Sunday, May 31, 2009
I was walking around in the artists' colony of Yemin Moshe today when I came across a home with a sign posted inviting all to enter an artist's open house.
(Yemin Moshe was established in 1891 by Moses Montefiore outside Jerusalem's Old City and is easily identifiable by the large windmill at the top of the hill overlooking the Hinnom Valley on King David Street. The nearby neighborhood of Mishkenot Sha'ananim, established in 1860, has an international reputation as a literary/artistic retreat and workshop. Writers such as Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, David Grossman, and John Le Carre and many others have written all or some of their works at Mishkenot.)
I hesitated for quite a while - not accustomed to entering strangers' homes - but finally walked in after I saw the Artist saying goodbye to a young couple who seemed to have had a very enjoyable visit. And then I met Bridgitta Yavari-Ilan: artist, writer, and intellectual...a Protestant, and strong Zionist who was born and raised in Sweden, and who spent her first years in Israel caring for Palestinian orphans. She shared with me a brief version of her life story, showed me to her balcony where she enjoys an incredible view of the Old City, introduced me to her husband Elliot (a S. African born Jewish Psychologist), asked me about my Aliyah, my dreams. Yes, of course she said, I could take her picture. Yes, I said, I'll buy her latest book about art, love, poetry, and especially (as a convert to Judaism whose notions of the divine often fall outside of the faith) G-d. The book costs 195 shekels (about $47 U.S.)...."but, for you, since you just made Aliyah, I give you special price....100 Shekels."
We parted, and she insisted that I return, that I was welcome to stop by whenever, and I had the sense she actually meant it.
"Whenever" was sooner than either of us imagined. For, as I was walking around the hustle and bustle in the Arab and Christian sections of the Old City late that same afternoon, who would I see but Brigitta and Elliot. We all agreed that the odds were pretty remarkable (the pop. of Jerusalem is 760,000), and Brigitta, an artist and spiritualist through and through, believed it was fate. And I, well, not much of a believer in fate, but, it was certainly serendipitous.
We spent another half hour or so casually conversing while walking out of the Old City, out of the Jaffa Gate entrance, and into the new upscale shopping center built just outside the Old City, until we were finally about to depart. But, who was that walking right towards us seconds before we were to say goodbye? The same young couple who I met hours earlier at Brigitta's home! Strange city this is.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Several people I've spoken to about my decision to make Aliyah expressed great surprise when I related to them that I only visited Israel twice (both for little more than a week) before making my decision, and that I speak almost no Hebrew - accustomed as they are to other Olim having the experience of living here for extended periods w/ ample time to learn at least a little Hebrew prior to their Aliyah. Indeed, during a conversation I had with a young woman who had just completed Birthright, at my first Shabbat dinner here, I was asked what convinced me to move here, to which I replied that I didn't need too much convincing, as my decision was not based on a religious imperative, or any sense that Israel is the proverbial "land of milk and honey", or that, as a Jews, Israel is the only place to truly feel personally fulfilled - reasons that are often given by Olim, and which certainly are valid.
Rather, my decision was a political one - one (as I stated in my essay in the Exponent) predicated on a belief in the inherent righteousness of the Zionist cause, a genuine fear of the existential threats that Israel continues to face, a determination to contribute to her defense, and, more broadly, an increasing sense of the weight of Jewish history on my shoulders...that the Jewish longing to, as Israel's National Anthem "Hatikvah" dreams, "to be a free people" has not yet been fulfilled.
Indeed, I was thinking about this when I visited the Stern House the other day, where Theodor Herzl slept when he visited Jerusalem in 1898 - a year after he published Der Judenstat, his manifesto urging Jews to move to their ancient homeland. Herzl's Zionist inspiration was practical - a reaction (as a well-educated, secular, and assimilated Jew) to the shock of witnessing the anti-Semitism of the Dreyfuss Affair in France, and the overall failure of Jewish political emancipation in Europe that this episode portended - and, indeed, was motivated by the belief that only by having a state of their own could Jews truly be safe.
