May 15, 2008
Israel and I: The first 60 years
(Page 2 - Previous Page)1962-1963
When I met Rachel, she had just been sent over by the Foreign Ministry to work at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, and when we married it was on the understanding that we would try to make aliyah and settle in Israel.
In my earlier visit to Israel I had written an article about the renowned Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and about a year later I received a letter inviting me to join the institute staff as liaison with the resident foreign press.
Everybody assured me that the Weizmann Institute was a green island of civility and brilliant minds, and the proposed salary and conditions seemed equivalent to my job as a UCLA science writer.
So we accepted, took enough American appliances and bedsheets to last for the next two generations, bundled up our 6-year-old and 3-year-old daughters and off we went. Since we preferred to live off-campus, the Jewish Agency had arranged for us to move into a brand new shikun, a 12-unit apartment house in Holon near Tel Aviv, for immigrants from English-speaking countries.
I felt relatively well prepared for the move. After all, I had spent a year in the Israeli army, had visited two years earlier and, best of all, had an Israeli wife with a large, supportive family.
Lesson No. 2: It doesn't matter how many times you have visited a foreign country as a tourist, you know nothing about it until you settle there as an ordinary citizen, making a living, raising a family and coping with the indigenous bureaucracy.
Our first inkling came when we got a look at our 700-square-foot apartment and found it bereft of a single closet or shelf. Our front door was too narrow to squeeze our American refrigerator through. Getting gas or electricity connected required intricate bureaucratic maneuvering. We might get a phone in six months, maybe.
Of course, resident Israelis went through the same obstacle course, and worse, but they had been trained for it since childhood.
Let me illustrate the initial culture gap with a story. I had written a couple of articles for the Jerusalem Post on the adjustment problems of Western immigrants, when one day an official from David Ben-Gurion's office knocked at our front door.
He explained that the prime minister was very concerned by reports that some 80 percent to 90 percent of new immigrants from Western countries went back within a year of making aliyah. Would we mind discussing the problem with Ben-Gurion and bring along a couple of the other families?
A week later, we trooped into the office where Ben-Gurion, in a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, got right to the point.
"What's the matter with you people?" he asked. "Why don't you stay in Israel?" There was an embarrassed silence, until a young woman from New Jersey, let's call her Ethel, spoke up.
"Mr. Prime Minister," she said, "we have a problem. All the people in our shikun are young families with small children. Our husbands are professionals, who leave for work in the morning and come home in the evening.
"Among our 12 families, no one can get a phone, and there's no store with a phone nearby. If there is an emergency, if a child gets sick, there is no way to reach our husbands or a doctor. We've never been in this situation before, and it's scary."
Ben-Gurion looked at Ethel with the baffled expression of a man confronted by an escapee from an insane asylum.
"Telephone?" he asked incredulously. "Telephone? Why, when Paula [his wife] and I came here, we lived in a tent."
It was a classic example of a dialogue in which both sides, by their own lights, were right, and neither comprehended the other.
We went back to fix up our apartments. It was October 1962, and suddenly everybody was glued to the radio as President Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis.
"Thank God, you're here where it's safe," said my mother-in-law in Jerusalem.
For a combination of personal and professional reasons, I returned to Los Angeles after one year, to the disappointment of my employer, family and friends.
I came back, no less devoted to and concerned about Israel, with a painful awareness of the tension of everyday life -- much of it self-inflicted. In one article from that time, I wrote, "Israelis spend about 20 percent of their total national energy fighting hostile neighbors, building a country and absorbing millions of immigrants, and 80 percent fighting each other."
What a glorious time to visit Israel, with the euphoria of the Six-Day War victory still lingering and a chance for claustrophobic Israelis to explore the newly won territories.
We flew across the Sinai Peninsula to Abu Rodeis on the Gulf of Suez, then took an "air-conditioned" bus ("Just open the windows on both sides," advised our exuberant guide, whom we nicknamed Zorba) and drove to a pristine Sharm Al-Sheikh for some snorkeling.
We shared hummus with Israeli soldiers, singing around a campfire at night, and stayed at St. Catherine's Monastery, constructed in the sixth century C.E. (as was the plumbing). We checked out Moses' burning bush and climbed Mount Sinai at dawn (Well, Rachel climbed. I had a bandaged toe and rode a camel).
Israel was entering the high-tech era in earnest and computer pioneer Gerald "Jerry" Estrin of UCLA, who was organizing the first International Jerusalem Conference on Information Technology, asked me to come along to handle press matters.
Prime Minister Golda Meir opened the conference, and Jerry wanted to present her with a then cutting-edge computer digitized photo of her face, which seemed to consist of a set of building blocks, but swam into focus when held at a distance.