Life Lessons with Judy Simon
Paula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company offering documentation services and training seminars. She made aliyah in 1993 when her oldest son was 6 years old. In March 2007, her son Elie entered the Artillery Division of the Israeli army and Paula began writing about her experiences as A Soldier’s Mother. The blog continues as Elie begins Reserve Duty and her son Shmulik is now a soldier. She recently opened a publishing house, helping other authors fulfill their dream to publish.
Links to the Author's blogs:
On August 16, 1993...I boarded an El Al jet with a three year old and a six year old. I was terrified; I was exhausted. I had nine suitcases, six carry-ons, a baby carriage and a car seat. My husband was an ocean away in Israel - already preparing the groundwork for the life we would build together in Israel. My seven-year-old daughter was there beside him, tasked with the single job of learning some Hebrew to ease her way into third grade. All I wanted was to get to him...and to her. I knew that if I could reach them, everything would be good.
Almost all that we owned was sailing across the ocean far below us - except for the clothes, linens, towels, utensils for 6, two pots, and some photo albums that were packed in our bags.
Even before the plane had reached cruising altitude, little Shmulik had fallen asleep. As soon as the pilot turned off the seat belt, I eased him to the floor on a blanket and pillow. The stewardesses already knew that I was different than most of the people on the plane. The other passengers were going to visit Israel or returning home. I was going to make it my home and I was a woman alone with two children. They all had a home somewhere; I was leaving the only home I had ever known for the only home I ever wanted. They were wonderful - my children and the stewardesses. But they both gave me the one thing my exhausted brain didn't want - time to think.
I talked with Elie for a short while. He asked some questions, we talked, and then he wanted to go to sleep too. I picked Shmulik up and Elie stretched out on the floor. He was small enough that with his head near the window, his feet were still safely within our row and I didn't have to worry about him getting trampled. He was asleep in minutes.
As soon as Elie was settled, I lowered Shmulik to the seats beside me and covered him. I covered Elie with another blanket and half wished that at least one of them had stayed awake so I wouldn't feel so lonely. I was alone over the dark ocean...flying to the only dream I had held inside of me from the time I was 13 years old. I was too exhausted to sleep; too nervous to relax; too worried that one of the boys would wake up to leave them even for a moment.
All I could think about was what it would be like once we landed. Israel. Can dreams come true? Can the land I believed in really be as I hoped it would be? How is it possible I was lucky enough to finally, finally, finally be on this plane heading to Israel - no return ticket, all my worldly possessions in Israel, on the ship, or with me on the plane?
Unbelievably, the boys slept almost the whole way. They missed the special children's meal; they missed the stewardesses coming to check on us and wishing us well.
After landing, we collected our bags - I can't remember how we carried the six carry-ons, but we did. We got near passport control - and were whisked upstairs to the left by a woman from AACI carrying a sign with our names. Away from all the others...those who came on vacation, because we had come to stay...and those who had come home, because we were coming home only for the first time.
The boys played in a large, empty room with what looked like 100 chairs, while I went through the paperwork. None of the other cubicles was being used...it was me, the boys...and the Russian clerk who created the paperwork to declare us Israelis. It seemed to take forever. I kept telling myself to hold on. As exhausted as I was, I knew my husband was outside - someone had checked and told me. Everything would by okay the minute I saw him... minutes took forever. I couldn't wait to see him because in so many ways, it was his promise, his actions, that made my dream come true.
As the clerk was finishing the final forms and had gotten up to escort the three of us downstairs to collect our bags - the large room filled with hundreds of people. A plane had landed from Russia with dozens of new immigrants. I was so grateful to have landed that much earlier, to have had the clerk and that large room to myself.
I found my suitcases, one by one. We piled them onto two carts; the boys held on. The carriage was put somewhere; the baby seat perched precariously above it all. We, the Russian clerk and I, pushed the carts outside and there...after not seeing him for more than 2 months, was my husband...with our daughter - and the most beautiful flowers I'd ever received.
It was warm and sunny outside, impossibly bright. My husband held me for those first few seconds and I knew I had come home.
