It is difficult for me to believe but today marks the 40th anniversary of a very significant day in my life: my arrival in Israel for the first time.
On October 3, 1979 at about 6 p.m., I stepped off a plane at Ben Gurion Airport and onto the soil (or at least the tarmac) of the land of Israel to begin my year of rabbinical studies in Jerusalem.
I remember my first moments in Israel distinctly. I can still recall sitting with out luggage as my two friends, return travelers to Israel, arranged transportation to Jerusalem. I had never been in a tropical climate before and noted in a journal that I was seeing palm trees for the first time. I eavesdropped on conversations in Hebrew including listening to two children greeting their grandparents with the words (in Hebrew): “Guess what? It’s already rained”. Only later did I realize how significant it was that Israel had already seen rain even though Sukkot had not arrived. I felt strangely comfortable even though I felt so distant from everything I knew.
I did not continue writing in that journal after the first entry but the memories of that year are still so vivid. I remember much more from that one year than any other year of school. In the months to come, I want to share some of those memories on this blog. They are memories of a time when I- and Israel- were younger and I hope these memories, especially memories of Israel in the late 70’s will be interesting to those who have spent time in the country.
Israel was a simpler place back then and Jerusalem was certainly a smaller city. I remember distinctly the trip from the airport to Jerusalem and being truly shocked at the dark emptiness around me. Night had fallen and, unlike today, the view from the road to Jerusalem was not of billboards, malls and signs for fast food restaurants but was truly dark except for the flickering lights of villages along the route. Arriving in Jerusalem, there were no large hotels at the entrance to the city and the building that stood out was the Central Bus Station which one of my friends told me would be the most important place in the city as it offered a chance to get out of Jerusalem and see the country.
He was partially right. I enjoyed traveling around the country but I also found Jerusalem itself to be fascinating and almost from my first day living in the city, I loved walking through the neighborhoods, visiting the Old City both for the spiritual significance of the holy sites and for the bustling shuk, the market, which I never tired of exploring.
To this day, it is those trips around Jerusalem that I hold as one of my fondest memories of a very emotional year. I truly fell in love with the city and while I know it is completely unfair for me to say this, seeing Jerusalem grow and become more hectic and more devoted to tourism in my subsequent visits made me wish for one more opportunity to eat at the simple hummus stand we frequented which today has been swallowed up by the pedestrian mall of Ben Yehuda Street. It’s progress and makes the city more exciting but I still yearn for the “good old days”.
In my future postings, I’ll recall specific memories from that year. For now, though, I’ll share just one memory of a ritual I performed every Shabbat I was in Jerusalem.
Each Friday afternoon, I would go out to the balcony outside my dormitory room at the Jewish Theological Seminary campus behind the Israel Museum and overlooking the “Valley of the Cross” just before the sounding of the sirens indicating the beginning of Shabbat. I would turn on a cassette tape of one favorite American song or another. Then, I would stand looking out over the city and try to figure out how to balance the conflicting feelings of being so far, far away from home and yet recognizing the privilege I had to live in the city my ancestors had only dreamed of. It was a conflict I never really settled completely but it was- and is- a beautiful conflict to struggle with.