So, not only did Herzl come to the conclusion that a Jewish state in historic Palestine was necessary prior to visiting the land (and, indeed, his visit was merely a practical one, arranged to meet with the Sultan of of the Ottoman Turkish Empire to seek his support), but the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who heeded his call, and moved to pre-state Israel in the subsequent decades during the major waves of Aliyah, hadn't once set foot on the soil prior to their decision. Though they lacked practical experience living in the land, they did possess, in large measure, a sense of the importance of Zionism in the context of Jewish history, Jewish safety, and Jewish dignity.
My Aliyah was never a "lifestyle" decision.
Monday, May 25, 2009
The contrast between my living conditions and that of the the early Olim (immigrants) to Israel (not to mention the early Zionist pioneers in pre-state Israel) is striking - reflecting, to a large degree, the increase in standard of living for all Israelis over the 61 years she has been a state. (For instance, per capita income, which was $3,500 in 1950, has risen to over $28,000 today, placing Israel's economy 22nd, out of 192 nations, in the world. That this economic success has occurred with little in the way of natural resources makes it even more remarkable. I'll resist the temptation to bore you with more facts and figures).
My furnished, spacious one-bedroom apartment (spacious by my standards, anyway) in the Rehavia neighborhood, has central air, high speed internet, and access to a backyard garden . Rehavia is an upscale Jerusalem neighborhood bordered by Nahlaot to the north, Talbiya and Katamon to the south, Shaarei Chesed to the west, and the Old City to the east. I'm a few minutes walk from shopping, cafes, and all the other cosmopolitan amenities offered by this ancient and modern city.
Rehavia was established in the late 1920s on real estate previously owned by the Greek Orthodox Church purchased by the Israel Land Development Company in 1922.
Landmark buildings in Rehavia include the headquarters of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Prime Minister's Residence, the Jerusalem YMCA, the King David Hotel, and the U.S. Consulate-General on Agron Street. In the center of historic Rehavia is Yad Ben-Zvi, a research institute established by President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
Though I became a citizen of Israel within an hour and a half of arriving here, where I received a booklet, given to every individual immigrant (I can't believe I'm referring to myself as an "immigrant"!), known as a Teudat Oleh, today I received my offical Israeli ID (Teudat Zehut). The Teudat Zehut is a cross between a social security card (in that it lists my unique identification number) and driver's license (in that it has my photo, date of birth, address, and other such info), as well as confirmation of my Israeli citizenship.
Friday, May 22, 2009
The sound of religious school kids marching down the street this afternoon at Ben Yehuda, singing songs, and waving Israeli flags reminded me that today is Yom Yerushalayim Day in Israel - commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem and the establishment of Israeli control over the Old City in June 1967 after Israel successfully defended itself in the Six Day War. I was able to attend the Nation's official ceremony today at Ammunition Hill.
Ammunition Hill is the main official memorial symbolizing the liberation and reunification of Jerusalem. The fortification is preserved as it was in the war and there is an underground museum that commemorates the soldiers who fell in the battle as well as an exhibit displaying the stages of the battle of the three brigades, the Air Force and the Central Command who liberated Jerusalem.
183 soldiers fell in those six days of fighting and the museum of Ammunition Hill is dedicated to their memory. It was here that many lost their lives and it was the capture of this hill that made it possible for the Israeli soldiers to forge ahead into the Old City and eventually allow the paratroopers to reconquer the Old City of Jerusalem.
Among the official attendees were President Shimon Perez and Prime Minster Bibi Netanyahu, who both laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier. Though the speeches at the ceremony were all in Hebrew, there were some stirring moments, such as a spirited rendention of Hatikvah which, I guess due to the overall solmenity of the event, my new citizenship, the Israeli flags lining the park, and the thought of so many soldiers who gave the ulitimate sacrifice so that Israel may live, took on a more emotional resonance. (After the ceremony, as he exited, Bibi got within maybe 6 feet of me but, alas, my camera battery decided to die at that moment!)
