Earlier this year, my wife Ceil and I celebrated the tenth anniversary of our aliyah to Israel, and we were able to look back on a very happy and successful move.
Some of those who have a hard time with the aliyah process blame “the bureaucracy” as the problem. True, aliyah is not a simple undertaking, and I still hold onto the bulging accordion file with the boatload of documents we had to assemble. But as was the case with most of our friends here, our experience overall was very positive.
Perhaps the one fly in the ointment for us was a certain pakid in the Absorption Ministry whose goal in life seemed to be to confirm that the all-too-familiar stereotype of an obnoxious Israeli bureaucrat really exists.
Although we tried mightily to avoid dealing with him, we were, on occasion, subjected to the idiosyncrasies of his imperious and pettifogging mind. Warned by others never to interrupt him, we once failed to follow this advice and were punished appropriately.
Even today, this image of the exasperating and unfeeling Israeli official, who seems to be happiest when seriously complicating other people’s lives, is ingrained in the minds of some new olim. But the fact is that customer service—both in the government sector and in stores and offices—has vastly improved over the past decade.
Recently, a friend needed to renew his passport and made an appointment online. He showed up on time, took a number and settled himself comfortably in a corner of the large waiting area with his iPad, coffee, sandwich and a newspaper. But his number was called even before he could find his pencil to begin work on the crossword puzzle and he was done within ten minutes. “You ruined my day,” he told the receptionist on his way out.
Of course, there are times when the regulations seem absurd or when a storekeeper is not so friendly, but that can happen anywhere in the world. The fiendish automated phone systems used by Israeli banks and other companies are no more or less frustrating than they are in America. Outside of the large cities, Israel’s mostly excellent national health system can be less extensive and supportive, but that’s true in other countries too. The cost of living is too high, real estate prices have skyrocketed, traffic is getting worse and worse, and we can’t seem to keep a government together for very long. But Israel is not alone in the world in experiencing such problems. So when something that should be simple goes ridiculously wrong, it’s with tongue in cheek that we say “Only in Israel!”
Yet there are so many wonderful “Only in Israel” moments, that the negatives are washed away in the overwhelming realization that we are living as Jews in our own country.
One erev yom tov, as I paid for my challot and rugelach at the bakery counter, the assistant—a man without a kippah—wished me chag same’ach and said he looked forward to seeing me back during chol hamo’ed. “No,” I replied, “I have all I need for the whole chag as we won’t be having any guests.” “Perhaps,” he suggested, “Eliyahu Hanavi will come?”
Another time, I had to have an MRI in a Jerusalem hospital and the technician asked me what kind of music I’d like to listen to during the test. I hesitatingly mumbled something about being a fan of chazzanut, and against the background of the thumps and groans of the machine I was treated to twenty-five minutes of the best of Yossele Rosenblatt.
Even after living in Yerushalayim for more than ten years now, I still experience a sense of wonderment when I turn off the street named for Ramban to the street named for Ibn Ezra and when the seasonal decorations on the lampposts are for my festival, not someone else’s. I still experience a sense of gratification when I can daven Minchah in the little shul behind the bread aisle in the supermarket, and when the radio tells me today’s date in the Jewish calendar. I still experience a sense of belonging when one of the most popular TV sitcoms centers around a secular family’s weekly Friday night dinner, and when local merchants display low stools for Tishah B’Av or the arba’ah minim at the front of their stores, as the season calls for.
And I still experience a sense of the reality of our history here in this land when I take my grandchildren to the tayelet (promenade) near our home which has a view of the Har Habayit and explain to them that in all probability this is the spot where Avraham Avinu stood with Yitzchak on their way to the akeidah, when “he saw the place from afar.”
Those who are still seeing Israel from afar, because their circumstances do not allow them to make aliyah, are sadly missing out on all this. Those of us who are here—despite any difficulties, despite the constant existential threats and despite the scary raucousness of the public debate—are thankful every day that we are so privileged.
David Olivestone, a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Committee and a frequent contributor to the magazine, retired as the OU’s director of communications in 2013.