one of them is qualified to be prime minister (or a tour guide).
If my friend hadn’t pointed it out to me, I might not have realized that the shopping carts in the supermarket were very heavy and hard to maneuver.  On most shopping days, I only recognize that I’m shopping in Israel and that my grandmother would never have dared to dream such an impossible fantasy.  Jews having their own country?  Jewish policemen?  Jewish dance schools?  Jewish jails?  A Jewish army?  Impossible!
Well, I live in Eretz Impossible, and it’s going to be a good day.  I knew this even before the sun rose this morning.  Because I live in Israel.  Because nearly a lifetime ago I was given a choice.
I chose to come home.

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