As I wrote on the first blog of this series, making aliyah (immigration to Israel) is like getting married to the Jewish state. Yesterday, on September 8, 2009, over two hundred Americans who traveled on the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight to Israel signed the ketubbah (Jewish marriage contract) and got “married” to Israel underneath an imaginary chuppah at the old Ben Gurion airport terminal.
It was a moving, leibadik ceremony, filled with the tears of joy from the new arrivals and their families and friends. For some olim, it was an inter-generational affair, and they’re simply joining sons or daughters who already tied the knot, kids now in tow. I looked for star-struck Zionist lovers kissing the ground, but couldn’t find any. Maybe they were embarrassed. The intense attraction, however, was palpable.
As I got off the buses arriving from the tarmac, trying to live the ceremony through the olim, I immediately heard the roars of all the guests as a Jewish band greeted us with happy Jewish and Israeli music. I admit even I got teary-eyed.
As we walked down the outside aisle to meet the groom, cute, female Israeli soldiers handed us small Israeli flags with the coy smiles of flower girls dropping rose petals. Guests carrying welcome signs—young and old—cheered from both sides. Near the band, men and women danced in separate circles as if it were a bona-fide religious wedding. Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) broadcast the ceremony live on their homepage.
NBN took over the entire hall of the baggage claim area of the old Ben Gurion airport (now replaced by a much larger, more organized, more hi-techy airport). Tables of coffee, fruit, sodas and cakes were set up near the rows of chairs where the olim and their guests got ready for speeches by NBN and Jewish Agency leaders, and the guest of honor, Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni (see below for a video of her speech).
“You belong to us, and we belong to you,” said one of the leaders.
Very inspiring messages, but I could tell the olim were getting impatient. All they wanted was to do was rip off Zion’s clothes. But everyone sat politely as the dignitaries added a formality to the ceremony, like rabbis saying the seven traditional wedding blessings underneath the chuppah. Only the ceremony ended without any real closure. Someone should have broken a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple.
In contrast, my aliyah in 1999 was like a cheap Vegas ceremony. I had to stand in the long line at passport control just like everyone else, fight for my luggage like everyone else, and hail a taxi in the sticky heat just like everyone else. It was really unromantic. Then, in Israel, I had to face the glum faces of immigration officials at interior ministry offices to get the marriage finalized.
NBN staffers, using nifty PC tables, filled out all the immigration paperwork in advance on the plane so that we didn’t have to go through passport control. They got their new passports and ID cards presented to them on arrival. We had the entire terminal and baggage carousels to ourselves. The new Israeli citizens got free “just married” taxi rides to their destinations.
For some olim, this was a double “wedding.” The flight carried 81 singles, two of whom came to reunite with their other true loves. Jolene Ilkay, 23, from San Diego, whom I’ll profile as part this blog, reunited with her Israeli boyfriend Dor, and I’ve never seen two people so in love and happy. They couldn’t keep their hands off each other, as if their touch also sublimated their Zionist love.
One of the most tear-jerking parts of the ceremony was the public proposal of Zach Taylor, 23, to his girlfriend, Nechama Dina Simon, 21. He made aliyah two years ago from Valley Glen, California, and she was joining him from St. Louis, Missouri. After Livni herself presented Nechama with her “Oleh Certificate”, Taylor got down on one knee and proposed to a very excited, slightly embarrassed Nechama. How could she say no?
All this leads me to wonder if the success of a marriage is influenced by the success of a wedding. If my wedding to Israel were like this, happier and less haphazard, would I have stuck it out longer, recalling the former, joyous commitment I made in the presence of witnesses? Or did Israel simply not fill its obligations of the ketubbah, taking from me more than it gave? This NBN wedding ceremony made all the new Israelis feel wanted; the love, mutual. So far, according to statistics, NBN’s retention rate is 98 percent.
I still wonder if Israel and I will get back together. And if we do, I want to make my vows in a more formal way, like this. And maybe, what I need to ease my success here is a real marriage or romance—the kind of love I saw in the eyes of Jolene and Nechama. Life here probably would have been so much easier and joyful had I had, on a consistent basis, a real, human shoulder to cry on when Jews got blown up; a broad torso to hug when I landed that job; and lips to kiss when—well—I felt like kissing someone.
Until then, I remain a Zionist divorcee, and I admit, I still have feelings for my ex. But this time, I’ll play hard to get. I want to see how much Israel really wants me back, and what he intends to do to get me into his embrace again, because after nine years living here during Israel’s most trying times, I’ve already proven my love.
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