At the airport in Newark, while we waited to board the plane for Israel, I understood that it would be impossible to describe an “average” American oleh (immigrant to Israel). Steve and I were early, so we had the advantage of seeing the other 71 olim hadashim (“new immigrants” to Israel) as they arrived.
There was a woman and her husband from West Texas with one big dog and one little dog; a single man in his late 70s; a few single Orthodox women, one in simple headdress, plain gray skirt, olive sweater and gray shoes, another in brilliant black and white patterned dress and striking black headdress ; a family of tall father, short mother, and three medium-sized teenage girls; a modest young couple in their twenties; another young couple with a baby just a few months old, a young Hasidic family . . . The list goes on, with no clear pattern.
To emigrate from the United States today is not to be as an immigrant coming to the States in the late 1800s, the early 1900s, or during/just after the Holocaust. We were not ragged, not hungry, not penniless. As far as I can know, most of us in the airport that day were going to a new life, not escaping from an old one of poverty, famine, or deadly anti-Semitism (though perhaps anti-Semitism of a less immediately lethal sort?).
In a logical and efficiently organized process, Nefesh b’Nefesh had guided our initial Stateside immigration steps, and that efficiency continued at Newark airport. Every question was answered, every help given. It was a foretaste of what our welcome to Israel would be.
We olim were traveling that day with a group of young people from Birth Right, the ten-day trip to Israel for Jewish young people from 18 to 26 who have never been or who have spent only short vacations in Israel. I noted in the Birthright group the great excitement youth-on-a-new- adventure generates, and I contrasted their liveliness with my own oddly-reserved spirit.
I was emigrating; why was I feeling reserved?
I think there are three reasons:
First, I have traveled so much for so many years, I have come to feel the excitement of travel as an internal hum rather than a burst of song. When I left home for Africa at age 19 I had never been on an airplane. I remember the emotional pandemonium of watching the earth slide away below me and running images of Africa through my mind.
In the ensuing years I repeated the experience through Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, Canada, the U.S…. and I seem in retrospect to have been constantly ascending and descending to and from planes, trains, busses — or hiking, or riding horseback. I became an itinerant, practiced at moving (and resigned to current airline travel in cramped seats and with diminished service. — Hiking and horseback-riding has stayed fun.)
Second is that making Aliyah has come, like I mentioned above, in steps, not just in the final process, but as I moved through life.
I was 19 years old, living in West Africa and had several Israeli friends when I first thought of moving to Israel. The next time I came close to immigrating was when I was 24, living in Afghanistan. The next time, it was the Yom Kippur War; Steve and I had our passports and were ready to go, when the Israeli government began asking people not to come. From then Steve and I often spoke about immigrating, but we entered the flow of American life: graduate school, professional work, three sons. Still, we made trips to Israel, and for the past 11 years I have been going every year to volunteer with the IDF.
The third reason I was more reserved during immigration is one I’ve talked about in an earlier blog. When you leave a place, you leave people as well. Just as when you arrive, you arrive to people as well as to place. Such loss and joy will always be tangled. I am a fortunate immigrant in that, G-d willing, as long as I am healthy, I can travel back and forth. I can float in the river that runs two ways. But I also must live as one who, if she gains months here, loses months there. A whole and divided heart: children/grandchildren/friends on both sides of the world. Loss and joy will always be tangled and one becomes more reserved with that braided blood.
Is there an inevitability to what happens in our lives? I can’t answer it with any true understanding or rationale. But in retrospect I can see the steps, can see the way I was headed, although I couldn’t see it at the time. There were reasons I didn’t come to Israel those first times I thought of coming. Good reasons? I can’t tell; at midnight, I sometimes wonder what would have been. It’s human to do that, and I may sometimes yearn for the people who have been lost in death or in the obscurity of time, but when morning comes, I think of my family and friends, and experience a sweet ache at all the gifts I’ve been allotted.
So I like to think that now is the right time, that now, if my earlier reasons were wanting to come were selfish, now they are less so. Now, coated with a thin patina of cynicism, I can live in the reality of Israel, not in the dream of it. I like to think too that now I have the ability and understanding to carry two passports at once. I hope so.
The last step of immigration happened in an instant. We received our identity cards as soon as we landed. We were citizens. Hundreds of people outside the baggage hall were waiting as we stepped from the confines of the airport to the reception area.
“Baruchim Ha Bayim!!” (“Welcome home!”), People shouted and sang to us.
I felt as if I were swimming in a river of history. Even as I write this, over two weeks since it happened, I am emotional. Where but in Israel?