ז' סיון התשע"ח

Olim in Israel: Dreamers in a Promised Land

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Author: Michael Rosenak

I begin with a confession. Whenever I return from hutz l'aretz, a rather large domain of endless sky, all the great seas, and practically all the beaches and the total land mass on earth, I recite Psalm 126: Shir hama'alot: b'shuv HaShem et shivat Tzion, hayinu k'kholmin , ("When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion we were as dreamers"). 

While saying this, half to myself as befits an "enlightened" academician, I look down. In winter, I am eager to see whether it has rained plentifully in my absence. In all seasons I inspect the thoroughfare beneath us, Kvish Geha, to see whether it is crowded, assuring myself that the stream of life and activity goes on. I nod approvingly at the Judaean hills that frame the valley of Lod. Gradually I am satisfied that everything is as it should be. This dot in space that is the center of my world is still here; it hasn't evaporated into the torrid sky nor been submerged into the sea, and it isn't a mirage nursed by a feverish collective imagination amidst the expanses of God's (and the Gentiles') world. I never take the land absolutely for granted; confronted each time anew with its concrete and "earthy" reality, I am like a dreamer.

The Shir hama'alot, the sense of dreamlike return, of being blessed by what may not be taken for granted, of arriving each time with concern and gratitude make me, I suppose, a pilgrim. Even now, alter thirty-five and more years of residence, citizenship, army, loans, hamsin headaches, exasperations and enthusiasms, a sense of belonging. What sparks of holiness do I bring to this holy place with which to ignite moments of sanctity and significance? Or should I be content to live by "what has been given to me to hear" from others, from books read, sentiments rehearsed, traditions remembered?

Such "wisdom of hearing" may not be spurned or deva lued, certainly not by Jews. In reading and listening I have always been particularly struck by the Israelite oleh regel, the pilgrim to Jerusalem who, in making his declaration over the first fruits, recalls the ancients and their exodus from Egypt, and proclaims that "I have come unto the land which God swore to our ancestors." Then, the basket of produce having been placed by the priest before the altar, the pilgrim expresses gratitude at God's redemptive acts: "And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey." Even after many generations, the pilgrim has just "come into the land," having been, as though it were today, "brought to this place."

There are many such segments, ancient and modern, sacred and seemingly prosaic, that one may bring to "this place," that may bring one here. I personally owe much to Martin Buber, who saw the task imposed on the Jewish people to transform the land of Canaan into the Land of Israel. Often, Maurice Samuel's wonderful book, Harvest in the Desert enters my mind. He wrote movingly of a land of ghosts, where the dead had been permitted to crowd out the living, where one continues to walk in footsteps larger than life, a land to which we may now return after having been "dislocated" for two millennia or so.

But with due respect and acknowledgement to the holy thoughts of others, I also bring something of my own. We all have particular experiences, some that teach us "accidentally," others that we may believe were purposefully sent our way. From these, we learn to perceive images, which, coming together, give us "master stories" by which we live. These stories, may, sooner or later, become a sustained vision through which we both find our continuity and the ability to grow-to be challenged and to have courage. Here I shall speak of these images and stories and say something of the vision.

My first focused "national," that is, non-family-or -synagogue experience of being a Jew took place in the spring of 1938 when, with my parents and sister I traveled from Bremen, my birthplace, to Hamburg and the American consulate there. On the train, I was set to learning the English sentence, "My name is Michael Rosenak." That was to impress the Americans there. Regrettably, the American consular official, bland and irritable, asked for my name in heavily accented German, which left me uncomprehending and mute. He dismissingly patted me on the head, said "never mind," and proceeded to weigh and otherwise examine me. The upshot of that family interview-examination was that my mother, father and sister were welcome to come to the United States but not "the boy" who was apparently retarded, clearly underweight and doubtless prone to many illnesses that America could do without. My quick-witted parents promptly requested another interview and immediately booked passage for four. In August, filled with liver injections and blessed with a consular interviewer who addressed me in understandable German, I was given a visa too. So, by the grace of an official who was better disposed, or more talented or hadn't quarreled that morning with his wife, I got to New York and not Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz.

