My eyes were fixed on the fading mountain of Rosh ha Nikra as it dipped under the horizon; the northern tip of Israel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, had vanished from view. The image echoed through my mind like the face of a loved one biding farewell. 25,000 feet…However, the spirit of Israel was still beside me in the aircraft cabin, Israeli passengers create their own unique atmosphere!
23,000 feet and we were a single people, for now traveling in one direction. Three young yeshiva students were engaged in the afternoon prayer. Other passengers strolled along the aisle claiming the cabin as their own promenade, freely talking to complete strangers along the way. An El Al host jokingly suggested that two noisy kids might want to play outside?
Long lost friends or newly found ones, in Israel there hardly seemed to be a difference? In this flying ship, political and religious issues were of little importance; there was unity in the air…but we were leaving our home port. I gazed out the window and felt an imminent descent to be at hand. Charles De Gaulle International Airport could be clearly seen on our starboard side. The heady mood had now evaporated. At 10,000 feet layer upon layer of thick clouds appeared, ready to swallow us. My thoughts turned to the French Revolution of 1789 and a famous debate that took place concerning the acceptance of Jews as citizens in their new found republic. "Surely, this people would have an allegiance elsewhere, why…they even direct their prayers to a foreign land?"
At 8000 feet my attention was drawn to an elderly lady clasping her companions' hand, the number on her arm brought me back to reality. Europe awaited us below. 5000 feet and I clearly visualized the sad journey of my people into ever descending layers of obedience and acceptance towards their new environment. Even those who thought they were near the top of the echelon were still subject to a higher authority far removed from what the Children of Israel experienced before that dreadful exile.
How far had we descended and were we even aware of it? Then I too felt stripped off my identity as the remnants of Israel, my fellow passengers, dispersed into the Diaspora. First the long walk to passport control thinned our ranks. We were reunited briefly while our baggage was claimed, but then once more our numbers further decimated as the arrival hall opened its sliding doors. I took a deep breath into the crisp autumn air. Is this how an astronaut would feel if his oxygen tank had been punctured? My own supply of air from the Holy land had finally deflated as I surveyed a pleasant but alien landscape.
The yeshiva boys quickly replaced their Jewish head coverings for berets. Should I have learnt something from their nervous action? Hostile faces looking in their direction told me all I needed to know. I had landed at zero feet and was now a stranger who would prove that French Baron, arguing against Jewish integration, to be correct. Yes! I would also direct my heart elsewhere, but not to a foreign land.
A discarded newspaper swept along the littered pavement blown by a gust of wind. Its headlines carried the all too familiar message of Israel's demise in the civilized world. Frenchmen gathered around a taxi rank, one was unmistakably Jewish, but bore the hallmarks of a respectable Parisian. Had he read those same headlines and placed further distance from his true heritage?
The slow descent of the Jewish people into the exile of the Diaspora was a longer journey than the one I had just taken. How the mighty had fallen and had even joined the legacy of the Roman legions, their own persecutors, totally unaware of our shame?
I had arrived for a singular purpose, intending to perform a duty last performed during a rescue diving scenario. Our eyes had then scanned the surface of the ocean seeking signs of missing divers. Where to even begin looking? Only this time the search would be for the lost Children of Israel who had succumbed to an even longer and slower descent than that of my fellow passengers. I needed inspiration.
Just then a mixed group of Israelis and Jewish tourists passed by, excitingly getting ready to board the same plane that took us from my beloved Israel. I could almost breathe in the air they were bound for. They were going home; on a journey of divine Aliyah. I took heart, so would I be again, but not alone!
Tell me, my dear Jewish brothers and sisters…I'm sharing my own personal experiences and don't want to be alone, so maybe you can share yours too…what does the Diaspora mean to you? We will explore this question amongst others in following posts. Shalom!