27 April '14..
The first three months of 2014 saw a rise in aliyah—Jewish immigration to Israel. A 312% increase from France, 70% increase from Ukraine, 100% increase from Brazil. The absolute numbers are not huge; if the current rate continues, the total for this year will be about 20,000—compared to, for instance, much higher numbers of former-Soviet Union Jews who came to Israel in the 1990s.
The present uptick, though, appears likely to continue and could accelerate. Amid rising antisemitism, about two-thirds of French Jews are considering emigrating, and half of those are considering Israel. Similar, if somewhat less dramatic, numbers are reported among Jewish communities elsewhere in Europe.
I read such reports with elation, as if reading that I personally had won some prize or had some other good fortune coming my way. This is rather interesting in light of the fact that I’ll soon have been living in Israel for 30 years. More than enough time, of course, to get over romantic visions, to be inducted into the many dimensions of ordinary, flawed human reality that constitute Israel as they do other societies.
And yet, after almost 30 years, nothing—essentially—has changed the feeling I had when I came to live here on September 6, 1984. That this is the true home, that no other place where Jews live can come close to it.
About a year ago the Grand Canyon Mall opened in Beersheva about a 15-minute walk from where I live (the name is a play on kanion, the Hebrew word for mall). The publicity proudly trumpeted that it had taken its place as the largest mall in Israel. Its three floors have it all—boutiques, shoe stores, bookstores, toy stores, electronics stores, candy stores, cafes, fast-food joints, a drugstore, a supermarket, you name it.
Thirty years ago there were few, relatively small malls in Israel, and I would have found the Grand Canyon depressing. What, the same chase after material goods? Now, walking to the Canyon almost every day for a reading break in a café, I find the place exhilarating. Yes, the same chase after material goods—so what?
Looking at it more analytically, I would say that the Grand Canyon phenomenon represents some positive changes in Israel over these thirty years. Dramatic economic growth, of course. Ongoing liberation from the socialist shackles of the country’s early decades. And of course, dramatic population growth; you can see it most vividly before a Sabbath or holiday, when the Canyon is packed and very noisy.
But it’s not only the numbers. Although I now spend almost all my time in Israel and don’t have much to compare with, I think it’s unmistakable that the masses in the Grand Canyon have a strong nuclear-family flavor to them. Loads of kids; strollers and baby carriages, too.
And a total absence of decadence. In the U.S., at least, I remember gangs of kids in the malls who looked like they were up to no good. In the Canyon everyone seems to be out for clean fun. Various forms of decadence, of course, exist in Israel, among both adults and kids; but a walk through the Canyon reminds you that health remains the keynote.
It all came to a crescendo this last Passover. Again, with so many kiosks flaunting foods and wines for the holiday, my reaction thirty years ago would have been, “They’re commercializing it.” But I didn’t know Israel then. Didn’t know that the Jewish holidays, which are ubiquitous national events, cannot be commercialized here in a pejorative sense because they’re organically linked to the country’s Jewish identity. That is, to essence, to survival.
Economic growth, progress toward a free market, population growth, strong family values, relative moral health, a deep Jewish essence. This is some of what I’m now able to “read” accurately at the Grand Canyon.
And did I mention joyfulness? A noteworthy percentage of the faces—especially in the pre-Sabbath and holiday crowds—really radiate sheer joyfulness; I see it even in the faces of service people at my regular café who greet me by now with hearty familiarity. This has been borne out lately by surveys ranking Israel, even with its ongoing security issues, as one of the happier places on the globe (here and here, for instance).
What gets through the media may be mainly insipid “peace talks” and rocket attacks. But there is more than that, a lot more.
So much for what I can see at the Canyon. I could also mention excursions to the Galilee to view spring flowers; the magic hush of a Jerusalem dusk; the endless, idyllic beachfront in Tel Aviv; the huge feeling of societal solidarity that still wells up during events like holidays and others—including negative ones, like wars; the strong sense of pride and accomplishment among much of the population; the constant hubbub of the restored tongue, Hebrew, miraculously loosed from a 2000-year refuge in sacred texts.
Because of all that and much else—mixed, no doubt, with the ordinary, often difficult and disappointing business of life—I exult to see more and more Jews of the world heading for the right destination. The best thing is to come home, be who you really are, take matters into your own hands—and build, build, build.
P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva and author of the new book Choosing Life in Israel. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/
Updates throughout the day at http://calevbenyefuneh.