This is not meant to be yet another Holocaust story, for it isn't. Nothing horrible happened to me. But it was apparently traumatic enough-seeing the anger, tension and fear of my parents on these excursions-to make me a political Zionist once I developed the conceptions to go along with the gut feeling. Even now, fifty-six years later, when "papers" must be produced at ports of entry, it makes me irrationally uneasy. Except at home, in Israel.

My mother was the first to provide positive Eretz Yisrael content for that inchoate negative experience. She was a lifelong Zionist, having been a madrikha in the Blau-Weiss youth movement as early as 1913. For a time, her idea of a proper Shabbat afternoon activity for her children was reading to them from the Zionist weekly, The New Palestine. From such writings and my mother's own descriptions (she had been to Palestine twice!) I learned to see "the new Palestine" as a marvelous place of broad fields, redeemed from swamps by dauntless pioneers, a land of medical miracles, deserts "brought to life" and an "all-Jewish city," Tel Aviv, where, as in the calendars hanging in so many Jewish kitchens, the white plaster houses gleamed in the sun hanging from a faultlessly blue sky-bright and spotless.

Naturally I found myself in a Zionist youth movement, Hashomer Hadati, a dynamic but somehow maverick group of fervent socialists who were also Orthodox Jews. We couldn't believe how bad the recent past had been and knew that if there was a beneficent Providence, the future had to be now. For this we pleaded and this we demanded, knowing that it placed responsibility on us too. We sang Oi ad matai yikhye amainu b'li moledet ("O, till when will our people live without a homeland") but changed the "national charge" in the song Ad asher yidabru sfatam ("till they speak their language") to Ad asker yiskmeru datam ("till they practice their religion"). At the same time, "dialectically," we solemnly declared that those who had no intention of going to kibbutz had better stay in the United States and not bring their corrupt bourgeois ways to the Holy Land.

Just about the time the United Nations decided on the partition of Palestine, our movement merged with Bnai Akiva, which the more "consistent" and "principled" members saw as a surrender to adult domination and middle class domestication. The partition plan too, however exhilarating, seemed like a surrender. At the time I was a young teenager; the linoleum carpet in my room was a map of the United States. Our family bought a huge map which went on sale in honor of the U.N. resolution, a huge and shiny thing showing "the Jewish and Arab states" in garish colors. What I saw I couldn't believe, though I had long known it. I measured and re-measured the coastal plain, distances between towns, how much (or little) of the Galilee had been left us, how Jerusalem had been taken away. I looked at that, glanced at the carpet-map of the United States and wondered whether this was a mirage after all, or some kind of joke. Was this to be the eretz hemda tova urkhava we lauded in the blessing after meals? For a while my sentiments were with Menachem Begin and his Irgun Zvi Leumi revisionists. I hummed their hymn, Shtai gedot layarden, zu skelanu zu gam ken ("There are two sides to the Jordan and that is ours too") but that didn't last. I have always distrusted such types and dislike their pathos, populism and fascination with national honor; only much later did I gain some appreciation for the man. Despite an instinctive aversion for his politics, I think I discovered, while he was prime minister, what he loved, what caused him pain. Though I am basically a "peacenik," Begin does not occupy a dishonorable place in my private group portrait of the Jewish people.

Israel first became real for me in 1954 when, as a post-B.A. student, I participated in a half-year course for graduating students of Jewish teachers' colleges and seminaries, a forerunner of what later was to become Machon Greenberg and its "religious" sister, Machon Gold.

