We met each other as young parents of small children, each of us from a different part of the planet. In my apartment building alone, my next door neighbors were Russian doctors from Moscow; downstairs was Rabbi Toledano and his beautiful wife Jacqueline from Morocco and their ten children. A family from Stockholm, and Great Britain, and a number of Americans were scattered on other floors.
And here I was – forty years later – meeting many of my neighbors again. The beards were longer, the women almost all in head coverings. Almost all of us had grandchildren. I thought my twelve were an achievement, but the women at my table talked about twenty and more. We had been abundantly blessed. And as we shared our remembrances, our hearts grew young again, filled with fondness for those strange, difficult and ultimately nourishing days we had shared as new immigrants. It was our neighbors, we remembered, who became our dear friends and who had made it possible for us to successfully complete our transition to full-fledged citizens of Israel.
One told the story of how at the beginning, when the neighborhood was still unpaved, without a grocery store or single telephone or bus line, it was so off the map that a cab driver once argued with him that his apartment couldn’t possibly exist where he said it did. So he was forced to get out and walk home.
I remembered that when we moved in with our newborn daughter Bracha, there were only ten families in the entire street. That first winter, the apartments were freezing cold until we new immigrants realized there was no super for the building, and it was up to us to order oil for the furnace! That’s how green we were.
But the most revealing story about the neighborhood is this one: Right after I gave birth to my second child, Asher, I started suffering terrible stomach pains, which turned out to be gall bladder related. Alone, without family, with a newborn and a two-year-old, I was forced to go into the hospital for an operation.
“How will we possibly manage?” I asked my husband, who was working at a new job. “Who will take care of you and the children? What will you eat? How will you keep your job?”
It turned out I needn’t have worried. With the precision of a military operation, and without asking any questions, women in the neighborhood organized into a volunteer force. Every day, someone else babysat my children. Meals were prepared and left at our home. My husband kept going to work, and the children were fine. Two weeks later when I got home, I found the house clean and the refrigerator stocked.
We had no family, and so we new immigrants became each other’s family. I could never have survived the difficulties of our first few years in Israel if not for the amazing human beings who helped me, and whom I tried to help in return. We began a tradition then of making the Purim seuda (festive meal) together, five couples, and children of various ages whose numbers grew and grew with time, until they got married and started making their own Purim meals. For forty years we have been meeting each Purim. I always make dessert, my famous apple pie. When we were younger and slimmer and the kids still came, I added a lemon meringue and pecan. Now I throw in a fat-free angel food.
Wherever I have lived in Israel, I always consider my true friends and neighbors to be the people I met at the beginning in that raw, windswept, road-less, grocery-less, bus-less new immigrant town in Northern Jerusalem. I shall never find their like again.
And so, even on a day like today, when our hate-filled enemies are determined to kill and maim the precious inhabitants of the land of Israel, I can say, forty years after the fact, that moving to Israel was the best thing I ever did.