Lightening Up: A Story of My Aliya
In honor of the Nefesh b’Nefesh premiere JBloggers’ conference, here is a story from my own aliya, back at the end of 1991, before NBN was a gleam in anybody’s eye and when we new immigrants had to walk barefoot in freshly-fallen snow for ten miles, uphill both ways, to Misrad ha-Penim (the Ministry of the Interior), with a ton of paperwork strapped to our backs.
(Well, I arrived just before the big snowstorms of ’92, so that should count for a kernel of truth in all that, right?)
Like many olim (new immigrants to Israel), I had prepared what is known as a lift—a container of furniture, appliances and other personal property to be sent to Israel by ship. While I arrived in Israel at the tail end of December, the lift was to arrive sometime in the spring.
Just before Pessah, as I was cleaning my room in the ulpan, I came across the folder that contained the paperwork related to my lift. As I handled it, a chill went down my spine and I got a very bad feeling. Since I couldn’t figure out any reason for it, I ignored it and went on with my work.
On the first day of hol ha-moed Pessah (which was, incidentally, my birthday that year), I got a message to call the insurance company. I called just before lunchtime. “Your lift will not be arriving,” the agent told me with characteristic Israeli bluntness. “It was thrown off the ship during a severe storm in the North Atlantic. The ship was in danger of sinking and the captain gave orders to lighten it. Seventy-two lifts were thrown overboard. Fifteen of them belonged to new immigrants. One was yours.”
It took a moment for the information to sink in. Everything was gone. My books, including several autographed first editions. All my music. My clothing, some of which I had made myself. The stereo system I had saved up for and enjoyed so much. Photographs. Keepsakes. My entire past. Gone.
I stood at the ulpan’s payphone (this was before the widespread use of cellphones here, and I didn’t have one yet), in shock, unable to move, tears streaming down my face.
A fly was buzzing loudly against the windowpane on the landing just a few steps up from the phone. Going up the few stairs to the window, I opened it to let the fly escape. I closed the window and turned around to go back down the short flight of stairs. It’s only things, I told myself. Things can be replaced. Think of all the people who came here who suffered far greater loss....
It didn’t help. I was still in shock, still crying.
At that precise moment, several students walked by. They stopped cold when they saw my face. I made a split-second decision to tell them the truth—not because I was looking for sympathy, but because I couldn’t stand the thought of the whispers that would shortly be spreading throughout the dining hall. I saw Rahel crying at the payphone just a minute ago. Wonder what happened....
So I told them.
Within moments, the news was all over the ulpan. But I figured that was better than whispered rumors and gossip.
A few days later, I got a message to call the insurance company in order to arrange for my compensation and choose new appliances to replace the ones I had lost. As I spoke with the agent, I suddenly found myself asking: “What about the crew? Did they make it? Are they all right?”
Silence. Then: “You’re the first insured to ask that question.”
“My father is a former merchant sailor,” I told her. “After he got married he took a job on shore, and I grew up taking phone messages from sailors all over the world. Maybe some of them were on that ship. What happened to the crew? Are they all right?”
“Yes,” she said. “The ship is safe. They’re fine.”
Some time later, I was visiting with an old friend, a legendary group leader of the Sar-El program, where I had volunteered several times before making aliyah. We were outside walking when I told him what had happened, and he stopped in his tracks, his jaw agape.
He recovered in seconds. “So that means you’re really here,” he said. “No trace of your past life is left. It’s all gone. You’re here, a hundred percent.”
I won’t pretend that the loss of my lift didn’t affect me. It did, for a long time, and on some levels it probably still does—even though by this time, almost seventeen years later, I have more than enough stuff to make up for what I lost.
But my friend was and is right. I am here, a hundred percent.
(And yes—along the way there were some people who asked whether I was planning to try to salvage my possessions from the bottom of the North Atlantic.)