Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Yet another planeload of new immigrants landed in Israel today. Israel National News – www.israelnationalnews.com -- interviewed some of them as they stepped off the plane and entered the reception hall. It’s interesting – 55 new enlisted immigrant soldiers came on that flight, in addition to everyone else.
I was impressed – most of them seemed pretty coherent. After weeks of cleaning, packing, selling and throwing away, after months of enduring the tension of not knowing what it will be like, of saying goodbye, and then sitting nearly immobile on the airplane for a dozen hours, I don’t think I was nearly that alert.
Both Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky welcomed these new Israelis, just as did Ariel Sharon, when we landed.
I was on the very first Nefesh b’Nefesh flight, July 10, 2002. The NBN flights have now become standard, but at the time the whole organization seemed too good to be true. NBN did dozens of things to help make our Aliyah – moving to Israel – easier, but prime among them was cutting the bureaucracy. While we were in flight, officials from the Immigration Agency were also on board, helping us complete most of the required paperwork. By the time we landed, we’d finished about 90% of the things every group of immigrants before us had spent their first weeks in Israel doing. At the time, it seemed like a miracle.
Looking back, NBN still seems like a miracle.
As long as I live, I will never be able to thank NBN enough for everything they’ve done – and have never stopped doing. During last December’s war, when missiles were blasting Beersheba, NBN staffers still tracked me down, calling to ask if I was okay. They wanted to know if there was anything at all I needed, or if there was anything they could do to help. They offered to find a place for me to stay – with my dogs, yet! – if I wanted to get out of the line of fire for a few days. So seven years after I arrived, NBN was still there offering help.
There were 350+ new immigrants on our first flight. We stepped off the plane unto the tarmac in what must have been 110 ° heat and then were directed into a hangar that was even hotter. A shofar was blowing, a band was playing, there were hundreds of cheering people who’d come to meet the historic flight, families, friends and just regular Israelis who wanted to be the first to welcome us home. The whole thing was spectacular -- few of us made it into the hangar without shedding a tear or two.
Inside, strategically placed fans struggled to cool the place off, but the heat was awesome. Volunteers pressed bottles of ice water into our hands. Others handed out other “welcome” gifts, artwork, calendars, booklets, certificates for discounts on all kinds of things.
Through it all, I have to admit I was distracted – Guinness, my elderly Cocker Spaniel, had flown in the ‘hold’. He wasn’t a seasoned flier by any means, and in the tremendous heat, I was seriously worried about him.
The moment I got into the hangar, I started to look for someone who looked ‘official’, someone who could give me some information. There were seven dogs on our flight, probably twice as many cats, and who knows what else, in smaller cages.
I wandered around, asking everyone I could, and finally located an El Al worker. All I wanted, I explained, was to get to the baggage area so I could check on my dog. He said that wouldn’t be possible. I’d have to stay here until the ceremonies were over. But I was panicked – what if the traveling cages were out in the sun? I knew poor Guinness – who’d been locked in his crate for 15 hours by that time – couldn’t handle that.
The El Al guy took pity on me, pulled out his cell phone and punched in some numbers. He spoke, then turned to me. “Your dog is the Cocker? He’s just fine. They’ve all had fresh water and Guinness is on his leash, they’re taking him for a little walk.”
I coulda kissed the guy. As long as Guinness was okay, I could enjoy the rest of the ceremony.
Truth is, that first opening ceremony lasted too long – it was probably three hours later when all the music groups had performed and all the dignitaries had spoken.
We were then directed up to one of the offices to complete another hunk of paperwork. We were channeled up at least one set of stairs, down hallways and finally into yet another huge room where they began calling individuals by name to go into one of a number of small offices.
I was shocked. As I looked around, I realized this could take all night. The room was packed – dozens of little kids milled around, some were crying, everyone was way beyond exhausted. I listened to the first names being called. They didn’t appear to be alphabetical, so I wondered how they decided who to take first. ‘It will be the families with little kids,” I thought – but just then they called my name. I still don’t know how they decided – or how long the last people had to wait – but I was directed to a tiny office, desk and a chair, and invited to sit. The man asked to see all the paperwork I’d completed on the plane, then asked for a few more bits of information.
The only question I remember was, ‘What’s your mother’s first name?”
“Elphie,” I said – hardly a common name.
With no hesitation at all, he typed it out in Hebrew, printed out the documents, folded them into the little holder and handed me my Tuedat Oleh, my immigration papers. With tears in his eyes, he shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.” Naturally I burst into tears again.
Now I was free to go to the baggage department, dig out my luggage from among the mountains of bags they’d unloaded, and had a happy reunion with Guinness – who seemed to be in better shape than I was.
Next step? Claim my free taxi ride to Beersheba.
Every new immigrant gets a free taxi ride to his first home. As it turned out, that taxi ride proved to be the most interesting part of the trip. My taxi driver got lost.
