Notes on Moving to Israel in a Pandemic

The ancient Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, had more plentiful provisions than British Airways on this particular evening. How would I—we—get through this journey?

Pre-Rosh Hashanah shopping at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on September 18, 2020. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Pre-Rosh Hashanah shopping at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on September 18, 2020. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Observation
Sept. 24 2020
About the author

Tamara Berens, a former Krauthammer Fellow at Mosaic, is the director of young professional programming at the Tikvah Fund.

It is by now a cliché to observe that COVID-19 is not the “great equalizer” it was once proclaimed to be. I’m not so sure.

As I checked in last month for my trip from JFK to Tel Aviv via London—I’d made a last-minute decision to fly to Israel, where, in part thanks to the global pandemic, I will stay for the foreseeable future—the agent gave me the bad news in a matter-of-fact tone. “There are no kosher meals available on this flight,” she announced. What about the connecting flight? I asked, panicked at the thought of going fifteen hours without a full meal. I detest airplane food and am prone to complain about it far more than the average flyer. Yet, in the time of the virus, I admit that eating a meal on an international flight is almost something to look forward to—a surreptitious excuse to remove one’s mask for just a few minutes of respite during an hours-long journey.

“No,” she said. “I’m afraid there are no kosher meals available for any passengers. There was a mistake in the ordering process.” I looked around me at the dozens of yeshiva bochurs and young families with children—the women dressed in black leggings with skirts over the top, the men bowing their black top-hats for check-in to reveal black velvet kippot underneath. “This flight is completely full,” the stewardess had informed me minutes earlier when I inquired about a window seat. A flight full of Orthodox Jews with no kosher food whatsoever. The ancient Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, had more plentiful provisions than British Airways on this particular evening. How would I—we—get through this journey?

Noticing my apprehension, beneath mask and all, a middle-aged mother standing in line at the next desk leaned towards me with an inviting eyebrow raise. “Don’t worry. Everyone will be passing around snacks.” That did not calm my nerves. I was, and continue to be, more neurotic about the virus than most of the people I know. Sharing food with strangers on a plane is by no means on my list of acceptable activities, even in a pinch.

Indeed, for neurotic individuals like myself, getting on a plane right now is not at all an acceptable idea in the first place. But I am recently engaged, and my fiancé and I are not enthused by the idea of waiting until a marketable coronavirus vaccine is available to get married. This means a small wedding, with only close family, in an accessible location—that is, a location equally inconvenient to his parents and to mine. Given that he’s Canadian and I am British, we decided to begin our new lives together in the Jewish state.

I boarded the plane with ten-dollar chips and soda from Hudson’s in hand. As I sat down, I realized that rationing my food would be the least of my worries. The majority of the male passengers on the plane had begun to switch seats, jostling with flight attendants, shouting in a mix of Yiddish, Hebrew, and American slang, and scarcely keeping their masks above their mouths. Have you ever flown on a plane packed with ultra-Orthodox Jews who, according to their interpretation of Jewish law, must avoid sitting next to women who do not belong to their family? You may have experienced it. But you probably haven’t experienced it during a pandemic.

In the battle between fussy international stewardesses and punctiliously pious Orthodox Jews, I typically sympathize with the latter. This time, though, as the pilot gave notice after notice, begging people to sit down as they rearranged seats and unpacked shoulder bags stuffed with holy books and packets of Bissli snacks, I was angry. I thought back to the news that emerged in March just as COVID-19 broke out, about yeshiva bochurs who, traveling from New York to Israel had brought the virus onto the plane and failed to quarantine adequately once they landed, causing dozens of known infections.

Somewhere over Iceland, ma’ariv—evening prayers—commenced. This time, the pilot’s pleas were not even audible over the sound of Jewish men coming together for worship. As the blessings of the Sh’ma—one of Jewish liturgy’s most central and most intimate prayers—began, I realized that this was my first time in six months witnessing a minyan. The last time was in Washington, D.C. at Kesher Israel, the main Orthodox shul in Georgetown, whose women’s balcony offers only a restricted view of prayers from a steep incline. Now I was in the midst of it, seated inches away. It almost gave me butterflies. I put my hand over my eyes as the men sang Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.