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Wednesday, May 20th, at around 9:30 AM Israeli time, I officially became a citizen of Israel. I'll receive my Teudat Zehut (my Israeli identity card) this Monday. When the plane landed, the 47 of us on the El Al flight who made Aliyah were greeted by Nefesh B'Nefesh Staff as we deboarded who walked us through the process leading to our one-on-one with the Israeli gov't official finalizing our paperwork and declaring us a citizen. Nefesh staff couldn't have been nicer and more helpful, and the entire process lasted maybe 2 hours.
Though my sherut (shared van taking us to our final destination in Israel) got lost (apparently there are two Narkis streets) and finding a place to cash my Nefesh check took quite a while, I finally arrived at my new apt. in the Rehavia section, met with my landlord (an American Oleh who made Aliyah in 1969), and signed my lease. My apartment is a pre-furnished garden level one-bedroom unit w/ minimal windows, but good light and access to the backyard garden/patio.
The emotion of becoming a citizen of Israel is quite overwhelming, but I was sharing with my friend studying in Israel, Faryn (who will be returning the U.S. in a week), that as I walked around Jerusalem with her, what struck me most was the feeling of greater responsibility - that I'm not just a supporter and an observer from afar anymore. This is MY country now, and I take the responsibilities of my new citizenship very seriously.
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Not Just a Spectator, but a Part of HistoryMay 14, 2009
It was March 2006, my first time in Israel. Shabbat had just arrived and, with a gentle breeze at my back, I tentatively approached the Western Wall. I had recently taken the first steps toward observance, and though I was anticipating a journey filled with joy and meaning, my life till then hadn't prepared me for the emotion that took hold of me then.
I attempted to pray on that mild March evening not to open my heart to the arrival of Shabbat, but to avoid having to take that final step toward the wall, which would require me to align myself with the struggles and aspirations of the Jewish people.
My mind was racing. The wall was much larger than I had imagined. I looked away, and saw intense davening everywhere. I wanted to join in, but the words wouldn't come.
My decision to make aliyah was forged that day -- one that will come to fruition in a few days when I board an El Al plane for Tel Aviv -- but the seeds of that epiphany and, indeed, my initial identification with Zionist activism, was a reaction to Israel's many enemies.
The bright-eyed, idealistic and progressive man I was in college and early adulthood was confronted with a stunning cognitive dissonance -- that many of my political allies, those committed to freedom, equality and individual rights, were turning away from their traditional identification with Israel.
That these Western values -- enlightenment values -- were, in fact, part of the Zionist vision since the days of Herzl, and were embodied and upheld in the modern Jewish state, mattered less, in many circles, than the new narrative being forged on college campuses, and among the intellectual elite, which saw Israel through the distorted lens of colonialism and imperialism.
That the boundaries of Israel were not drawn, as they have been with most nation states, by the edge of a sword, but by an act of the United Nations, didn't matter. That Israel was a democracy with progressive attitudes towards women, gays and religious minorities didn't matter.
What seemed to matter most was advancing a narrative of Israeli oppression, a caricature of a grotesque and manipulative Goliath that delights in inflicted pain and suffering -- a defamation hauntingly similar to the historical caricature of the dirty, hook-nosed, money hungry, plotting villain we know all too well -- Israel as the Jew writ large. The 19th-century German social democrat, August Bebel, accurately called anti-Semitism the "socialism of fools," and this clumsy anti-Zionism was and is nothing less than the anti-imperialism of fools.
My decision to wage war against these calumnies evolved slowly, but during my long rumination, a clearer sense of purpose took shape. As my late father enlisted in the U.S. Army at the start of World War II, possessing no doubt that that war -- against Nazism and in defense of the Western values -- was his war, I, too, knew that this war -- against Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, the totalitarianism of our age, their political fellow travelers and intellectual enablers -- was my war.
I'm setting out to defend Israel, but also to join the 4,000-year journey of the Jewish people, to be an actor in Jewish history and not merely a spectator.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I took the final step and gradually lifted my arm. I moved my hand forward and touched the wall.
With a gentle breeze at my back, I opened my eyes. And I prayed.
Adam Levick has worked for the Anti-Defamation League in Philadelphia.