Coming Home...Twenty Years
Paula SternPaula R. Stern is CEO and founder of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical...
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....