 

In Tel Aviv we were greeted by the systematized bureaucracy of modern Israel. Temperature checks with a gun-shaped device pointed at the forehead, web-based quarantine forms, electronic passport and baggage control. Each step came with its own peculiarities—Americans in one line, Brits in another. As a British passport-holder—a lucky citizen of a “green country”—flying from the United States, a country firmly in the “red” zone, I was an anomaly. Somehow, I shuffled through the checks, each one more digital than the last. All was fine until my last bag failed to arrive, and I stood in line to fill out a long, paper form regarding its whereabouts—no computerized tracking available for the violet suitcase I had ordered just the previous day at the last minute from Target back in the U.S.

In the taxi on the way to my quarantine apartment I relished every moment with the Israeli driver. I already mentioned a first cliché. I would now like to mention a second: the “Taxi Driver Anecdote” is an overdone device if there ever was one, but here, being Israel, it is usually worthwhile. In the land of milk and honey I have ridden in taxis with an Elvis superfan, a driver who leaned back while speeding on the highway to show me pictures on his phone of his “bitches”—his daughter and wife—a driver who thought I was fifteen years old and questioned me for traveling to a “work meeting,” and a driver who laughed meanly all the way through an hour-long drive to the Dead Sea due to my inability to converse fluently in Hebrew.

This taxi driver, by the name of Avi, was especially nice, and especially talkative. I told him about my upcoming wedding and Avi began to recall his own wedding-planning woes. “My mother wanted to invite everyone. Otherwise it creates big drama in Israel,” he said. Avi imitated a high-pitched old-lady’s voice: “He didn’t invite me, now I won’t speak to him.” “But why do we need to invite family that I do not even recognize? It’s my own wedding!” He recalled with pride that for his own son’s bar mitzvah, he only invited 85 people, a minuscule number by Israeli standards.

As we turned the corner, the topic of the pandemic came up. Like every nominally secular—ḥiloni—Israeli I would speak to over the coming weeks, he blamed one group of people for rising COVID-19 numbers: the Orthodox. To be sure, Arab towns and villages were considered “red” zones as well, with cases spiking by the day. But it is easier to reproach the edges of your own family than to complain about the behavior of a group you’re not part of. Avi seemed to harbor some long-standing animosity towards “the religious,” as they are called in Israel. “On a street corner a few months ago a Chabad group asked me if I wanted to put on t’filin. I said no. I do not need to put on t’filin every day. And they told me ‘You are not a real Jew.’” Avi then described how he almost got into fisticuffs with this man, puffing up as he spoke. “How dare he tell me who is a Jew? I said to him to apologize, or I will fight you.”

Avi was a bulky man and carried a handgun in the back-pocket of his blue jeans (owned legally, he assured me, as part of his duties to a neighborhood watch group.) It would presumably not hinder his ability to win in a verbal stand-off.

He dropped me off and wished me an early ḥag sameach. At that moment, two weeks of mandatory quarantine ensued.

 

No going out. Not for exercise. Not for anything. (When I finally emerged two weeks later, I could barely walk without quickly developing blisters on my feet.) The fines for breaking the quarantine were steep, and the risk in my traveling from the United States meant that it just was not worth it to step outside, even in the empty night. I used the free time to plan mine and my fiancé’s application to the Rabbanut, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, for marriage in Israel. My fiancé, Sasha, is of Russian origin and is therefore looked upon with suspicion by Israel’s rabbinic establishment. There are roughly 300,000 “Russians” living in Israel that the Rabbanut considers non-Jewish. Most arrived in the 1990s as part of a large exodus from the collapsing Soviet Union. Jewish families brought non-Jewish spouses—or Jewish families came as they were, broken up by decades of Communist rule and no longer halakhically Jewish, by matrilineal descent. My fiancé is not one of this group. He is halakhically Jewish. So Jewish that his grandmother was denied entry to medical school in the Ukraine because of her identity. So Jewish that his great-great aunts and uncles were shot dead by the Nazis at Babi Yar. Jewish enough to be admitted for aliyah into the state of Israel. Jewish enough to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. But not Jewish enough to be eligible for marriage under the Israeli rabbinic establishment without unending headaches.

The day I came out of quarantine, I traveled to my fiancé’s grandmother’s house for an important Skype interview with a rabbi who would decide whether to write Sasha the necessary attestation of Jewishness. We set up the laptop and assembled his grandmother’s documents—her birth certificate, her mother’s, and her mother’s—each printed with that word in Russian, Yevrei, which designated one as a Jew, set apart eternally from real Russians, even under Communism. I sat on the sofa, away from the camera, biting my nails. The conversation was mostly in Russian, with pockets of English. I understood little.