We arrived by boat, in Haifa, to a great view of the bay. The Carmel mountains, which I "of course" knew from Elijah and the prophets of Baal, were hardly overpowering but the view was wide; not what I expected from my map of 1947. Only later did I realize that the view to the left led on to Rosh Hanikra, on the Lebanese border, a good several inches from Haifa on that map. It was a splendid September morning, but soon turned unbearably hot. The huge port halls, strewn with luggage, were dirty and disorderly. Flies and people vied for mouthfuls of dry cakes and jelly candies sold from tinny platters. The toilets lacked seats; it was explained to us that this was for hygienic purposes (but of course for that hygiene to work, you had to know how to use them) We didn't. Finally after what seemed like endless formalities and processing and reclaiming, we were boarded on a bus to Jerusalem.

The journey was indeed like the posters and pictures, but fatigue made it less so the mountains looked tired, and the fields plowed up to receive the expected rains added to the general brownish appearance of things. Jerusalem, reached after dragging up the winding "seven sisters" road of those days, was deep in the provincial slumber of its pre-Kollek era. In our hotel the rooms were quite comfortable and quite monastic. There was seldom hot water when you wanted it, and eggplant was the staple of our main meals. The views from the window were thick with the ordinary but bordering on the exotic Hassidim walked on early Shabbat mornings to worship, slowly, resolutely, serene but grim, as though on a stage to be eternally crossed. People seemed continually gathering for the movie performances at the cinema across the street, and then was a falafel store at the corner where the loudest were served first. None of this was like mother's The New Palestine. So naturally, I looked forward to my first trip to Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv, I knew, would be different.

It was. It was hotter. The white of the houses in southern Tel Aviv where my grandmother lived, was in various stages of discoloring, the structures blotchy and peeling. More than in Jerusalem there was frenetic running to and fro, and much espresso drinking at kiosks, served in tiny cups, paid for in currency the color and size of monopoly money, bills with the texture of perennially damp and pre-wrinkled Kleenex tissue.

Tel Aviv was definitely a disappointment but Jerusalem grew on me. By the time I came home at the end of January, via Paris of course, I knew that I would spend my life in Israel, that it was the only place for me.

Why? Basically I think, because in the images and encounters of that time, I discovered that where the Jews were a people, my identity felt different, more "right," a bit scary and very exciting. I had enjoyed being a Jew before that; there was no sudden discovery of identity. But it was no longer enough to have the feeling of walking between the raindrops of history, of knowing that it was "really" Shabbat or Yom Kippur or whatever Jewish things were going on in Heaven and in our hearts while buses roared, stores opened for business, and The New York Times appeared on the stands. It remains because of my empathy for the Galut theology of Franz Rosenzweig-endearing, and even somehow heroic, but no longer enough. In Israel, Jewishness was comprehensively serious and many people, in ways sometimes profound and sometimes ridiculous, took it seriously. And showed me how much there was to it.

Our semester of study. and its direct educational content taught me much of this. There were tiyulim with Z'ev Vilnai, doyen of guides, almost a caricature of new Jewish sturdiness, an inspired teacher of landscapes. He explained exactly what you saw everywhere; like Adam of old, he thought that everything you named you actually possessed. I "got the picture" of this land through him: a few plains, some ridges of mountains, a number of valleys and everywhere, always close at hand, the hills of Golan, Gil'ad, Moab, and Edom, unapproachable or, as Vilnai liked to put it, karega lo beyadainu ("at the moment not in our hands"). The latter was always said with a soulful sigh, a momentary depression. Which lifted quickly when Z'ev, who saw us as "religious but positive types," declared: Hevraiye, zeh makom NEHEDAR l'hitpallel Minkha ("Guys, this is a MARVELLOUS place to daven Minkha"). We davened and he watched happily. "Yehudim nekhmadim," he muttered contentedly and sipped black coffee.