Beersheba is a major city, on a major highway. It’s less than 60 miles from Tel Aviv. As we drove, I was surprised to see road signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Several of them read, “Beersheba” – with an arrow that pointed to a turn.
My problem was, I had a Russian driver. We didn’t turn. I don’t know if he couldn’t read the signs, but the second or third time I saw him whizzing by a sign clearly pointing to a sign that read “Beersheba”, I started to wonder.
And then I started to laugh.
You’re not gonna believe this, but Maggie Rennert – whose book, “Shelanu: An Israel Journal” – was responsible for bringing me to Beersheba in the first place – also encountered taxi drivers who got lost on the road from Tel Aviv to Beersheba. (For more about Maggie, see my May 3 blog, “Channeling Maggie”)
Back in 1973, Maggie, too, lucked out with a pair of enormous Russian taxi drivers she began calling “Tweedledum” and “Tweedledee”. They spent so much time arguing or debating with each other -- she couldn’t tell, it was all in Russian – that they got lost.
They were lost for so many hours they had to stop at a kibbutz and eat, thinking they’d have to stay overnight and start again the next day. Maggie writes that she was so freaked out at their strange behavior that she found someone at the kibbutz who spoke English, and in response to her tears, agreed to drive her to Beersheba. They finally arrived “hours and hours” late. She was, she said, a total basket case.
For us, it took just over six hours to make the 59 mile trip.
I have no doubt the taxi driver drove four or five times that far. The problem started when, at some point, he decided to turn off the main road, taking a gravel road instead. Maybe he was just trying to turn around, maybe he thought he had one of those ‘short cuts’ men always seem to know about. But before I knew it, we were in the middle of absolute nowhere. There was nothing around – no civilization, few trees, a curvy ad hoc road which kept getting more and more like a path with every minute.
Finally there was a truck was approaching us from the other direction. My driver stuck his hand out the window, flagged the other driver down, and even though I didn’t understand a word of it, I could see that a complicated set of directions was being conveyed, beginning with “turn around.”
We turned around. We drove awhile, then my driver took a left, and we headed in a new direction. Again there was absolutely nothing in sight. We drove and drove. By this time, we’d already been on the road for well over three hours, and I was ruing the fact I hadn’t taken several more bottles of water that had been handed out so freely back at the hangar. Who knew? Now I had only a tiny bit of water left, which I poured into Guinness’ travel bowl. He ignored it, making me wish I’d had it myself. I considered drinking from the dog bowl, but decided I wasn't quite that desperate. Yet.
We kept going, and honestly, it was getting funny. Every car my driver saw, he’d flag down. And every one would start the directions with “turn around”, which he did. Every time.
I was watching the road intently, hoping for some form of civilization. Finally, I could see something ahead – were we finally getting somewhere? It turned out to be a fence – a huge barbed wire fence, with an awful lot of signs I couldn’t read, but which I sure as heck understood. If ever there was a “DO NOT ENTER” warning, this was it. The driver turned around, and – unperturbed – headed off in yet another direction.
On and on. Then another driver came up behind us and again the taxi driver flagged him down. This time, he made some much longer explanation and pointed to the gas gauge. Oh, no! The other driver rubbed his head, a gesture of pure frustration, but clearly indicated, “Follow me”.
We did. A relatively short time later, we drove into a kibbutz.
Do you believe this? Maggie – wherever she is -- must have been laughing, too.
We were at Kibbutz Kerem Shalom – which you now read about frequently in the news as a trouble spot. It’s right on the border with Aza – and remember, this was 2002. Buses and cafes were exploding, and there we were – probably in their midst. I kept envisioning newspaper headlines, “New Immigrant Shot and Killed, First Day”.
But the kibbutzniks at Kerem Shalom were very welcoming. The driver, Guinness and I were invited in and offered fruit and water – true hospitality in the desert. I was directed to the facilities, and Guinness availed himself of the same opportunity in a much more informal fashion. The taxi driver disappeared – probably to get gas.
By the time we set out again, we were already five hours late. It was getting dark. I hadn’t had any sleep for upwards of 40 hours, and I was barely functional. My taxi driver, on the other hand, seemed refreshed. And this time, he had a set of written instructions and a photocopied map in his hand. Good deal.
Honestly – Beersheba is hard to miss. It has lots of tall buildings, and at night, city lights were visible for miles. It took us less than an hour to find the city, and another half hour to find my first sublet apartment, which the driver finally found by giving a local taxi driver the address and following his instructions. The people who’d been there to welcome me had given up and gone home hours ago, but there was someone to open the door. Home. At last.
Just think. By sheer luck, we’d had a chance to see parts of Israel lots of Israelis have never seen.
All this makes me wonder: How those new immigrants who arrived this morning faring? Probably taxis have GPS systems now – but that sure would take the excitement out of it.
(Photo, courtesy of NBN, www.nbn.org.il)