Looking back:  Experience of an Ordinary Olah Hadashah (new immigrant) 1982-1983: Part I

beige concrete buildings on high ground
Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

In 1982 I was at a crossroads in my life, 32 years old, with a new master’s degree with no clear direction, no discernible career prospects, newly divorced.

All I knew was that my heart was in Israel and I had to somehow get there and stay there. I had been there before and the bug bit.

I am so glad that I went, and my only regret is that with the perspective of age and whatever wisdom I’ve gained between age 32 and 73, I would not do it that way again. I was not prepared for the long term and eventually had to return.

My life, my successes and failures, like many others has been a series of trying, not planning well, kind of taking myself where the wind blew me. Maybe you can do that when you’re young. I sometimes think I should have gone at 22 instead of 32, but it wasn’t on my radar at 22.

Sometime after I returned from Aliyah, a good friend, introduced me to someone and said I lived in Israel but I failed and came back. I took umbrage with that. I never forgot that. I didn’t fail. Everything in life is an experience. So here was my crazy trajectory.

I moved as an Olah Hadashah (new immigrant) to Israel in June 1982. That date should be seared in many minds, but for those of you who don’t know or remember, that was the date of the war or first war in Lebanon. It was not an attack by Lebanon. This was an invasion of Israeli forces into Lebanon due to threats and attacks from Lebanon of which I was unaware. It was secret even from the Israeli public as the military felt was necessitated.

Later, as in all Israeli and democratic societies, there would be investigations, evaluations, criticisms of politicians, but that was later. I’m not a politician. I can’t pretend to understand what happened, but the atmosphere in the country was poisonous, reminiscent of the protests against Netanyahu, on a smaller scale. I believe it brought down the Menachem Begin government and vilified Ariel Sharon after the Sabra and Shatilla Massacre in refugee camps in Lebanon, although he still subsequently became Prime Minister.

A friend met me at the airport the Tuesday before and brought me to Jerusalem and said I’ll see you next week or soon, something like that. That meeting we didn’t know at the time was going to be much much later.  

I was staying at a merkaz klita (absorption center), was given a temporary apartment for new immigrants. It was in East Talpiot which was part of East Jerusalem and you could hear the call to prayer from the minarets close by, but on my first Shabbat I was invited to stay with friends of my parents, former Americans, former New Jerseyites, who had lived some decades in Israel. They lived in the upscale leafy neighborhood of Beit Hakerem in West Jerusalem up the road from Mt. Herzl, Yad Vashem, and the Jerusalem forest, and the neighborhood where I would move a year later, and as on any Shabbat everything was shut down, quiet, and peaceful.

Late Shabbat afternoon we heard a disruption. We looked out the windows. There were young men running out of houses in their army uniforms with their Uzis or machine guns over their shoulders and jumping into cars. The friends said or knew something was up, but we waited until Shabbat was over, and turned on the radio. It was the invasion. These were not just regular army personnel, but reservists. It was everyone basically, not like now, the current war of 2023, but it was a serious call up. When I went back “home” to the absorption center the next day soldiers were amassing, spreading out their sleeping bags on the marble floor lobby and being handed out packets of candy and cigarettes. I had to step over them to get to the elevator to my apartment and they kept coming. Trucks and planes and F16 fighter jets roared overhead day and night on their way to Lebanon, but all I could think of was my boyfriend.

Where was he? He was in Lebanon.

He survived, but before I knew that I was on a bus to his place of business in Tel Aviv, an electronics and radio repair store, crying to his boss, who shrugged his shoulders and said, what am I supposed to say? My sons are there too. I know nothing. Almost everything for me was images. That’s mostly what remains now and some of it blurs in my memory with prior visits to Israel.

I was supposed to attend the best ulpan in the country, a five month intensive program, but that was later, and I had a month with nothing to do in the meantime. I contacted my father’s friends, who lived on Kibbutz Sasa, in the Upper Galilee, a shomer ha-tzair kibbutz, meaning what people described as a far left socialist kibbutz, founded by Americans in 1949, the movement originally founded in Austria-Hungry in 1913, and they said come. Our men have all gone to Lebanon. We can use volunteer help. I went. They had beef cattle and orchards. I just read they have a plastics factory now and make vehicle armor. So they’re still there. You could see Lebanon from the fields, a mile distant. I was glad that I wasn’t assigned the back breaking work of picking fruit in the orchards.