The clerk ordered us a van, courtesy of the State of Israel and we followed my husband to the house he had found to rent for all of us. The massive amount of baggage was unloaded into the house; the van left and for the first time in months, I thought I could finally relax - we were finally together again, and even better, we were home.
In the days, weeks, months, and years that followed, I kept noticing the same things over and over again and I'll confess now that these things still make me smile. You see, the signs are all in Hebrew; the sun still so impossibly bright. The air had this smell - it still does - it is a combination of so many things - uniquely Israel. Every once in a while, early in the morning as I leave my home, I stop and smell...it is, forever, Israel.
Now, 20 years later, those two little boys are married. Both have served in the army; one fought in a war for this land. The daughter who had come 6 weeks before with her grandmother, is a mother herself with a husband that we truly love as a son. My husband and I are grandparents - grandparents, can you imagine? I can't start writing about my grandson...I'll never stop. He is life itself; he is the sun shining in our lives; he is ...
Weeks after I landed, my husband and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary in a small restaurant in the beautiful city of Jaffa on the shore. I kept staring out over the sea, loving that the sun set on the "wrong" side of the world. On the east coast of the United States, I had seen the sunrise and the promise of a new day coming; here in Israel, I have often watched the sun set, happy and satisfied with the blessings God has given me this day, each day, for the last 20 years.
In another few weeks, my husband and I will celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary - I don't yet know where. God willing, there will be a new grandchild to warm our hearts and fill our home with even more joy. And God willing, many more in the future.
I have never - not once, in 20 years looked back and wished away that flight, that exhaustion, or the absolute wonder of being welcomed into the Israeli sunshine.
It is the greatest of blessings to have a dream come true - mine did, 20 years ago when the wheels of that El Al jet touched down. I am what I always dreamed of being - I am Israeli. When my friends dreamed of being lawyers and engineers in high school, I thought I had no ambitions in life, I dreamed of being Israeli. Most became something other than they expected...for me...it was always Israel, is always Israel.
Even better, my children are Israelis - and the next generation is being born in this country. My grandson is a first generation Israeli on his mother's side; and on his father's side, he is the third generation born here. The new one will, God willing, be first generation on both sides.
If I have one regret, it is that we did not come sooner. I have watched on distant shores how those we left behind have wandered and I see my daughters and my sons, stronger, taller, more sure. It is the strength of being born in your land and not another's; of knowing it is yours because you defend it, by right but yes, by might as well. My children - the three I brought and the two born here - are Israelis. And they are better Jews for being Israeli because they understand the fundamental, inseparable tie between Jew and Israel; between belief and land.
I dreamed of coming to Israel - of the Hebrew signs and the fields; I dreamed of Jerusalem and the desert and the mountains. But what I know now is that the Jerusalem of my dreams was golden, but flat - it lacked the life, I see and live almost every day.
You have to live here to feel and see beyond the Jerusalem of the sunshine. It is the life flowing through it, every day - the traffic, the buses, the bicycles. It is the light rail, the people walking briskly down the street everywhere - the open cafes and the merchants selling the most amazing...and the most mundane.
It is the man handing you the newspaper; selling the freshly baked bread. It is the taxi driver driving like there is no tomorrow though tomorrow he will drive the same way. It is teacher who calls you up to tell you that your son is doing fine and the doctor that jokes that if the pain comes and goes, it isn't bad because "good things come and go; bad things stay all the time."
It is the anger that comes with a missile; the joy that comes with the holidays. It is the greeting from a stranger on Shabbat; it is the smile you share with someone on the train. It is the heart-stopping terror when the news announces at attack; and the way you sadly shake your head to the woman sitting next to you because you both understand that all of this...is Israel.
I dreamed of a land flowing with milk and honey...but the reality is so much better. The honey and milk you can buy in the store - instead, the land flows with life around the seasons of each year.
The trees in my dreams were green but the real land is so many more colors - it is, in some places barren, and in all places, majestic. It is the landscape of the Judean and Negev Deserts; it is the mountains in the Galilee and the water cascading down to the sea. It is the caves of Beit Guvrin and the amazing Sorek Cave. It is the grotto in Rosh HaNikra; the water flowing into the Sea of Galilee.
