Sixty Three Years of Independence: Israel's Independence Day
By I. F.
The first time that I came to Israel was in 1968, that was over forty years ago. I had considered it a year earlier but after the Six Day War in June of 1967, I arranged my affairs and came to live in Israel; it lasted for two years. I returned to the States in 1970 but with the dream of coming back again to live for good. I did not fulfill that dream until 1978. I have been here since then only going back to the States for family visits.
Israel in 1968 was a different place in many aspects than it is today. The Israelis then were in a 'up' mood, they had defeated the Arab armies, the economy was going well and the country was wide open to opportunity. I started in an Ulpan in Kiryat Shmona for 5 months to polish my Hebrew skills and then moved down to Tel Aviv to work and live. Kiryat Shmona was a interesting place to live. It was very small townish, very friendly and open to new-comers. I remember hitch hiking on a mule driven cart. It was a very together town especially when you take into consideration the fact that it was populated with people from very diverse backgrounds: Rumanians, Indians, Moroccans, you name it, they lived together and suffered from the periodic Katusha rockets that were shot over from Lebanon.
I toured extensively the country. I traveled through and toured in Arab cities. Then the Arabs were a meek group at that time and did not endanger Jewish tourists. I walked around Ramallah, Shechem, Bethlehem, Hebron, etc with no fear and only once did I feel a bit aware of hatred and that was in Jenin. The Arabs, like the Israelis, were happy to have people come into their stores and purchase something. They spoke with us on with a warm friendly tone.
Housing was cheap in Israel but few had money to buy. I remember a three room apartment in Ramat Aviv going for $14,000. Imported goods like electrical appliances were expensive; wardrobes were small. Cars, also expensive, were rare and small. Many people would turn off the engine at the few stop lights in order to save gas money.
Israeli life at that time was much simpler than it is today. Few people had washers and even fewer had dryers. We did our laundry in a bucket with something call "Bio Or". You left it soak over night in a bucket and rinsed it out the next day and it came out clean. Televisions were just being introduced in Israel at that time and were very expensive. The majority of the programs came from Jordan and were re-runs of stupid programs like "Father Knows Best". I was told that Ben Gurion was against the boob tube saying that it would take away the pioneering spirit from the people. How right he was.
We received our news from the radio. Every one listened to the radio at work and on the bus. When the "beep beep beep" came on announcing the hour and the hourly news, people stopped talking and listened intently; the news was serious. We felt ourselves a 'together' society; we were; we cared about each other. People were open and talkative and it was very easy to make friends. There was an underlying trust between the Jews in Israel at that time.
Few people had phones. If someone in your building had a phone so he let you use his number for incoming calls; he would come and fetch you to his apartment. If there was a serious need to make a phone call, generally the phone booths in the street were used; but if need be, the kind neighbor would allow you to make a phone call from his phone. Of course you would reimburse him for his kindness and expense.
Israel had a positive image in the outside world. Young Jews began flocking to visit this miracle country and many tried their hands at actually living and working. Unfortunately many gave up and went back to the land of their origin because of not being able to adapt to the Israeli style of living. There were really no bagels and lox here then, no pizza as we have it then. There was felafel and schwarmah it was great for me. I loved it here; I never wanted to leave but my father turned ill and that coupled with the fact that I did not have any money to buy an apartment gave me the impetus to return to the States on a 'visit' that lasted eight years.
One time I decided to visit a former teacher of mine who lived in Pardes Hannah. They had no phone so I decided to chance dropping in. It was more acceptable then. I took the Egged bus from Tel Aviv to Pardes Hannah While sitting on the bus I exchanged a pleasant conversation with a fellow from Pardes Hannah who questioned me as to why I was going there, where I came from, etc. We had a nice conversation and like a lot of nice conversations in those days, it ended with a warm invitation to come and visit him and his family. I told him that I really had in mind to visit my former teacher but I took his address as a matter of kindness.
When I reached my teacher's home, I was unpleasantly surprised to find that no one was home. A neighbor told me that they had traveled to Haifa for some purpose (which I do not remember) and may not be back that evening at all. It was getting late and I had not counted on this happening and it turned out that there were no more buses returning to Tel Aviv at that time, so I walked over to the fellow I met on the bus. He was so happy to have me as his guest. I remember him looking through the refrigerator for fresh and kosher food for me. After I had eaten He took me to a Moroccan wedding.
In those days, not every one had fancy clothing like today for weddings so it was not unheard of to come to a wedding wearing clean regular clothes. The wedding was not in a hall; that was expensive. It was between two apartment buildings. There was a large grassy area and lights were strung up between the buildings and there was some lawn chairs, a buffet of sorts, the neighbors supplied food and salads, a band (of sorts) and people drifted in and out. The wedding party was happy to have a real American join their simcha. I slept that night in the house of my new friend and in the morning I continued on my way back to Tel Aviv. I wrote my host a thank you note, but the friendship did not continue due to the distance and lack of phones.