I had a choice of working in the chicken coops or in the kitchen, or maybe I was just assigned the kitchen. That suited me well. It was a revelation to wake up at 5 in the morning and go into the kitchen with freezing hands even in summer and make mustard and mayonnaise in big vats for 300 people and chop vegetables and potatoes.

There must have been more to it than that, but that’s what I remember. I also remember the members appeared hostile except for my father’s friends, who were, like my dad, amateur (ham) radio operators.

The other members would pass me by on the many wooded paths and completely ignore me. One day I finally asked someone why, probably at the communal meal table, and they said they can’t say hello to 300 people every day and besides they knew I would be leaving after the month was up. Still it stung. Some of them figured they could talk to me after the first three days.

One of the American radio operators and founders of the kibbutz told me stories of how he had requisitioned ships from America to smuggle illegal Jewish immigrants into then Palestine during the British mandate.

His wife one day asked me if I was interested in staying there and taking teacher training for their regional high school. I thought it would be quite a challenge, but I didn’t think long, as I didn’t want to think about how fluent I would have to become in Hebrew and stand in front of a class of tough Israeli teenage kibbutzniks either.

I was a sheltered if not spoiled American gal and couldn’t think of completely giving up capitalism and shopping. For fun on Saturday nights we watched movies in a tent or one TV for fifty people. During our time off we’d swim in the communal swimming pool. One day the same woman, who was a social worker, invited me to drive with her to a nearby Druze village. I assume now it was part of her job, and I’m sure she explained it to me, but I can’t recall the specifics.

What I remember was driving on unpaved roads into a ramshackle village that looked poverty stricken, but we entered a modern, clean, somewhat opulent home. We were warmly greeted and we were entertained on low sofas with tea from samovars and trays. We conversed with the men and the women were not allowed to socialize with us, just prepare the food and tea, but they peeked out smiling from behind a curtain that probably led to their kitchen.

I went back to Jerusalem. It was now July and very hot. The war was still going on, but eventually subsided and stopped. When I first came to the absorption center I was assigned a roommate who was some years older than me. She was not Jewish, or rather her mother was not Jewish but she was engaged to an Israeli man and they wanted to get married. They were fighting to get her converted and allowed to stay and marry.

She was an unhappy person. We were ill matched in a tiny although brand new apartment. My father wanted to stay in close touch as much as possible from 6000 miles away so I also became a ham radio operator before I left home, got my advanced license – I didn’t have any affinity for electronics and radio, but I did it for my family.

One night I stood outside the buildings because there was better reception, and held a two meter hand held radio and told my father in New Jersey on the radio how awful my roommate was. I don’t believe the roommate heard it, but horror of horrors, my voice carried to other apartments: live and learn.

I was a proud but secular Jew and this was Jerusalem. The first or second night of my stay in Israel, word traveled via ham radio that I was in Jerusalem, and they, meaning Israeli radio operators, rolled out the red carpet and came to greet me. It was all very innocent. These were young religious American kippa-wearing Israelis probably a decade younger than me. However, I got a backlash from religious American immigrant neighbors who assigned names to me that I can’t repeat here. I thought they were nice people until I heard that.

I started the ulpan. I tested and was placed in a certain level class. It ran five full days a week and was supposed to last five months. Every day was a short lunch break where I would have to walk pretty fast from the neighborhood of Talpiot to Baka to fill out paperwork at a bank and take care of other important matters that a new immigrant would have to address.

One day I arrived back late for the afternoon session of class. The teacher asked me stand and scolded me like a kindergartner in front of everyone. We were all adults. I left class and went to the principal and told her what happened and that this was the wrong level class for me. They had made a mistake. It was too easy. I needed to be in the next level up – my humble opinion, but it felt true. I was refused. So I dropped out of the best ulpan in the country. However, I met an American gal in that same class, a yeshiva student and recent Yale graduate ten years my junior. She decided to drop out too and drop out of her Yeshiva – she was just there for the year for the experience, not because she was a believer. We both decided something had to change.

I moved out of the absorption center and she moved out of wherever she was staying, and we scoured the real estate listings downtown and found an apartment to share. That was in the German Colony, a beautiful historic neighborhood, one of the earliest neighborhoods outside the Old City. We lived there a year until she went back to America, the lease was up, and I had to find another apartment. We got jobs. She taught English to Israelis and I worked as an English secretary in the Hebrew University in the microbiology department in Givat Ram, which was the science campus.

