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Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

May we always be able to provide a home, a life, a future for all those distant members of our far-flung family who, for whatever reason, have joined us in our old/new land. And, like ancient Israel, may we continue to have our separate tribes, each with its own disparate cultural heritage and talents, all of them adding so much color, variety and joy to our collective lives.

I’m feeling nostalgic this week, maybe because the old year is over and the new one is about to begin.

Or maybe it’s because as I get older, the years get so much shorter.

Like the age we live in, where clicking your finger on a button or swiping it across a screen changes the view instantaneously, it feels like there are fewer than seven days in a week and that the intervening days from Shabbat to Shabbat are condensed. By the time I’ve put the Shabbat leftovers in a plastic containers, it’s time to wash them out and fill them with freshly cooked food.

I think this whole mood started on a recent Friday morning when I was standing in line at the relatively new French Ness bakery on Rahel Imenu Street in the German Colony, waiting to pay for a halla. Surrounded by French-speaking customers and the charming storeowners, I felt as if I was back in Paris in one of the heavenly kosher pâtisseries with their unmatchable, irresistibly beautiful selection of croissants, multicolored macaroons (which bear not the slightest resemblance or taste to the sticky, starchy Passover coconut variety we gag on), tarts and baguettes.

Since my own aliya in 1971, I’ve had the enormous privilege of being an eyewitness to the prophetic ingathering of the exiles, kibbutz galuyot, that has brought wave after wave of new Israelis to our shores. And as I stood there, breathing in the marvelous scent of French confections, I couldn’t help but think how each aliya has enriched our country – and our lives – immeasurably. I say this despite the image in my head of the legendary comedy skit in which each successive wave of aliya stands on the beach bemoaning the new arrivals – the German Jews horrified at the Moroccan Jews, the Moroccans at the Russians, etc., until each gets off the boat and joins the others to bemoan the next wave of newcomers.

The Russians who came in the late 70’s brought with them the sacrifice and vision of Natan Sharansky and other Prisoners of Zion. They became both national leaders and heroes, imparting some of their own matchless idealism and determination to live authentic Jewish lives to our hardworking, often careless and prosaic Zionism, reminding us that we lived not only in a country, but in the fulfillment of thousands of years of Jewish prayers, longing and dreams for a better life for the Jewish people. The later Russian aliya of the 90’s, while less idealistic and more practical, also brought with it thousands of educated, cultured, ambitious new citizens who improved our lives on every level, introducing and nurturing a love for classical dance, music and literature, filling concert halls and theaters and producing their own newspapers, magazines and television shows. They also led the country away from its early romance with socialism, having been there and done that. They knew better than naïve kibbutznikim.

I think it was the Ethiopians, though, who came closest to epitomizing the miraculous fulfillment of Jeremiah’s ringing words in the haftara for the second day of Rosh Hashana: “See I bring them home … and gather them from the uttermost ends of the earth … the woman with child and she that gives birth … He that scatters Israel will bring them back together.” Was there any Israeli whose heart did not stir with emotion at the sight of those who had walked through jungles and deserts to reach their homeland, losing precious family members along the way? Every time I see a beautiful Ethiopian family, a young, strong, straight-backed Ethiopian IDF soldier, a lovely, dark-skinned, beauty-contest winner, I think of not only how their presence and contributions have helped to make Israel a prospering modern country, but of how their inspiring example helped us to fulfill what we hoped our country would be: a real homeland for all our people, a place where when you have to go there, it can and will do everything it can to take you in.

And now the French have come. Here in the German Colony, French has become almost a second language. Like every other wave of aliya, the newcomers stick together as they learn the language and customs and acclimate. And in so doing, they bring some of what enriched their lives in their old country, sharing it with all of us and enriching all our lives.

I wish I could point to a vast American aliya. While the numbers are increasing – Nefesh B’Nefesh alone has brought in over 20,000 new olim from North America since 2002 – the 100,000 or so North American Jews pale in comparison to those from say, Morocco or Russia. But Americans and Canadians, despite their numbers, represent a new kind of aliya.

Rather than escaping to find a better, safer life, these olim often leave behind material comforts. Theirs is an aliya of choice, not necessity.

