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1961 Diary: First Steps in Israel

Recently, I came across my diary from 1961, when Israel was 13 and I was 24. My husband and I, wide-eyed Zionists and proud American Jews, arrived at the Weizmann Institute for his year of post-doctoral study. My diary chronicles an Israel that has faded, if not disappeared, but the contrasts between then and now make for interesting reading. I write from the perspective of a new, naïve arrival in Israel about daily life, holiday celebration and general impressions. As a social worker at the time, I visited many welfare institutions and describe them fully. Everything I recorded is based on my own observations and is 100% true with perhaps a dose of humor here and there.

Arrival in Israel

On Sunday, August 13, 1961, we arrive at Lod at 8pm, an hour too dark for us to see the long-awaited view. Larry and I feel that spurt of 'naches' every visiting Jew must feel when he first glimpsed the Magen David insignias on the uniform of the airport officials, the Hebrew words on the signs directing you where to go and what to do. I expect someone to say something which denotes a certain familiarity between us, a welcome appropriate for the arrival of visiting long-lost relatives. However, we are given causal, if not cursory, treatment at customs and immigration.

Early the next morning, I leave our hotel to glimpse Tel Aviv before we depart for our destination, Rehovot. My overall impression is that Tel Aviv is a city of shoppers, buses, and children being pushed in carriages, just like in Brooklyn or Boston. My woman's eye notes that stores are less fancy and less well-stocked than in the US and that prices are high but not outrageous. My social worker's eye observes many old people begging in the streets, as we had just seen in Rome. Along the main streets of Dizengoff and Allenby, we find movie theaters, ice cream stands, sidewalk espresso cafés, a pizza stand, as well as stands selling the local specialties—falafel, hot corn on the cob and sabra-fruit. We note all kinds of restaurants— kosher, non-kosher, Oriental, vegetarian, and even Chinese and Italian. (But this Italian restaurant, I found out later, had a special dish for people who observed kashrut …. What other Italian restaurant could make that offer?) The women wear colorful summer cottons and the men, shirts with slacks or shorts.

Back at our hotel, we meet a car which had come to take us to Rehovot. With a cheery "shalom" from Ruth, the secretary from the Weizmann Institute who was to be our hostess, my whole outlook changed. This was a greeting befitting long-lost cousins. 

The Weizmann Institute ... where the writer’s husband did his post-doctoral study. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

As we travel to Rehovot, an unfamiliar scene passes by. Even the plants along the road are new to us North Americans. Cactus, adorned with its pink fruit, borders the road. Everywhere, men are digging and building, and new little cottages spot still-barren land, as if they had sprung up overnight, like a Lego game. We pass the orange groves I had read about in my Hebrew primer and I am assured we would have the famous Jaffa oranges in the winter.

I look more closely at the men working in the fields: laborers wearing kippot, African faces adorned with payot, and ultra-orthodox men carrying heavy loads or making deliveries with their donkeys and carts. These sights are a little startling but by the third day, the different races of Israelis and the fact that the gardeners, bus driver, the scientists and policemen, are all Jewish becomes matter-of-course with us.

The Weizmann Institute, which we finally reach after the inordinately long span of 45 minutes looks like a replica of the Garden of Eden or a reasonable facsimile. The tropical fruits and flowers, the fish ponds, flowing fountains, and green lawns are all flourishing in an area surrounded by the parched earth of a rainless summer. The library, auditorium, faculty club and laboratory buildings are architectural gems, faceted with high windows which scatter the rays of the sun. We are shown to temporary quarters. The tin shack I anticipated turns out to be a light, airy, uncluttered 4½ room apartment, appended by three balconies, containing a kitchen furnished with a stove and a refrigerator WITH freezer. The modern furniture stands out against the white tiled floors. Later, I find out that this is comparable to the apartments in the newer sections of the main cities. I sit down to write home to Mom that, no, all of Israel isn't like a kibbutz and we did indeed have indoor plumbing, TWO bathrooms, as was the Israeli custom (one with a toilet and the other with a sink and shower).