There was a lot of spare time and they would say relax, relax, drink another coffee, but as an American sitting and doing nothing on a job was not in my DNA. I would find things to do and I would read their scientific papers in their library so I could better understand their projects, and they of course, would explain to me what they were doing. Their projects included finding microscopic life in the Dead Sea and the long term desalination project.

There were two Arab doctoral students and teaching assistants in the Ph.D. program. One was hostile and we didn’t converse much. After all, I was considered a Zionist. I had willingly chosen to immigrate to Israel. The other one was a gem, bright, intelligent, personable, and got along well with his professors and fellow students. We had long conversations and he would explain to me the difficulties of being an Arab from the West Bank, not being able to ultimately teach in an Israeli university, partly because he was not a citizen of Israel and therefore could not serve in the Israeli army, which was all a pre-requisite.

 I said why can’t you go to America to teach afterwards and he said, yes, he could, but this was his homeland and he wanted to stay. He told me the one or two universities in the West Bank were inferior to the Israeli universities and he didn’t want to teach there.

I had a master’s degree in psychoeducational processes or group dynamics, but no one in America at that time understood what that was, let alone Israel. I was interviewed before going on Aliyah, asked what I wanted to do in Israel, and I said I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. Well why not? But they said I couldn’t. Kindergarteners are in their early language development. They couldn’t be hampered by someone who hardly knew the language and couldn’t pronounce properly.

The German Colony was a delight. We did a lot of walking out to the main street and through the back streets and alleys and out to the buses and sometimes just walked the few miles to downtown Jerusalem carrying our string grocery bags and sometimes stopping at the British Council Library to check out books and knitting patterns if we weren’t going to the laundromat.

Every yard had fruit trees for the picking, mostly oranges, lemons, and grapefruit, and wild cats prowled everywhere, jumping in and out of trash cans and causing us to jump. Late one night a group of cats climbed the tree outside my balcony and on hearing them I opened the balcony doors and they were having a council or pow wow sitting in a circle on the balcony howling to each other. I’m not making this up! 

My roommate brought ingredients from home like hoisin sauce and soy sauce and became a whiz with Chinese stir fry. I bought an Israeli cookbook all in Hebrew and became proficient in stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers and stuffed tomatoes Middle Eastern Style.

The Mahane Yehuda had a profusion of fresh vegetables and we would take advantage of what they had to offer every week. I remember the abundance of huge leeks for some reason. A half block down was a makolet, grocery store, with the best fresh pita bread every morning. That neighborhood showed up a few years ago on HGTV House Hunters and Americans were spending in the millions to make Aliyah and buy a whole building in the German Colony and renovate it.

Times change. Our rent was probably under $200 a month for a two bedroom apartment, two separate private balconies, a kitchen, living room, and dining room and bathroom. Sounds luxurious but it was really very basic. Nothing fancy. Sparse furnishings. For those who don’t know the bathroom was two rooms, one for the toilet and one for the shower or tub. Water would drip into the hall so every day you would have to mop up with a special Israeli designed mop, and even more importantly, you would have to turn on the electric wall switch to heat the bath water – maybe it was only a bathtub, no shower – and it could take an hour to heat. You had to be kind of quick before the hot water ran out. The plastic blinds opened with a pulley system either completely or leaving scattered openings. There were no screens. In the summer nights the mosquitoes would come through and bite unless you completely closed the stifling blinds or bought chemical tablets to put in an outlet that would emit a powder in the air to kill them, more likely would kill me in the long run!

I remember staying in the Sheraton in 2001 and you had automatic heat in January and hot water all the time. For the apartment we did have to pay in American dollars. I don’t know how or why. If you were Israeli, would you still do that? I don’t remember. For fun in the winter because the heat in our building was rationed according to the Va Bait, the house committee of fellow apartment dwellers. We would sit huddled over an electric heater in one of the bedrooms knitting sweaters.

The TV went off not much after the 9 p.m. news which was in Hebrew and we didn’t really understand it anyway. As soon as Hatikva ended, the TV went off and there was nothing else to do. Sometimes we would play cassettes on my boom box that I had brought from home. We would knit and chat for hours and laugh over the mishaps of the day and people encounters in a way that only two Americans could share. It wasn’t out of meanness. It was probably out of amazement, sometimes joy, mutual frustration, and shared loneliness. Two American gals with different lives, years apart, miles from home, our place of birth, friends for a year that would otherwise never have been.


  1. Lynn, This is so interesting, and the details were fascinating. You are a great writer, and I agree with Gail– I look forward to Part 2 with anticipation!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.