I was once invited to the President’s Residence (the president himself, who is now living in far less grand accommodations, shall remain nameless) as part of a program to honor American and Canadian aliya. There I found myself among artists, writers, musicians and high-level IDF and government officials. But when I think of the contribution of my fellow immigrants from North America, I think of Roz and Paul Schneid, a Yale graduate and editor of the Encyclopedia Judaica respectively, who decided to answer the government’s call to set up hothouses in Gush Katif in the 1970s and who became successful farmers, parents of eight remarkably successful and idealistic children, who cure our sick and protect our borders. I think of the years they spent on the front lines, keeping terrorists from setting up rocket launchers close to our borders, until their son’s own army unit was commanded by idiot politicians to remove them from their home, which was plowed under. I met them the other day at the wedding of the daughter of another of our dear fellow American olim friends. They have relocated to Hispin on the Syrian border in the Golan. Despite everything, they are loyal citizens and the matriarch and patriarch of a remarkable clan of the best kind of Israeli.

As we sit here watching with horror at what is taking place across our borders, as Egyptians murder each other, Syrians gas and bomb their children and the Lebanese cauldron boils and bubbles and overflows with malice toward all, the truth is being brought home to us every single day of just how fortunate we are that, despite our vast differences, they have never prevented us from standing together as one against all outside threats. Indeed, being forced to seal our borders against our hate-filled neighbors has simply created a pressure cooker that has formed our disparate coals into one, hard, beautiful and many- faceted diamond.

May we always be able to provide a home, a life, a future for all those distant members of our far-flung family who, for whatever reason, have joined us in our old/new land. And, like ancient Israel, may we continue to have our separate tribes, each with its own disparate cultural heritage and talents, all of them adding so much color, variety and joy to our collective lives.

The four corners of the earth are a vast place. I look to the future in hope, wondering what the next aliya will bring.

This column was first published in the Jerusalem Post on 30 August 2013.

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7 comments on “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”

  1. Esther Whitmore

    Dear Naomi, your books accompanied me through life. I am very moved by your beautiful essay. Israel in the Middle East sparkles like a diamond in the dirt. I made alliyah there in 1957 from Poland: my family escaped from antisemitism as soon as we could. My father was murdered in Belzec and my mother was shot in a pogrom in Poland in 1945. I eventually married an American tourist in search for a wife. In the US I became a psychologist during my long widowhood and brought up two wonderful children. I have now three grandchildren. I have visited Israel over the years and watched it becoming a modern, wonderful Western country.I love it with all my heart and pray for it every Shabbat in our synagogue. Esther.CEX

  2. Naomi R.

    A beautiful and heartening description of Israeli life. Thank you Naomi. G’mar Chatima tova to you, your loved ones and Klal Yisrael.

  3. Dolly Weiss

    Dear Naomi,
    Everything you write warms my heart and opens my eyes. I particularly loved this piece. How fortunate you are to have witnessed the assimilation
    of Jews from the 4 corners of the earth and to be able to put it in a perspective as only you can. Our small Reform Temple in NJ is similar to the Israel of yesterday and today, “with its own disparate cultural heritage and talents”. I’d like to have your permission to read or have our Rabbi read this article at our Shabbat service.
    L’Shana Tova to you and those you hold dear. Best wishes always.

  4. matty

    dear naomi,no one could have said it better than you.i truly enjoy all that you are an insperation to all of us who read what you have to say.shana tova vemetuka yours ,matty

  5. Jackie Maleck

    I just want tot thank you for all of the enriching moments I have spent reading your books and imagining that I too would one day have a chance to walk on the ground my darling grandmother so wanted to see before her death. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to do that physically, but I still remember her joy at being given a small sack of earth from Israel, and how she was buried with that precious link to the land she loved.
    Mrs. Ragen, we have booked a trip to Israel for this coming February-March and it represents not only my dream, but my grandmothers wish finally coming to fruition.
    I am a 67 year old grandmother myself and my wonderful partner, Burt has booked the trip because he knows it has been my dream for many years.

    He and I,(to be honest,) are worried that the unrest will cause the travel company to cancel our chance to see Israel and I am hoping that perhaps you will share some words with us that will give us hope and put our fears to rest.

    I have just finished reading ‘Chains around the Grass’ and while seeing how Sara was able to quiet her fears and step into the future I felt more confident that we too will make that leap. I would so love to have some words of reassurance from you.

    May Israel continue to be the strong and resilient nation I hold in my heart —

    Jackie Maleck-(who also grew up in New York–Middle Village to be exact)

  6. Emily Panzer DeRosa

    May we all be entered into the BOOK OF LIFE and all of Eratz Israel, and all good people everywhere, be
    protected from the terrorists who want only to destroy the world.
    No live and let live, no peace or love or joy–just destruction!
    Shana Tovah to all

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