The first time I came to Israel was in 1982.  Why?  After I divorced, I had gone back to college at a ripe old age to get a Master’s degree in Social Work.  I hadn’t discovered by that time that I really was meant to be a teacher.

As it does to many Jews, Israel had always called to me faintly.  But I wasn’t ready to commit to living there until I could see it for myself.  A visitor from Israel had once told me that anyone can be a volunteer on a kibbutz.  At that time, I was a young mother with no plan to ever see Israel, except perhaps as a tourist.  But something inside me felt excited about volunteering on a kibbutz.

Finally, the summer school break of 1982 at the age of 39 was my chance to sign up to be a volunteer on a kibbutz for two months.  That would give me the opportunity to see Israel for myself, as well as experience the purest form of communism — a kibbutz.

It was indeed a great introduction to Israel, and gave me what I needed to make the leap to becoming an immigrant in 1983, entering a program for American trained social workers who needed to learn the social work system in Israel, as well as studying Hebrew 5 hours a day.

My coming to Israel only slightly preceded the historical secret night airlifts of Ethiopian Jews from refugee camps in Sudan.  In a matter of hours, these Ethiopian Jews were whisked from an isolated all-black third world existence into a very different world connected to them only by being Jewish.

There were many differences between Israel of that time, and America.  However, in 1983, something was missing for me in the Jewish homeland — black people.  I was used to black people in my world, especially after I lived in integrated New Orleans for three years.

As a new immigrant, the government not only housed us, taught us Hebrew, but also brought us to meaningful events to teach us Israeli history.  One of these events was in the magical city of Jerusalem in 1984.

Picture this if you can — a large stage with a stone column rising on each side from the stage into the sky.  In between was the incredibly dramatic all-natural Judean desert.  And then a large group of Ethiopian immigrants arrived to take their seats.  They had particularly beautiful faces, their blackness accentuated by the all white cloth wrapped around their bodies.  I decided in that moment, “I want to work with them.”

By chance, I started to go to a center to learn Hebrew that was shared with newly arrived Ethiopian teenagers.  Most had braved the dangers of walking out of Ethiopia into Sudan without their families.  In our mutually baby Hebrew at that point, I got to know some of the teens studying there.

How to get a paying job working with them?  A little miracle helped.  I was sitting in an office of Youth Aliyah, the Israeli governmental department in charge of the Ethiopian children, when the person I was telling I wanted to work with Ethiopians received a call from the director of a boarding school in a northern city called Maalot pleading for help with newly arrived 42 new Ethiopian teenaged boys.  And that’s how I got my first job in Israel as the housemother to newly arrived Ethiopian teens.

Not only did I enter a job with a low level of Hebrew, but I had to immediately adjust to an orthodox religious boarding school that nothing in my Jewish upbringing had prepared me for.  And I was there to mother extremely stressed teenaged boys who had been catapulted into a modern world, a Jewish culture that was only partly familiar to them, and a white world.

Complications of all sorts were everyday experiences.  Not all boarding schools reacted the same.  But the native Israeli boys in our boarding school resented the new students and all the free clothes, books, etc. and perhaps most of all, the attention the Ethiopian students received.

Although all were teen boys, the two cultures clashed in how they fought.  Instead of fists, the pattern became that the Israeli kids would goad an Ethiopian kid into throwing rocks, which was his natural form of defense in Ethiopia.  Throwing rocks crossed the line for Israeli kids and the boarding school staff who considered rock throwing unfair fighting.

My personal biggest thrill being with the Ethiopians was that they had come from a totally black world that had never been dominated by a white country.  (Italy had tried and failed.)  As Ethiopian Jews, they had been hated by the Ethiopian Christians, but their skin color was a source of pride in a predominantly gentle all-black world.

They had told me at the boarding school that they felt closer kin to white Jews than to non-Jewish Ethiopians.  I feared for their future outside Africa.  And then there was the day that one of my cutest kids said in Hebrew, “I want to be white.”

That was in 1984.  I accepted Israel citizenship after 3 years in Israel, left Israel in 1989 for a variety of reasons, and then returned briefly for a visit on my 50th birthday.  Fast forward to January 1, 2018, when I returned once again at the age of 74 to Israel for 3 months.

I returned to update my knowledge of the many changes in Israel, and to volunteer with Ethiopians in the city of Netanya along the Mediterranean Sea coast.  I knew from a friend sending me regular Jerusalem post newspaper clippings about the Ethiopians that their life in Israel had been more than difficult.  I wanted to see them for myself after more than 30 years later, and do something meaningful during my stay.  By then I knew that the most helpful thing I could do would be to tutor English to Ethiopian kids.


September 24, 2015

I go to the sea like others go to their gods — for peace, for comfort, for beauty, for timelessness, for renewal, for mystery, for connection to the unknown and the unknowable.  Whether on holidays, in times of sadness and grief, or of ebullient joy, the sea draws me.  Although I mysteriously lost my sense of smell in 2009, every other part of my body senses the sea as I come closer.  Perhaps it is because I was born by a sea, grew up by another sea, lived close to other seas, and retired by yet another sea.

