I was "bitten by the Israel bug" during my first visit to Israel in 1971. I made it my home in 1977. How this country has grown and changed! I dare say there is no country in the world that has undergone so much change and turbulence as this tiny one has. Countries a hundred times its size and population are hardly heard of or noticed by the world or its press.
The greening of the deserts, cutting-edge technological breakthroughs, military prowess, and the percentage of Nobel prize winners do not cease to amaze. However, it is none of the above which made me stop and marvel yesterday afternoon.
More than any of the wonders of Israel is first and foremost that there is a Jewish country; never to be taken for granted. Never has anyone returned to their home after two thousand years of expulsion (and unrelenting oppression). We all know of miracles beyond the norm of history that have accompanied Israel from inception until this moment.
Yesterday afternoon was one of those times when the essence of this miracle hit me afresh.
I attended a memorial service for a friend, who had made Aliyah to Israel. An American Jew who came home to Israel as an adult from a Jewishly unaffiliated comfortable home.
He directed that on his tombstone it be written, "The land of Israel gave meaning to my life"
I noticed that his final resting place in the soil of his beloved Israel was next to yet another "Oleh". I recognized the foreign script on the stone as Amharic - the Ethiopian language. I also noticed that he was ninety-eight when his soul was called away.
This man was most certainly raised in a mud hut and had to stave off threats from Christian and Muslim rulers and neighbors. Ethiopia was not a place for individual rights and freedoms.
Despite it all, this man and his community for millennia remained fiercely faithful to their faith and never abandoned the hope to come home to "Jerusalem".
He was one of the survivors on the dangerous desert track to escape to Israel.
He surely felt blessed to see great-grandchildren in the land of his dreams.
Yesterday's events connected me to similar thoughts I had a few years ago.
There is an older Russian immigrant living in my Jerusalem neighborhood. He has learned to read some of the prayers in Hebrew and seemed to be consciously making up for a lifetime robbed of his Jewish identity in Communist Russia. He tried hard. He had nobody in the world except his very old mother and she had no one besides him until she passed away. I was one of the ten men he asked to come to the cemetery. I stood at the grave of this woman who was witness to the" joys" of the Czar, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and then again Salin and friends.
When the gates of her prison were suddenly opened she finally came home to the land of her dreams. Her son collected a minyan for her in Jerusalem. It probably never occurred to her that the stones of Jerusalem would be her eternal companion.
Where better to feel the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles in our day than in a Jerusalem cemetery.? As I helped the elderly Russian immigrants with the reciting of the Psalms that they were forbidden in Communist Russia, newly ingathered Asian Jews were paying their respects a few feet away.
The two little groups seemed like light years away from one another, but this moment united the two disjoint groups.
The "Benei Menashe" has a fascinating story. Suffice it to say that their last home was in Manipur on the Burmese – Indian border. They never have forgotten their roots after they were expelled from |Israel over twenty-seven hundred years ago with the Assyrian exile. I asked some of the younger people to read the inscription on the tombstone. These, now Israelis, could hardly decipher it. I learned that the deceased was one of the first in the community to undergo formal conversion in 1975 returning him, formally into the bosom of the Jewish people. The second part of his life dream came true in 1988 when he was the first to step foot on the land that his ancestors were expelled from millennia ago.
The younger generation is the new shoots springing up in the soil of Zion. As the prophet said, “I will bring you from the far corners of the earth on the wings of eagles.”
I asked myself, what is the common denominator between these Jews from the US, Ethiopia, Russia, and Burma?
Was it their burning desire to live in a country like the US or Europe, the global village?
Was it their dream to live in a country where religious and national identity is suנbsumed by a country of ALL its citizens, where their children will not know what a Jewish prayer sounds like?
A land whose future is determined by non-Jews and enemies of the Jewish state - all in the name of a thing called democracy? Or, to be exact, their definition of democracy?
Does anyone ask what motivated these Jews to come home?
For me, more than any of the many wonders this is what Israel is really all about. This is the miracle of miracles. It makes me realize that my return from my own part of the Jewish exile was far more than a personal choice or escapade. I too returned on the same eagle’s wings.
How to explain to them the attack on their dream today?
Shalom Pollack,[email protected], is a tour guide and author of "Jews, Israelis and Arabs"