Customs clearing

Soon after our arrival, we begin the negotiations necessary to claim our three trunks of clothing and household goods from Tel Aviv Port. Apparently, we have committed a grave error—importing a table model radio on a tourist visa. "Now, if you had a transistor radio, that is allowed. How come an American [presupposes 'rich'] like you doesn't bring a transistor?" As tourists, we have to pay a duty of 300% on the radio. My husband exaggerated the value of the radio when he gave an estimate of $15. "Fifteen dollars?" the official snaps indignantly. "Such a radio you bring to Israel?" (akin to "with old clothes, you visit Grandma?") Nevertheless, the import duty will be $45 unless we change our visas from tourist (1) to 'temporary resident', under which status we would be allowed to bring in a radio, tax-free, however disdainfully the customs inspector might regard its condition.

To obtain the new visa, we have to go back to Rehovot to the local branch of the Ministry of Interior, where we spend the morning fighting with the crowd for our turn. After a while, we find out, accidentally, that turns are called according to numbers, distributed by a shy man crouching in the corner. After your number is called, then you fight for your turn. Such is the way in Israel, where everyone is equal.

After a few hours, we face a tired official who has to mobilize his limited English, to boot. "What is your name?" "Beverly." Wincing, he asks, "Such names they give in America?" I apologize, making up a Hebrew spelling that later, unfortunately, is pronounced "Burly". But my father's name, Murry, has the official dumbfounded. I can now clearly imagine that official on Ellis Island who had interviewed long lines of Yiddish-speaking immigrants one day in 1911 and, upon hearing that the little boy before him had a moniker like "Moishe," gave up in despair, scribbled "Murry" and yelled, "Next, please". Thus, my father had been Americanized and it was somehow poetic justice that now, 50 years later, he should become "Israelized". "Moshe," I beam to a relieved bureaucrat. "My father's name is Moshe." Instead of revealing to the clerk that my mother's name is Pearl, I report it as "Pnina". He looks relieved that, at least, my mother is Jewish.

One week later, our passport is stamped, "Temporary Resident" and we are now required to file a "Declaration of Intended Importation" – a list of any item a resident might import from abroad, ever. This form cannot be filled out and returned by mail, but the resident must bring it to Jaffa in person. Israel is the only bureaucracy in the world that thrives on person-to-person contact. My friends warn me that we would have to pay a heavy duty on items we might later decide to bring or that might be sent to us as gifts, if they were not declared in advance. Since you have no idea of what some distant relative might send you one day as a gift, you are advised, "Put down anything and everything you can think of." Thus, on my Declaration, I include enough instruments for a ten-piece orchestra. The other people at the Jaffa customs office and I compare forms. I had overlooked "mimeograph machine" and they had omitted "teeter-totter".

Again, turns are decided by sheer gall, despite the distribution of numbers, and I finally force my way into the clerk's office. After scrutinizing the list, he looks up quizzically. Nonchalantly, I advise him that we are a very musical family, my husband and I. He agrees that was possible but wonders when we had the time also to paint, play soccer, and perform scientific experiments, as indicated by all the material I plan to import. "And you're going to put all that into a prefabricated house, which you intend to ship here?" But the "baby clothes" stall him, since we have no children. "I expect to have some," I volunteer. He was not tactless enough to ask when.

About a month after this all-day session in Jaffa, I am able to free our radio from quarantine, after I go to one office to pay the storage fee, a second to get the receipt for the storage fee stamped, and a third for permission to leave the port carrying a radio. We then move into our apartment and find that it is furnished with, among others, a radio. Although our radio is now superfluous, we cannot sell it. If we do not take it out of the country upon our departure, the $45 tax will be due. Friends warn that exporting a radio—that is really complicated! 



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Sunday, 19 May 2024

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