It is the bustling cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv and the open markets (shuks) throughout the land. It is the new mall in Beersheva and snorkeling in Eilat. It is the snow on the Hermon and the beauty of Gush Etzion. It is traffic jams and honking cars and planes and helicopters flying overhead.
It is the shore of the Mediterranean and that first glimpse of sunset as the sun touches the water with a promise to come back tomorrow. It is the shimmering heat of summer and the cold of the stone floors in winter.
And it is the people...
The people are old...so old...and so young. It is the old man walking across the street...and the young man with an earring that stops a car with one hand while with the other he guides the old man across. It is the boy with a tattoo who kisses my mezuzah as he delivers pizza and leaves with a blessing that I should be well or have a good Shabbat.
It is the mother, struggling to hold one child, while another sleeps in a carriage and it is the young woman who reaches to pick up the blanket and hand it to the little girl who stops her fussing to hide her face. And then, this young woman and this little girl play peek-a-boo until the mother gets off the bus.
It is the young mother who boards the back of the bus with her baby and takes a seat - and then passes her wallet to the front of the bus to pay for the ticket...knowing the wallet and the ticket will soon be returned. And this is all done without fear because in Israel, mothers do not fear strangers as they do elsewhere.
Here, something crashes or explodes and you turn to the person next to you and you each hope no one was hurt. A stranger is never quite a stranger here because what we share is so much greater than what we don't. The news comes on and people listen and then smile or frown because whatever happens affects one and so affects all.
Israel is the woman who climbs in your car and gives you directions, and asks if you can drop her off on the way...and sometimes on the way is a bit out of the way so that she can get just a bit closer to her destination.
Israel is the guy who steps on your foot, and then tells you it's okay. Israel is the old woman who tells you that you really have to put a hat on the baby and don't you think it's too hot to have that blanket on him?
Israel...is the man who shakes his head and says five as your eyes fill with tears because he means five dead and you can't believe it has happened again. And it is the soldier who falls asleep on your couch because he has just come back from yet another exhausting week, pushed to the end of his abilities and yet he knows...we know...he will do it all again next week just the same way.
Israel is the woman at the bank who asks after your son because she knows where he is and what he is doing...or at least as much as you know and only then will she ask you about the deposit you want to make or the form you need to fill out urgently.
And it is the store manager at the checkout counter who asks why you are buying so much candy and when he hears it is for your son's unit, he lowers the price and then throws in a case of something else. And it is the man in line right behind you who hears this, sees this, and tells the store owner to throw in another 50 shekels, so of course, the store owner throws in 75 shekels of more candy.
And it is the bride who walks to the kotel in her wedding dress, and it is the guard who opens the gates for her and all the people who call out to wish her mazel tov, congratulations and it is the three Ultra-Orthodox men who sing wedding songs and clap their hands as she walks past.
Twenty years ago, I flew to the picture I had carried in my heart and found a land beyond all that I had imagined. Israel has turned my children into the most amazing people - four out of five (so far) have volunteered for the ambulance squad - two still actively give hours of their lives helping others. Two are security guards; all five still studying and working towards the future that awaits them. All five...Israelis.
Some people ask where years go...they marvel at how fast time flies by...yes, I marvel, but I know where they have gone...they have taken my children into adulthood, into families of their own. They have brought me two children born here; and three more children who have married to become mine as well. They have brought me five children of other women who I call my own in one way or another and that is a number I expect will continue to grow because that too is Israel.
The years have taken one son into war and into an almost war and another into more operations than I care to think about. And I know that more years stand ahead of me with another son...who will come home in a uniform and a gun and, with the blessings of God, will grow and return that gun and uniform and he too will marry...
Israel - there are no words to thank you, my beautiful land, for what you have given to the people of Israel and to my family and to me.
On August 16, 1993, I left the land of my birth, the only home I had ever known, and on August 17, 1993, an El Al jet landed and brought me to the only home my people has ever had.
May the God of Israel forever keep His promise - the land of Israel...for the people of Israel - always and forever.
