|Published in The Stockton (CA) Record's Vintage Section
Tuesday, December 2, 2003
Veteran Reporter Remembers the Birth of Israel
A journey to a land filled with promise
By Paul Weeks
It was a star-filled night in the month of Tishri that brought in the Hebraic New Year 5715 in Jerusalem. Ninety-eight joyful pilgrims from Los Angeles, accompanied by two newspaper reporters, Harry Lang, of the Los Angeles Examiner and I, then working for the L.A. Daily News, were already immersed in the lore of the ancient Holy Land, reborn six years earlier as the state of Israel.
In the daylight of that holiest day, aged Rabbi Azulay, chief justice of Israel's Rabbinical Court, said, "Greetings, brethren. I have not seen you for 1,800 years. I am so glad you have returned."
The pilgrims watched immigrants from Yemen, "arriving on the wings of eagles," as their scripture had predicted. At a Persian synagogue, Judaism was mingled with Muslimism because the worshippers still feared the sons of Mohammed would burst in upon them for worshipping Jehovah. Outdoors, they placed a pitcher of water, such as Muslims used for washing their feet before entering the mosque. Indoors, two scrolls and two arks were hung, representing each religion.
Back in California, it was October 1954. The two reporters were guests of the Jewish Community Council of Los Angeles for a chartered flight out of New York on El Al's airline. In Israel, it was the Promised Land all over again -- not yet milk-and-honey, because its War of Independence had left the new nation still on rationing. But expectation and hope filled the air.
Elderly Aaron Tycko had kissed the tarmac at Lod Airport when we touched Israel soil after a fog-delayed flight from Paris. On the final leg over the Mediterranean, El Al Airlines Capt. Sam Lewis had to turn our straining Lockheed Constellation back to Athens. My seatmate Tycko said, "Are we like Moses? Will we get so close and yet not arrive in the Promised Land?"
Writing airmailed columns daily back to my newspaper, I told of an early walk down a street in Tel Aviv: "Many of the older people walk with their shoulders hunched over, unable to shake the ordeals of the past in lands of oppression and persecution. But the children? Their heads are in the air, their shoulders thrown back, their faces smiling."
My rapture knew no bounds: "The 6-year-old country is more than a melting pot. It is a pressure cooker. Forests are saplings, each tree planted as a memorial to the Jews lost in the Holocaust (of Word War II) or the fight to wrest this land from the Arabs." Tel Aviv, dubbed the Los Angeles of Israel, had been only a scattering of Bedouin tents 30 years earlier, with shepherds tending herds of sheep and goats. Now it bustled, with apartment houses booming up.
Gaiety and humor pervaded. An Israeli citizen, as the story goes, learned that his wife was seriously ill in the Galilee and was calling for him. A deeply religious man, he flouted the law against driving a car on the Sabbath. A policeman stopped him.
"It says in the Talmud," the citizen said, "that if one is traveling on water when the Sabbath begins, he may continue his journey." He rose from his seat. The police found he'd been sitting on a hot water bottle. The officer shook his hand and wished him godspeed.
My companions wondered how a goy (non-Jewish) guy like me could report accurately on this junket. I had no trouble with reporting -- but there was one morning at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, when I confided to my colleague, Harry, a Catholic, that I hungered for bacon with my breakfast eggs. He challenged: "Ask."
Timidly, I put in my order. The waiter drew up straight, walked away. He returned with two eggs and toast on my plate. I looked up plaintively, "Where is the ...?" Interrupting me, he bent over and whispered, "Use your fork!" Lo, under the eggs, two crisp slices of bacon!
Today, a half-century later, could I revisit without despair that country, first born under the United Nations, which held so much hope and promise? The United States, perhaps a spoiling financial godparent but often seemingly indifferent to the life-and-death currents that still seethe on that Mediterranean coast, has found no solution -- even often in conflict with the U.N. on how to arrive at a peaceful settlement.
The Israelis are orphans of the Holocaust, still harboring fears of encirclement. Their neighbors are no longer nomads. But in the 21st century, they still harbor their own strivings for statehood.
Paul Weeks is a distinguished veteran journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Daily News, Mirror, Times, and later the RAND Corporation. He lives in Oceanside and works as a freelance writer.
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