By Harriet P. Gross
I’m writing this the morning after returning from two weeks in Israel—exhausted, and elated.
Someone who writes regularly about Jewish subjects should not wait as long as I did between such visits. The last time my husband and I were in Israel, it was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem’s day of unification following the 1967 Six-Day War. This time, we marked the occasion’s 43rd. You can do the math. I’m ashamed of myself!
Israel today is a very different country than we saw 23 years ago. Then, armed soldiers were everywhere, riding buses, accompanying tourist groups like ours—we were part of just a dozen then, tooling around in a comfortable mini-van. This time, we were part of a monster mob of some 150, all signed up for the same highly recommended commercial tour that lived up to promises and expectations, traveling in a three-bus caravan from Israel’s far northern to its farthest southern borders. The only soldiers who rode with us were the half-dozen hitchhikers from their military base near Beer Sheva; we picked them up as we drove from Eilat back to Tel Aviv, on our way to catch our El Al flight home.
When you go to Israel, do fly El Al! You not only support the country’s economy, you feel Israel’s determined spirit from the moment you arrive at its airport terminal and face the extensive questioning put to you and everyone else who will be on the flight with you. Maybe it’s annoying, maybe even a bit intrusive. But at the end, you relax. Israeli homeland security is above reproach. Our bus guide stressed this important point: “We are looking for the bomber, not the bomb. We profile without apology. We put political correctness toward one person beneath the safety of many…”
Our guide was a Brit who made aliyah as a young man, and has been in this business for two decades; he calls his unmistakably English accent “a birth defect.” He’s intense about his country, its importance to Judaism’s survival, and its needs, and high on his list is transmitting that personal intensity to everyone entrusted to his temporary care. “Bring your children and grandchildren to Israel,” he was constantly urging us.
The tone of this trip was quite different for me from our first one so long ago. Then, I was drinking in our Eternal Homeland for the first time, marveling wide-eyed at everything—as our guide expects our children and grandchildren will do. But this time, I knew more—although far from enough—and could not only see the differences in growth, but feel the differences in current politics. I missed entirely what turned out to be most important for me now:
At the airport, waiting after clearance to board our flight, I sat with a trio of young Israeli men, returning home after doing their own (for me, “reverse”) sightseeing and exploring in the U.S. One of them asked me, “What do you think will be the most important part of your trip?” And I was surprised to hear myself respond, without hesitation, “The experience of being part of a majority!” Not the seeing of anything physical, not even the Kotel, but the feeling of being a Jew among Jews, all day, every day, without apology or explanation or discomfort of any kind.
So many kinds of Jews! The seculars of Tel Aviv, the Jerusalem Haredi, the teeny kippot and big black hats, the swinging tsitsis, the shtreimels and gabardine coats, the long skirts and miniscule bikinis, the men in white stockings and bare-legged women (some of them, by the way, being handed strikingly identifiable pink ponchos at the Western Wall to assure the modesty standard that we as tourists were warned in advance, early and often, to be sure to follow).
I don’t know if the guide’s urgent message got through to all in our group; many of the women were so busy buying jewelry everywhere, especially little Stars of David to take home to their young granddaughters—the very kids our English Israeli was hoping they would come again and bring with them—the price comparisons and place recommendations were major topics of conversation. But you never know. Virtually every one of them went home with a protective, good-luck hamsa that may be enough to turn them eastward again in the future.
For me, this was already the future. I spotted only one gun-toting soldier patrolling the Wall. She was black…