Then there was Nechama Leibowitz, who taught us Humash from her huge and yellowing sheets of problems and questions; her brother, Yeshaiyahu, who warned us that the demise of Jewishness in the Jewish state was imminent unless people finally became sensible enough to adopt his views; Joseph Klausner, who presented his interpretation of Jewish history and begged us to do only one thing, "read my books." And then there was Agnon who smiled, talked and "benched" like a ghetto Jew of yesteryear but mischievously or, as our literature teacher would have said, ironically. All these people, I understood now, took Jewish matters with absolute seriousness, but not only as scholars. They were constantly arguing as though the most weighty issues were now being decided, maybe for good, and they had incredible funds of data at their fingertips that indicated not only how much they had studied but also, what it was that really interested them. The general impression was that Jewish matters were finally back where they belonged; all one had to do was to pick up some threads and continue working on the original tapestry, hoping the half-forgotten picture of the future would then come into view.

To my surprise, much of this seriousness was permeated with religiosity.  I had thought of "the Israelis" as brazen iconoclasts, except of course for the Meah Shearim people and my haverim in religious kibbutzim. The secular people were often more passionate than I had imagined, but there was much beside that. Not only the professors of Judaica, but the kids at minyan in the Bnai Akiva "house" near our hotel, in winter apparel of grey or blue zip-up woolen sweaters, davening with concentration, without frills, earnestly yet surprisingly musical; pious though not always very observant Sepharadim explaining that they had hovered on the edges of the homeland throughout the generations, waiting for redemption, while the Ashkenazim had made themselves comfortable to the four corners of the earth.

Several other experiences come to mind. I am traveling on an Egged bus late at night. Next to me a heavily bearded Jew engages me in conversation. Quickly I understand that he is one of the Neturei Karta or close to them, opposed to "the Zionists" and "their" state, indignant at their iniquities. I defend "the Zionists," of course, but what do I know? He is so knowledgeable, he lives here, his piety seems impeccable. And my Hebrew is weak. Suddenly, salvation comes from the seat in front of mine. A middle-aged man, squat and sturdy, turns around and says angrily: "You can say what you want against Ben Gurion and the government. But you may not speak against Medinat Yisrael. Why are you poisoning the heart of this young Jew? Maybe he wants to come on aliyah. Why are you poisoning his mind?"  It was one of the moments in which I discovered that, yes, I was coming on aliyah. I was thankful to that secular Jew but could not thank him. The whole scene seemed awkward. It's not the kind of encounter the New York subway prepares you for.

Another moment: I have volunteered, like several in our group, to teach new olim in the Ma'abara of Talpiot. Several evenings a week, I board a bus at the central post office for what seems like a different world. This project is organized by an elderly man, Yaakov Maimon [click here for a full article on him], a meshuga ladavar, who wishes new immigrants to have one-to-one contact with people who can teach Hebrew. My "student" is a middle-aged woman from Morocco; my task, to read and discuss Elef Milim with her. The particular passage we are reading is about Herzl and his ream of a Jewish state. Suddenly she asks, "Yes, but who was this Herzl?" I am astounded, she doesn't know who Herzl was! I started to explain and then thought, it important? Should I colonize her rough Elef Milim? But then, how shall we become one people if we don't even share Herzl? On the other hand, what's Herzl compared to parashat hashavuah? But will we share that? How will we live together? Another moment of disclosure. This woman and I, we are the Jewish people coming together again in Medinat Yisael. And we don't have a lot in common.

Another time, it is late afternoon. My friends and I are walking along Jaffa Road, ostensibly to get some provisions, actually to feel Jerusalem. The streets are narrow as they are in that "downtown" area to this day. There is an incredible mixture of people, self-conscious "yekes" in jackets and ties, Moroccans in much more casual and colorful dress, Eastern European types, tired and determined, many of whom are simply poor. The light s fading dramatically, the crowds are jostling, and what comes to mind is a verse we have just studied from Ezekiel, in the vision that precedes the one of the valley of dry bones. "As the sheep brought for sacrifice to Jerusalem in its festive seasons, so shall the destroyed cities be filled with flocks of people and you shall know that I am the Lord" (36:38). The prophecy, I think, is about this, now! And I am part of it.

