Seconds after getting out of the car in front of the dental surgery I realized the crown had dropped out of the tissue paper, and with a few thousand shekels at stake and an unsightly hole waiting to be filled, I bent low to scan the pavement for it. Hubby Joe joined in the search; then the dentist too who had emerged from the clinic after I phoned to explain my delay; followed by an Arab worker passing by who put on his phone torch to help us look even though it was broad daylight; then the Arab fetched his boss who he claimed had “good eyes.” Even a broom appeared to sweep under nearby parked cars.
In spite of dismay at losing the expensive white filler, I could laugh at this scene reminiscent of the popular Hebrew children’s book Eliezer and the Carrot, a personal uniquely Israeli moment as one stranger after another spontaneously jumped in to help as if it’s the most natural thing to do.
At least mask-wearing during corona conveniently hid the need for dental work over the months it’s been in progress.
Israel rolled with the punches, made do, and drew on its creative and resilient strength spurred by a fresh outlook on what had been at times unthinkingly accepted as the norm.
Last winter when the cold drove our outdoor courtyard prayer services into the underground parking lot of our apartment building, the naming of a baby girl at prayers one morning with the Torah scroll on a trestle among parked cars may have been a brief tangential reminder of those long ago who practiced Judaism in windowless unseen places in Roman times or of hidden Jewish observances during the period of the Maccabim, but in our own Jewish land it was only the winter chill, rain and corona that steered the faithful underground where prayers in full voice were for all to hear.
That unheated underground car-park was the setting for our self-devised drive-in megillah reading on Purim when with the reader a few meters from our parked vehicle, hubby sat in front and I in the back with windows open, in relative warmth and comfort, no one even noticing whether we were in dress-up costume or silly hat.
As the weather warmed, the Shabbat call-up of the chatan of our just-wedded girl demonstrated the natural Israeli capacity to swivel and adapt as the family joined a small outdoor prayer service amid clumps of overgrown grass and gravelly patches between old apartment blocks with a few trees and straggly bushes, lengths of string overhead that in summer heat had secured shade cloth, a couple of makeshift wooden swings dangling on ropes from tall branches, young children merrily weaving in and out among the assembled with lolly bags in hand and feeling entirely at home in a place of prayer unbounded by walls and domed by an edgeless infinite sky.
Our new homeland is free of the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance experienced in the old country. Here, thoughts and feelings of Jewish belonging and days of national and religious commemoration are embedded and reflected in the pulse of the nation, our lives and the rhythm of this land. Whether it’s the siren calls to silent remembrance of Yom Hashoa and Yom Hazikaron, or the upbeat celebration of Independence Day, our individual and collective hearts are in synch as they become in turn heavier and lighter.
On the anniversary of the 1967 war, students in my ulpan Hebrew class reflected on the war’s impact on them (that’s a clue to their age!) and each one of our small group unselfconsciously expressed profound appreciation and fulfillment to be living Israeli lives. On the way home after class as I walked past school kids alighting from a bus, one of them, a boy about nine, called out to his friends, “Yom Yerushalayim sameach!” (Happy Jerusalem Day), the words springing naturally from the mouth of the child; as meaningful to the young as to the old(er).
Not only a new language
It’s not only a new language immigrants need to learn. In May when the barrage of rockets were fired from Gaza toward southern and central Israel, and for the first time in decades seven were launched towards Jerusalem, a question posed in the WhatsApp group for Anglos in our building asked if new immigrants knew what to do on hearing a red alert siren. No, answered a few, perhaps to the surprise of some old-time locals – but they quickly learned.
Our six-year-old grandkid asked how many wars we had seen in our old country and his stunned blank face showed a total lack of comprehension on hearing there were no wars on Australian soil in our lifetime!
His incredulity matched my and hubby’s when driving on a city main road we skirted a sizable unbarricaded open hole at the side of the busy thoroughfare where a worker was just visible in the deep pit, as we and other cars whizzing past missed the hole – and the helmeted head peeping out at ground level – merely through the grace of God and timely observation.
In Israeli construction and road-building, workplace safety is still something of an oxymoron, or put more kindly, an evolving work in progress. There’s plenty of opportunity for improvement while across much of Israel cranes stretch skyward as new construction rapidly and extensively alters our landscapes, and upgraded highways, tunnels and over- and under-passes create an impressive new vehicular network. In the mixed, often contradictory Middle East, the great modernizing strides sit alongside the archetypal villager riding his donkey –which can still be spotted without much difficulty.
While Jerusalem the city is physically changing, its soul surely stays true to its ancient calling. Recently reading Elie Wiesel’s A Beggar in Jerusalem, I dog-eared this dramatic passage: “Jerusalem: the face visible yet hidden, the sap and the blood of all that makes us live or renounce life. The spark flashing in the darkness, the murmur rustling through shouts of happiness and joy. A name, a secret. For the exiled, a prayer. For all others, a promise. Jerusalem: Seventeen times destroyed yet never erased. The symbol of survival. Jerusalem: the city which miraculously transforms man into pilgrim; no one can enter it and go away unchanged.”
Into our seventh year here, we’re still bamboozled by automated options when telephoning offices, and even more so when an alternative for English speakers is available and selecting it launches straight into Hebrew!
But that is balanced by the predictable constancy of the seasons, such as the brief flash of autumn: one week swimmers crowd the beach, the very next we snuggle in winter clothes; avocados aplenty, apples crisp and unblemished, peppers firm and colorful, tomatoes straight from the soil explode their sweetness in our mouths; everything in its time, a time for everything.
If we lost track of the days in Jerusalem, we’d still know when it’s Friday by the flower stalls that spring up at every second corner with buckets full of bunches for Shabbat gifting. Where else would a drive-through corona test end with the swab taker waving off the tested with a friendly “Be healthy!” – and in which other country would the reception desk at a public hospital imaging department have Hanukkah candles burning brightly in December?
Israel has been a corona trailblazer – the global leader in per capita vaccinations in January, the first to jab 12-15 year-olds and the first with the booster third shot; the world watching closely and learning from the derring-do of our small country.
And steadily we not only feel but act more Israeli. Yet when hubby was driving in heavy traffic and moved into the next lane ahead of a car that only begrudgingly let him in, I was briefly startled when my better half did what Israeli drivers do – cupped his left hand with fingers touching the lips, and with a smile waved the symbolic half-cheeky salute to the other driver! No matter either that it was a woman.
Without a doubt, from Day One of our arrival in Israel, there is no other place on earth where I would wish for the chronicle of our family’s continuing journey to be written and lived.
The writer was a lawyer in Melbourne, Australia, before she and husband Joe made aliyah in 2015 to join their children, who had preceded them in aliyah.