Copyright 1981,1999 Daniel V. Klein
(sung: elu elu hotzionu, hotzionu mi mitzraim, mi mitzraim, hotzionu, dayenu!)
When you fly into David ben Gurion airport in Israel, it is a 20 minute drive to Jerusalem. But that is where this story ends - the beginning comes after a 20 hour plane trip about 20 years ago. It was Wednesday, the day before Passover, and the previous week I had been invited at the last minute to speak at a conference in Tel Aviv. Getting tickets was rather difficult because of the impending Passover holiday, so I was flying to Israel on TWA via Paris. And because Passover is central to this story, we need to go back twice 20 centuries to get to the real beginnings of my story...
At the Passover seder, we read the Hagaddah and retell the story of the Exodus. The whole family is involved, and even the youngest child who can read has a part. It is much more than a simple retelling of the story, because the Hagaddah also teaches about life, learning, enslavment, and liberation.
The Jews were in bondage in Egypt. This is not to say that slavery was anything new. In those days, lots of people had slaves - even the Jews had slaves. But there were rules about the treatment of slaves, and rules about how a slave could be freed or earn their freedom, and Pharoah was not following the rules. The Jews remained in bondage, and Pharoah mistreated them. The Hagaddah tells of little children being walled up in the pyramids, and of cruel overseers lashing the Jewish slaves, sometimes to death. And Moses went unto Pharoah and said "let my people go!", and because Pharoah did not, God visited the plagues upon Egypt. The locusts, boils, rain of frogs, murrain, and so on - and finally Pharoah relented, and released the Jews. But at the last minute he changed his mind, and finally and reluctantly, God released the Angel of Death, who smote the firstborn of the Egyptians, but passed over the houses of the Israelites.
That is where the name Passover comes from. The Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites, because they marked the lintels of their doors with the blood of the lamb (and it is no coincidence that Easter and Passover fall on or near the same date - because Jesus' last supper was a seder, and that seder fell on a Thursday).
So when Pharoah, reeling from the death of his firstborn son, decreed that the Jews should finally leave, they packed up their belongings and left, not even taking the time for their bread to rise. But Pharoah had one last change of heart, and sent his army after the Israelites. And when Moses stood on that Red Sea shore and smote that water with a two-by-four, it was to escape the Egyptian army. And when the waters closed up again, Pharoah's army got drownded, and the 40 long years in the desert began.
It has been said that every Jewish holiday can be summed up in 9 words: "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!" And so after reading the Hagaddah and singing the songs, there is a feast.
The last thing that is read from the Hagaddah is "Next Year in Jerusalem". It is a wish and a dream, and almost a benediction, because although the people of Israel reached the promised land, they have not always stayed.
The Jews are used to being strangers in strange lands. Although we have settled all over the Earth, there have been times where we were made to be unwelcome. Most Americans remember 1492 as the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but Jews remember it as the start of the Diaspora - a great wandering, when Queen Isabella evicted the Jews from Spain. We were given 30 days to pack up and leave - substantially more time than Pharoah gave - but she also forbade the Christians of Spain to aid the Jews or to buy their property. And you didn't want to disobey either edict, because Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition were dangerous and powerful enemies. So when we close the seder with "Next Year in Jerusalem", it is with a hope that next year our wandering may end, and we may finally come home to the promised land.
A lot of Jews fly to Israel for Passover. It isn't exactly a pilgrimage, it is just a good time to go, a good time to be with family, a good time to see the Holy Land. And so the plane was packed. I was sitting next to James, a young man my age from New York, and he had his passport on the seat-tray in front of him, and he was signing his name, over and over again. This seemed a little odd, so naturally I asked him why. It turns out it wasn't his name, or his passport - it was his brother's passport, and he was learning how to forge his brother's signature. Since he didn't exactly look like a terrorist, I pressed him for the details...
It seems that he, too, had a last minute chance to go to Israel, but his passport had expired, and there was no way to get a new one in time. So he cut his hair to look like his brother, bought a pair of wire rimmed glasses, and borrowed his brother's passport - and he was making sure he could get the signature right. I helped him for a while, and we chatted, and became as good friends as you can with someone sitting next to you on a plane ride. I am still regularly in touch with him, even after 20 years. There were a couple of kids sitting behind us, and we looked after them so their parents could get a rest. There were lots of families on this flight, and lots of "instant families" of people looking out for each other.