Here's to the next twenty, and the twenty after them, and the twenty after them, and God willing, even another twenty or so....
I was at a military ceremony recently. I don't have a son in active duty...that will come too soon but it isn't here yet. But my daughter-in-law's cousin, who is actually more of a brother than a cousin, just finished the Commanders' Course and our family joined in the celebration.
B.'s parents live in the States; he is considered a lone soldier, though I wonder how many lone soldiers have nearly as many people who love and care about them as B. does. He's got a family south of Jerusalem, another smack in the middle near Modiin, he's got his cousin, and he has us.
I took my fancy-shmancy camera - the one I got for my trip to Europe and with that, we took pictures. I want to post one here - not of B. - that is not my choice to do because he isn't my son...but one that shows all our sons...I knew, even as I was rushing to take this picture, that it would say all that I wanted it to.
Yes, I have deliberately and hopefully efficiently wiped out the faces of two of the soldiers. What I want you to see is the position of their bodies.
The young man on the left is a commander - as you can see by the three bars on his arm.
The young man on the right has just been promoted to a commander, having finished an intensive course.
What touches me is the arm - you're one of mine, it says, don't forget it. Wherever you go in this army, I'll be with you.
I'll tell you a secret that you might not believe. I'll bet though, that you could ask the highest general in Israel, and he'd agree. This is the strength of the Israeli army - it's all there in that arm. It isn't the weapons, the tanks, the planes...it's all there.
We are brothers, says that commander to his soldier. Soon, you'll have your soldiers, but you'll always be mine...we are and will always be - brothers in arms.
May God bless B. as he begins the latest phase of his army service. I know that he will do an amazing job...and as always, please God, bless our sons and daughters. Watch over them, as they watch over Israel.
Growing up, I lived on a main street that was closed each July 4th. We had to remember to pull the car to a side street or give up going anywhere for many hours. For the most part, we pulled out the chairs and sat right on the curb as police marched by, girl scouts, politicians, fire trucks, boy scouts, baton-twirling teams, the high-school band and more.
Some threw us candy - we threw candy back and cheered them on. This was almost always the memory I have - that and the neighbors across the street preparing for their annual barbecue and sometimes going to see fireworks over the river.
One year stands out in my mind. I was 15 years old; it was 1976. We had gone to celebrate America's 200th birthday by watching the tall ships sail down the Hudson River. We had brought a radio with us to listen to the broadcasters describe each ship...but more, days before Palestinian and German terrorists had hijacked a French plane and landed it in Entebbe, Uganda.
I was sick thinking of how they had separated the Jewish and Israeli passengers; releasing the Christian ones. That a German terrorist was involved in this separation brought home again the knowledge that the Holocaust will never really leave us.
I will forever remember that the French crew was offered the chance to leave with the Christians...and chose to stay. The deadline was approaching. The terrorists were threatening to kill the passengers. At any moment, I expected to hear that explosions and gunfire had been heard coming from the compound.
And as we sat watching the ships...the radio broke the news - explosions and gunfire. I thought I was hearing the end of what would be remembered as a terrible tragedy...and then there was confusion. It seemed a rescue attempt had been launched by Israel. Israel? But the hostages were in Africa, in Uganda?
It was, the radio quickly pointed out, a daring operation. The Israeli air force had flown 1,500 miles under the radar, undetected. They'd landed in Entebbe, and the hostages were free. The ships sailed quietly along the Hudson but those of us listening to that radio were distracted, desperate to hear what was happening. It was the first time in days I felt like smiling, like cheering - and as I looked at the ships, I thought - this is freedom...here on the river, and there in Africa.
My ears listened to the reports - some casualties but most of the hostages, almost all of them were free and being taken back to Israel...and my eyes followed the ships gracefully glided down the Hudson. My heart sang with such joy. I remember crying - but they were tears of relief. I had expected 100 dead, not 100 freed.
Yoni Netanyahu - commander of the operation and older brother of the current prime minister, gave his life bringing the passengers home. He epitomized the Israeli army officer. Follow me, he told his men. He led them in and was the first and only Israeli army soldier to fall. He died on the plane flying home, despite desperate efforts to save his life. There is a sense of peace knowing that in his last moments, he must have known that he had succeeded. He had risked all for the freedom of others, for his people - those who no one else but Israel could have saved.