Much has changed, and so have I. In any case, it is not by the light of flickering memory images that life is lived. Life includes making friends and sometimes losing them, worrying about one's family, obtaining bank credit, experiencing successes and failures. Amidst all this there has to be, as already said, a master …changes educate to critique as well as to love, teach discrimination between fancy phrases and faith, evoke concern as well as enthusiasm. The images of "seriousness" that I described so glowingly are often crowded out by others, also "serious." There is serious hatred for us among our Arab neighbors, and this is sometimes reciprocated, for we have difficulties with the fact that we share this land with them. There are the "serious" ways in which Haredim despise and manipulate the manifestations of Jewish sovereignty. There is a new class of bright people who are most serious when playing tennis or being otherwise casual, "with it." And there are features of narrowness in our own tradition that come to light in the societal context of our own country, features that deserve more serious theological and even halakhic consideration from "the religious" than they receive, including the relationships between Jews and non-Jews, where we are the majority. Dati'im should be most concerned with them, davka because of their loyalty to the tradition as a whole, though it is annoying when secularists point this out. Yet, where they exhibit lack of concern, it is jarring and disturbing.

So there must be something beyond snatches of biblical poetry, beyond the memories of landscape which have, in part, disappeared beneath new towns and shopping malls; beyond flashes of identity on buses that have become air-conditioned double-deckers caught in traffic jams. There has to be a steady vision, not something that falls on you like manna from heaven, but like the air that (no less miraculously) you breathe. Sometimes such a vision makes things certain, but often it perplexes and sometimes it invites despair. Ultimately, however, it gives an orientation. At its heart there is something holy that has been received and brought to this little land so that it may remain holy. My vision is what I begin learning throughout the experiences described, and what I have been relearning since then.

In brief, it is that if Judaism is "serious," it must, for me at least, be where the Jews are a people and where the land is the one "allotted" to it. Like the Jewish people itself, the land may be small, intemperate and often not terribly impressive. Only so until you get to know it and discover the singularity of a solitary tree giving shade, a hidden wadi refreshing a desert dipped in blue and yellow pastels, the gratitude of parched earth in autumn around the time …. Its beauty and depth, like that of its people, is precisely in its unreliability laden with promise, in its dependence, not on nature and the natural course of events but on God whose mercies are sometimes scarce yet "endure forever."

Looking at the land and the people "assigned" to it by the Maker-of Heaven and Earth and the judge of nations, you discover that everything can be, but need not necessarily be, excruciatingly beautiful, that plentitude is partial and that everything but the fear of Heaven depends on Heaven, which leaves a great deal. Because everything is always precarious, things are never serene. Therefore when people praise Heaven, they are also wishfully praying. "Thank the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endures forever," means, too, Lu Yehi, let it be, this season and this year as well.

That, of course, is also the central theme of Succot, the festival our sages called Chag, the festival. No festival is more "in Galut" elsewhere, none more at home here. Its symbols are nurtured by Judaism's land and reflect it: the designation of the impermanent Succah as symbol of divine Providence; four species held tightly together, from the frail and always withering arava to the majestic but slow ripening etrog; Kohelet read in the midst of rejoicing; prayers for rain in solemn liturgy in the midst of thanksgiving.

Before the Six Day War-or perhaps it was the War of Independence-it was told of two Jews who met on the street. "What will happen to us?" the first asked the second. The reply: "There will have to be some miracles, that's for sure." The first sternly warned: "Don't rely on miracles. Do something. Say Tehillim" (Psalms).

That sounds whimsical, a typical Jewish story, impractical, impotent. Have we not learned here, in our own land, that what we need is a good army, sound finances, intelligent government? But even if we had all of that, Tehillim too would seem like a good idea. It resonates well against this landscape, in which to thank the Lord is to pray, in gratitude and uncertainty, that it may be well with this arid land that was promised to be a land of milk and honey, and with the people of Israel the abused and troubled nation of promise. And also that it may be well with the world in which we are now enabled to stand, in the blinding sunlight of our own land, among the peoples. In wonder, and as in a dream.

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