I also had a similar experience when I went to Haifa to see someone over the Shabbat and we some how did not meet at the train station as intended. My friend did not have a telephone in his house (we communicated work phone to work phone) so I could not reach him. Instead, I had an address of an Israeli friend I had met in the States who returned to Israel with his wife. He lived near the Haifa bus station. Since the Shabbat was coming and transportation was scarce and I did not know much about Haifa, I walked over to his apartment. He was delighted to see me and I explained my situation to him. He said that he and his wife were going away for the Shabbat to his wife's parents, but I was welcome to make the Shabbat in his apartment. I quickly went to the last open grocery store bought something to eat and he and his wife prepared something for me too and gave me carte blanche on their refrigerator, I spent that Shabbat wandering around Haifa and upon the conclusion of the Shabbat, I returned to Tel Aviv.
People were so kind in those days. I had many invitations for Shabbat and often I went to Jerusalem and found new friends there. The Israelis were so open, so accepting, so welcoming and warm, it was hard to return to the coldness of the States. In those times, the model of Israeli society was more European than American. Israel was proud to be a Socialist country. It had socialized medicine, the Histadrut was big and important, and the first of May was a workers' holiday. Today, Israel is based more on the American society, the first of May is like any day, and capitalism is firmly entrenched in Israel.
I was not married in those days, so I worked by day, and night time was given over to socializing. Many people took naps during the day. Stores were closed between 1 PM and 4 PM. Night time was a time for visiting and meeting friends. Either I would go over to visit them or they would come to visit me. Often we would rendezvous at a cafe on Dizengoff street. Here we could sit for hours nursing a cup of 'Cafe HaFouch' while pleasantly passing the evening hours. I made many friends through work; there was not the barrier of work-friend relationships that I encountered in the states. Is Israel often I went out with people from work to social events, and there were plenty of social events for us to have a well rounded social life.
The social structure and unwritten rules that accompany such social happenings was not so pronounced and gave great leeway for individual actions. I met plenty of 'characters' here, but most of my friends were Israelis. Some how I, an Ashkenazi American, had made friends with a Yemenite girl from Rosh HaEiyan. She invited me to come to be with her family for the first day of Succot. It was an unbelievable experience sitting with her family in their Sukkot. She was the oldest unmarried girl in the large family, the table was packed with siblings and married relatives, not to mention her old father, a real character right out of Yemen. Although they were so different from my background, yet they were so warm and kind, I have never experienced such kindness in my traditional Ashkenazi Jewish society. I remember that on Succot morning we assembled around the table and yogurts were put on the table for breakfast. In those days, plain yogurts were the rule and flavored yogurts were the exception and expensive. It seems that the little siblings grabbed the flavored yogurts for themselves. My friend saw this and she gave them an on-the-spot lesson in hospitality after which they each came over to me and gave me their flavored yogurts. I really did not want to eat their desired treat, but they insisted that I take one. I was very touched by them and kept in contact with them through out my stay in Israel and visited them often.
There was a different family, also Yemenites, who were relatives of a friend of mine in the States. He gave me their address and when I called them up (they were a bit wealthier than most Israelis) they started putting pressure on me to come to visit. Finally I did, I was treated so warmly and hospitable that I initially thought that they wanted me because I was a 'rich' American (HA!). But, no, they were just very hospitable and it took several visits before I relaxed and just enjoyed their hospitality.
Once I dropped over to visit when they had just bought a television set. They were so excited about it. What did they do? The took the large chair reserved for their father (who was not home at the time) and set it in front of the boob tube and beckoned me to sit there. Then I was treated to watching, you guessed it, "Father Knows Best" which I detest, but I could not let them know it. They did not speak any English so I had to give them translations. I was always invited to the many simchas that they had.
Religious problems were nonexistent in those days. The ultra-Orthodox were a very small minority and the media did not bother with them. I can't really remember coming into much contact with them in Tel Aviv. Even today in Jerusalem, I come into interactions with them and find them nice people, those that I have met through work are industrious and hardworking; they do not play around at work and do their work honestly and efficiently. I really believe that the entire rift that exists today between the ultra-Orthodox and non religious is basically made up by yellow journalistic newspapers like Ynet who feature more articles on opinion than fact (check it out: count the factual article and the opinion articles). One of my daughter married into an ultra-Orthodox family (it happens in the best of families!) and my son-in-law after completing his Yeshiva training enlisted in the army. They have a program for the ultra-Orthodox in sophisticated computer systems and he has quite a good head for learning. He seems to get along with every one quite nicely as have many of the ultra-Orthodox neighbors that I have met in Jerusalem. Again, it seems that the religious versus non religious problem is blown out of proportion for political and other reasons.