July 4 has, for the last 37 years, been entwined with that memory. The tall ships and the radio. The crackling announcements of what was happening in Entebbe and the strange feeling of being in two places - both symbolizing the very same concept - a commitment to be free and to ensure the safety and freedom of all.
Freedom comes, too often, with a price. It can, at times, be a huge and painful one. But we are free today - in the United States and in Israel, because there are brave men and women who will risk all to fight against tyranny. Those who will march against evil, stand against the tide.
May God bless the United States of America with continued strength and freedom. May it always be a land where evil is wrong; where equality and justice are honored; where life is something to be valued.
May God bless the soldiers of America and the soldiers of Israel who fight so that we can all live our lives in freedom and know that if there are those who rise up against us, who attempt to take from us that which we value, that which we love, that which we are - our soldiers will protect us, fight for us, even fall for us.
And may God bless the memory of Yonatan Netanyahu, who died 37 years ago and is remembered, to this day, for the lives he saved, for the many he brought home.
For a few weeks now, I've been working on an intensive project for a client, requiring me to work a few days a week in the center of the country - Herziliya/Tel Aviv - Israel's hi-tech center.
There are other places in Israel, other centers, but always, this is considered THE center of Israel's hi-tech. This morning, I was listening to the news, as I usually do, and there is talk of the missiles Russia has promised to Syria; talk of Hezbollah destabilizing Lebanon.
Our neighbors have problems, it is clear and once again, it isn't because of Israel but their own internal issues.
The news says Israelis are rushing to get gas masks; people write of the exercise last week in which air raid sirens sounded all over Israel and we were asked to go into bomb shelters as being another example that Israelis think war is coming.
I've lived here through two almost wars, two wars, and innumerable operations.
War clouds are always hanging over our borders and threatening - sometimes, yes, war comes...more often, I think/I hope - war doesn't come. So many are convinced this time, it will come.
For once, I have my head in the clouds, in work, in family - I just am not there.
Instead, I noticed something. Israel this morning - every morning, isn't depressed about the news and what our neighbors are doing. We are moving, driving, working, playing, living. It's Thursday - that means tomorrow brings a day off work, our weekend. The Sabbath for those who observe - family time.
This morning, for some reason I can't explain, I noticed the trucks near me, on the other side of the road, continuing north on the highway, as I exited to the west. I didn't think to take a picture of most of them - but in no particular order, I saw a Coca Cola truck...and to balance it out - seriously - I also saw a truck for Pepsi.
I saw a small Tnuva truck carrying (probably) milk products. And again, to balance it out - and most seriously, I saw a truck - larger even than the Tnuva truck - for Tara - they too package and sell milk products and I wish I'd gotten the picture because the truck was painted white with black patches like cows!
In short - a full diet (well, except for the fruit and vegetables...I didn't see any trucks carrying these items (maybe on the way home).
And then, as I got very close to my client's offices, I saw a tree. A tree. I was standing at the light, waiting to turn into the hi-tech area and there on the corner...the tree spoke to me (no, seriously, not really). But there was a voice in the image, a message on this wonderful day.
And I think, like the trucks, that this tree symbolizes Israel. On the thirty minute mark, as I rounded the corner, the news gave a short update. Again there was talk of Syria, Hezbollah, and missiles. Look at me, the tree said as I turned the corner. Don't forget. I am Israel.
So Israel was on the move today and standing rooted and proud as well. Our message to our neighbors is simple. Guess what - we'll be on the move tomorrow and next week, next month, and next year. We're living. Our trees grow stronger; our roots deeper. And each morning, as the sun rises, our trucks roll out reaching to the far corners of our small country (okay, that's not that hard to do), but the milk trucks are out there, and Coca Cola and Pepsi and Osem and Tnuva and Tara and Strauss, and so many others. Meat and noodles and bread. Not war rations.
The sun is shining here and what we've learned over time is that the Israeli sun is so incredibly powerful, it can shine through the clouds of war any day, every day.