The Jews are a very tribal people, and very family oriented. My name is Daniel Victor Klein. My birth was a very difficult one, and so my mother named me Victor for the victory we had both won by surviving, and Daniel which means "God is my Judge". My mother wanted to name me Victor Daniel, but didn't want my nickname to be "V.D." She told me that story when I was about 6 years old, but somehow I just didn't see the significance of it at the time...
But my real name, my true name, the name I swear my oaths by is Elchanan ben Moshe Falik ha Levi. Elchanan was also the name of my grandmother's father, who died in the Holocaust. We name children after ancestors who have died, because we believe that the name calls the spirit to rest. Ben Moshe means "son of Moshe", and my father was Moshe ben Meyer, and his father was Meyer barib Benyumin, and his father was Benyumin... well, that's about as far back as we can trace it, because in the shtetl's in Eastern Europe and the Ukraine, the records have all been lost. Falik is the family name, and from the sound of it, I can guess that at one time we may have been Sephardic, and wandered over the centuries from Spain to the Ukraine in the great Diaspora that started in 1492.
Ha Levi means that I am of the tribe Levi, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. I know that I am a Levite because my father was a Levite, and his father was a Levite, and so on back to the time of the bible. And I know I am a Jew because my mother was a Jew, and her mother was a Jew, and so on back to the daughters of Abraham. And although the names of so many of the individuals have been lost to fire, pogrom, holocaust, and the mere passage of time, I know my tribe, and I know my people. It's how we survive, and how we keep strong - knowing that we are not alone.
When the plane landed in Paris, something went awry. Instead of slowing down on the tarmac, the plane slewed and lurched to a very sudden stop. It seems that we had skidded off the runway into the grass. No one was hurt, but the nose gear was cracked, and we were grounded in Paris for 13 hours while replacement parts were flown in.
And as soon as we skidded to a halt, the informal little "instant families" jelled into protective little groups, with everyone looking out for each other. When the plane finally took off the next day, there was no question in anyone's mind that everyone was on board. The tribe was looking after it's own, and everyone was taken care of and accounted for.
The rest of the flight was uneventful. We were tired, but glad to be on our way, and James and I continued to joke and play with the kids in the row behind us. We talked for the whole flight, laughed and cajoled, and were having a great time. But while we were in our final descent, about 30 minutes before we landed, it came to me. And I turned to James and I said "James, it's this year in Jerusalem".
And we suddenly both got very quiet, because we both knew what that meant. That after thousands of years, we were able to just hop on a plane, rent a car, and drive to Jerusalem. The full weight of history hit me then, and it was very hard to "just walk in". I was terribly moved when I first saw the city - not because of any sacred significance, not because of the wailing wall, but because of all of "my people", I was the lucky one. For all those who had lived and died in exile, for all of those who had the prayer She'ma on their lips as they died in pogroms, purges, gas chambers, or inquisitors torture chambers, for all that had lived and worked to bring their children just a little closer to this goal, this dream of centuries, I walked in, proud and humbled, fearless and very afraid, and above all, moved to tears. Because I made it - and I carried all of those that didn't make it in my heart. It was "THIS year in Jerusalem".
So now, when I have a seder in my house, and we read the Hagaddah, I don't end the story with "next year in Jerusalem", because that year has already come. I remember the nine words that can sum up just about every Jewish holiday, and I speak nine words of my own. "Next year in Jerusalem, may we finally have peace."
I spent a month in Eretz Yisroel, put over 1,100 kilometers on a rented Fiat Autobianchi, picked up hitchhikers always - from pro-Arafat locals from Majdal Shams towards Quiriat Shemona, Scandinavians north of Metulla (where I found myself on the wrong side of the fence), soldiers, and tourists. No problems except for stolen luggage in the Negev. Then, upon leaving, there was the inspection before getting to the TWA check-in.
A soldier with laser eyes holds up "my" passport in line with my face and starts asking questions. I wasn't too worried as I had the names of the Director of Keren Hayesod and some others in case of a problem. I start by answering in Hebrew, but his questions come on the heels of my anwers in rapid succession.
Where was your passport issued? (Vienna)
Why... (remembering the truth for my brother - "Because I got drunk and passed out on the street and when I woke up it was missing")
Who did you stay with in Israel.... (I'm now answering in English. I have also broken off the earpiece of the wire rim glasses in fumbling to put them on).
Where did you travel... (I start reeling off place names).
You went to Savion.... ("Yes, for a dinner, early in the trip")
You picked up a hitchhiker on the way to Savion... ("At night, I barely noticed him." The names of my contacts mean nothing, I'm going to spend a long time here)
I was that hitchhiker. Please get a new passport photo, this one looks nothing like you. Proceed.