One of my Israeli friends in the states had a sister who was fairly religious. I contacted her and told her that I would like to see what Mea Shari'im was like during Sukkot. She took me from synagogue to synagogue and waited while I went in to watch the dancing. She explained the differences between the various factions that existed then. The religious area was not so big then as it is now, but I experienced no hostility, even when I, a man, went up stairs to the women's section (!) to view the dancing from there. I never felt any hostility or ill will directed towards me the entire time that I roamed from synagogue to synagogue. Even today, when I go into the ultra-Orthodox enclaves I do not feel put upon. They have their way and I have mine. We are all Jews and have that in common. Hitler did not differentiate between religious Jews and non religious Jews; Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran see all Jews as their enemy. It does not matter much to them if they kill a religious Jew or a secular one. Their bombs have no addresses on them.
All of that was some 43 years ago. I returned in 1978 with a wife and several children and continued working and studying in Jerusalem. My family has since grown, married Israelis and I have merited to see Israel become a wonderful society to raise a family in. Jewish education is available to all, but more so, the living of a Jewish life, irrespective of the type of Jewish life style you espouse, is so much more natural here. I still like to go out with my wife at night to have a cup of coffee and one of the many coffee shops. The menu is so much greater now. Care Hafouch is out, latte, mochachino, capachino, etc are in. Life is a bit easier than it was in 1968, but who says that suffering is so great?
Although the Israelis outwardly are more prosperous, they still have the inherent friendliness that I originally found here to be so attractive. I often get involved in conversations on the bus, while waiting in lines, and sociality still is big here. Walking the streets at night is no problem; thank G-d we do not have the problem of the States with dangerous streets and perverts lurking on the corners. My teenage daughter enjoys going out for a late night walk with her friends and when my wife and I go out walking we notice how many people still enjoy walking at night.
I think that the most significant change over the years is not the proliferation of shopping malls that have sprung up everywhere, but the political arena. In the sixties and seventies the settlers were seen as heroes; settling the land won approval from all. All of the governments encouraged this both in the West Bank and in the Gaza strip. In those years, before the intifada, travel in those areas was relatively safe and the settlers were settling the land just as the original pioneers had done at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. No one thought anything wrong with it; just the opposite, it was viewed as a proper Jewish thing to do.
Things have changed. It seems that there is much concern in government offices with what the world thinks about us and less concern with what is best for us. The original Zionists really envisioned living together in peace with the Arabs and developing a 'new' Middle-East. It never happened. The Arabs look at the Israelis as stealing their lands even though much land was bought with money and other lands were won in war. Even if we pay money for the land, they consider us as taking it, so we can not win in this respect.
The concept of pulling out all Israeli Jews from Gaza was supposed to be such a gesture to bring some bit of peace, but instead was a miserable failure that no one wants to admit. Instead of infrequent attacks on the settlers in Gaza, we now have almost daily rocket attacks fired from Hamas controlled Gaza into Israel proper. Instead of our administering Gaza and there being quiet on the borders, we have a enabled a terror led government there who are bent on developing greater weapons to kill more of us. They call for cease fires not out of consideration for peace but only to give them time to develop greater and more accurate weapons. The Israeli government is at fault letting this situation build up to a very dangerous degree. The same is true in Lebanon with the Hezbollah who have developed fortified bunkers all over the south and are using this 'cease fire' to promote their own agendas against us. Remember the daring Entebee invasion when the Palestinian terror group hijacked a plane load of Jews? Do you remember the well planned out bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor? The fearless bravado of the Israelis of the sixties has fallen to the fear ridden bureaucracies of today's government. What will be? Although I am not privy to any secret government information, it looks like we are probably in for a very difficult war in the not to distant future.
Things have changed. A lot have to due with the Israeli compulsive desire to please the outside world at the expensive of their own local population. Perhaps Ben Gurion was correct that the television would take away from the pioneering spirit. Where as the government has given us a wonderful life for those who live here, the expense of frequent bombings, terror murders, and weapon build ups by our Arabs neighbors generates a mixed bag of emotions for us who live here.
What will the next years bring? I certainly do not know. Perhaps the horoscope man can tell us. But for the thirty three years that I have lived here and raised my family here has brought me only one regret: that I did not come earlier. I have had my hard times here and my good times and I am very grateful to having the merit to live here for all of this time. I hope that I can continue to see Israel grow as a beacon to the world in developing new technologies in industry and business, and to show the world how to live and how to let live.
from the May 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine