Shock enveloped my brain. In 1975 the population was around three and a half million. Now? Greater than eight and a half million people. More than those who died in the Holocaust. Major thoroughfares and highways that had once been two lanes were now four to eight lanes. Traffic jammed the highways. The three major cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa teemed with people, high rise apartments and businesses. My husband and I recognized very little. Israel was no longer a sleepy, rural country.
It is said we can’t go back to what was. That’s true. I was curious as to what my response would be to the memories often vivid in my heart and mind. My perspective had changed. Forty years later, I had been influenced, not only by the three years I lived in Israel, but also by my experiences since then. What bonded me to the country and people now?
My husband and I arrived in Jerusalem with student visas on July 1, 1975, and our three year sold son accompanied us. Our reason for being there seems unimaginable now. In the spiritual mystical world of Pentecostalism, we believed God asked us to serve in Israel under the auspices of our Christian denomination. Jim was a minister at that time and our commitment to God drove our actions.
Our concept of God changed over the years and the process started then. We met Jews, religious and not, Muslims with deep devotion to God, people of other branches of Christianity. In my small world, I had never met or heard of Greek or Russian Orthodox faiths. Jerusalem draws people of many beliefs who live there and serve God. However, the law of the land is that only churches which had a presence in Israel before it became a nation in 1948 can have permanent residency. Our church had let their registration lapse, thus the reason for our student visas. My husband had the task to renew it. They also have anti-missionary laws and we could not proselytize Jews. How do you practice your faith in a situation like that? Through love.
Memories flooded me. We studied modern Hebrew when we were students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Our introduction to learning the language was in the Ulpan, an intense three month, five days a week, five hours a day study. It commenced before the onset of the school year.
On the first day, our teacher informed us that no English would be spoken in class. What? How were we to learn? Edna said a word in Hebrew and then gesticulated the meaning, like saying gever and then pointing at a male student. Foreign letters of the alphabet plagued us. It is a Semitic language as are Arabic and Aramaic. It reads from right to left and many sounds are guttural, made as if you have a cough. I lay awake nights memorizing words and letters. Spent evenings doing the homework—all in Hebrew. Struggled in class to speak, write and read.
All the time our teacher said, “Speak it everywhere you go.” So we tried, only to feel like two-year olds spitting out a word here and there. I remember my chagrin at the post office. I had learned how to say, “I want to buy stamps.” Proudly, I said those words in Hebrew. Then the postal worker said something back. I didn’t understand and stood with my mouth open not knowing what to do. Someone saved me and asked me in English what kind of stamps I wanted and how many. My muscles relaxed. Gradually, we became proficient enough to make our way in our life there.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda was the father of modern Hebrew. This well educated man emigrated from the Russian empire to Palestine in 1881 with the purpose of reviving Hebrew for use in daily life. He believed the language would unify the Jewish people who came from diverse countries. He and his second wife, Hemda, worked to make some revisions to Biblical Hebrew in order to make it a little easier for people to learn. Modern words had to be invented because there weren’t matching words in the Bible. Opposition to Eliezer’s efforts came from the Hassidic Jews who believe Hebrew is holy, only to be used in reading the Bible, Talmud and Mishna. However, with the help of Hemda, he pressed forward.
Here I was again. I had forgotten much of what I learned. And then, as we ate at restaurants and traveled the country we listened to people speak Hebrew. We started to remember simple words, simple sentences. We used it in the places we visited and with anyone who took the time to listen. They understood us as we conversed. I love the language. It often expresses what I cannot say adequately in English.
Since the Hebrew language, the culture and religion of the Jews and a nation of their own still brings unity to Israel among the Jews, I wondered about my own connectivity now. Speaking the language again gave me a sense of belonging. Visiting the Holocaust Museum showed me great suffering, and awakened my own experiences, though different, to parts of my own life. I still believe the Jewish people need a country of their own. Spiritually, my concept of God is different from forty years ago. I cannot define God. I believe in a Spirit that dwells among all of us and throughout the universe. Most religions I know about have mystical aspects to them. (My husband learned about Jewish Mysticism in one of his classes.) They are often reflected in events beyond understanding in the human mind, or in stories told to relate a concept which are unexplainable by rational thought. All of these things say to me that as human beings, we belong together. And our commonality must be found in Spirit through love.