Today the Pope celebrated Mass in the U.S.  Today Jews bare their souls, ask forgiveness for their sins, and remember their dead.  Today some Presidential wannabes argue whether Muslims should be U.S. Presidents. Although religions up to the present time divide humans much more than unite them, there is actually rather little that differentiates one from another.  A pity really that all the human race has the same basic needs for religion, but use religion to distance “us” from “they.”  But the seas connect us all.

Even though it’s a Wednesday on the first day of fall, there are more than just old, retired folks at the beach.  Why aren’t the young people at work?  Why aren’t the children in school?

I notice with some frustration that I can’t walk the beach as far or as quickly as I used to.  I climb the stairs holding onto a railing instead of easily ascending to the next level.  Ah, but it’s still so good to be by the sea.

I always want to stop at my special resting spot.  One sunny day long ago,  I fell asleep there.  In that in between of sleeping and waking, I saw the tall palm trees overhead, the green of the grass, the light blue of the sky meeting the incredibly deep blue of the water.  I was sure I was in heaven.  And so I was.

It looks much the same as it always has since then except that most of the grass is more brown than green.  The sea is filling up and California is getting drier and thirstier.

Some waves unfurl tantalizingly slowly.  Others smash their way through and crash noisily on the rocks.  Little children screech in excitement and fear as the waves get closer.  The waves roll in, the waves roll out, carrying my disparate thoughts with them on this sunny Yom Kippur day.

September 22, 2015

Tonight is the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.  The chanting of Kol Nidre draws me.  I look for the old audio tape my father made so long ago.  My aged Walkman no longer works, but I remember one other combination CD and audio tape player I can use.  I slip in the tape, plug in the Yahrzeit remembrance candle, turn out the lights, turn on the tape player, and settle into my comfortable chair.  I wait expectantly as the sounds of the shofar fill the room, and then feel a comforting sense of familiarity as the music and first words begin.

As I look at the remembrance candle, tears for my dead son, brother, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles fall.  These are the tears of the last branch of our Wiseman family tree; of the senior who is now older than all her living relatives.  My mind imagines me walking into Auschwitz with my friend Ruth, and the numerous relatives I never knew.  If my great-grandparents hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have suffered the Holocaust with them.

I cannot say I’m religious, but I am very Jewish.  My Jewishness is not by choice.  It is in my genes.   My Catholic Girl Scout leader introduced me to Jewish services when she took our scout troop there.  I was so moved by the service and the singing that I volunteered for the next few years to make the tea and put out the cookies for all the oneg shabbats after Friday services.  After that, I was a regular member of Jewish teen groups and learned more about Israel and Jewish history.  I fell in love at 13 years old with a wonderful 15 year old Jewish teen in my hometown who became my husband 7 years later.

At the age of 40, I began my years of being the proverbial wandering Jew, starting with immigrating to Israel.  It was in Israel that I met the Sephardic Jews of eastern countries, the Ethiopian Jews who were then being brought into Israel in large numbers, and the Arabs both inside Israel and the surrounding territories.  A few years later, I signed up to work in a program to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews living inside Israel.  I lived for 18 months in a small Arab city called Shefaram that held within it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Druse, and one Jew – me.  That ended with the Intifada of 1988 when my car was bombed one dark night while I slept.

I loved so many things about Israel, but in the end I was not strong enough to live in the tension of daily life.  I wanted to believe that Arabs and Jews could coexist, but didn’t believe deep inside me that it would ever happen. Although I kept looking back at Israel, I left and continued my wandering years mostly in Asia.

I may have been the mother of a black child, and become the grandmother to 7 Chinese children, but the wailing words of Kol Nidre still deeply affect me.  Jewish prayers are often sung like crying.  Perhaps that is because most of Jewish history has been sad.  Kol Nidre helps me remember not only the sadness, but also the joy of being Jewish.  The Jewish New Year offers renewal and that elusive word – hope.

Tomorrow, on Yom Kippur day, I will take my thoughts and go to the sea close to my home.  The depth and beauty of the sea is the holiest place I know.

September 10, 2010

It is the Jewish New Year and I’m recovering from the still unexplained alien invasion of my body in July. I owe my recovery to my natural health, aided by endorphins and adrenalin.
Getting back to my daily exercises that I love to hate has released endorphins that energize me. I’m not back up to my 1 1/2 hours a day of rather rigorous exercise, but I’m exercising daily and feeling stronger.
The positive powers of adrenalin were released by my anger at the inadequacies of my hospitalization, unfair bill, and uncommunicative doctors. I had to become a persistent detective to track down just how and to whom to file my grievances. It took energy, but the anger drove me onward, releasing adrenalin along the way.
The sunny, cool days help me walk more places that I can no longer drive to. There are still horrible events on the news of chaos, crisis, and cruelty. However, when I think there’s no peaceful way out, I remember Mandela, South Africa, and reconciliation instead of more hatred and bloodshed. I prefer to feel a twinge of hope.
I rejoice that my book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, is now being translated into Chinese because of the generosity of one of my former students in China. It will have a new life in Chinese and be able to reach more readers.
What will this new year bring? I’m curious. It’s good to be able to start off a new year with a refreshing zest for life.

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