After almost two hours, things came to an end. Spasibo bolshoi—thank you very much. The rabbi had agreed to write the letter Sasha needed for the Rabbanut. We also found out, due to the rabbi’s search through Russian online archives for verification, that Sasha’s great-great uncle had been decorated in World War II with a Red Star, a rare and coveted Soviet war medal. This brought great excitement to Sasha; longing for recognition of one’s contributions to mankind does not vanish when that vision of mankind is declared dead by a foreign power. To me, it brought little. I was raised on a strict diet of anti-Communism by my parents, and sometimes am unsure of how to react to the vestiges of Soviet memory that emerge in Sasha’s family. I admit that my own natural disgust towards all things Communist seems irrelevant when faced with the actual experiences of a real family—and not just any family, but one that I am proudly about to join.

Soon after, the Israeli coronavirus cabinet decided that such visits to grandparents were no longer allowed. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, perhaps the most important Jewish holiday of the year for Israel—one of my relatives described it as “the Israeli Christmas”—the entire country went into a strict lockdown. Back into quarantine, for me, though maybe not for everyone else. In the days preceding, the Israelis I was surrounded by laughed, as if in denial. “It’s not a real lockdown,” they said. “It was only imposed to deal with the behavior of the Ḥaredim and the Arabs.” Really? What about the countless weddings and parties held by people in Tel Aviv? To be sure, the infection rates are higher in ultra-Orthodox and Arab-majority cities. But Israel’s mainstream folk are not immune. A friend of a friend complained that they were fined thousands of dollars for holding a wedding with “only” 50 people, as if such a small number is a great sacrifice. But the law permits twenty people, not 50.

In advance of the lockdown, I scurried frantically around Tel Aviv in search of a slow cooker and smoked fish. The country being depleted of English-speaking tourists, I found few shopkeepers able to communicate with me in my broken Hebrew. (I can inquire in Hebrew about how much something costs, but I won’t understand the answer to that question.) I received far more sniggers than I am accustomed to, given my history of mostly-summertime trips to visit grandparents, typically amongst throngs of other tourists treated with linguistic kid gloves. I realize that this sounds crticial, but it is challenging to write about Israelis without coming off as critical. I mean it all lovingly, deep down.

 

Before I knew it, 2:00 pm on the eve of Rosh Hashanah arrived: lockdown time. Yet friends protested and headed to the beach. “It’s a fake lockdown,” they insisted.

What does it mean to have a “fake” lockdown? Do the majority of Israel’s citizens really believe that the Israeli coronavirus cabinet constructed a “fake” lockdown in order to force “red” zones, where primarily the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab live, into submission? Word on the street is that if you are not ultra-Orthodox or Arab, the lockdown does not apply to you. But in a pandemic, no one is exempt. The excuse that “this virus is for others; it doesn’t affect me” will not cut it anymore, not with almost seven thousand new coronavirus cases recorded per day. Though Israelis do not typically play by the rules, they will have to grin and bear them for now—or face thousands of shekels in fines.

On the streets during Rosh Hashanah I encountered dozens of individuals who should surely have been slapped with such fines. As I listened from a distance to a communal shofar blowing on Rothschild Boulevard—more butterflies—dozens of hip Tel Avivians whizzed by on public electric scooters, a popular form of transport. Where did they come from? Where were they going? It’s certainly hard to avoid traveling more than one kilometer—the absolute limit one is legally allowed to venture from home, aside from certain exceptions—on such a contraption.

This Friday, Israel will enter into an even stricter form of lockdown. A great number of synagogues will be closed for the rest of the holiday period, even on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. For ḥiloni Israelis, this is typically a joyous time, where one maybe goes to synagogue or sees family but mostly frolics on streets empty of cars or rides a bike through the center of the highway. For datiyim, religious Israelis, this is usually a day dedicated entirely to self-reflection and repentance alongside a crowd of worshippers; the required 24-hour fast makes traveling tiresome, and so many hardly leave the synagogue. Not this year, though. This year, the great equalizer has come for all tribes of Israel.

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More about: Aliyah, Coronavirus, Israel & Zionism, Rosh Hashanah