Varda Lane, 80, from Haifa; Ella Olsheh, 63, from South Africa; and Maya Nuri, 24, a student from Tel Aviv; flying to London.
Hello, can I ask you where you’re going?
Lane: We are going to London in honor of my 80th birthday.
Olsheh: I started it all. It was my idea to go together to celebrate.
Lane: This is my younger sister, Ella. Maya is my granddaughter.
How many grandchildren do you have?
Lane: I have 18 great-grandchildren and seven grandchildren. The oldest great-grandchild is 16.
Olsheh: It’s also a nostalgic trip, because when I was 16 we went together to live in London. At that time, the army sent Varda’s husband to take a course. They already had two daughters and I joined them.
Nuri: They have something of a mother-daughter relationship.
How was it in London then?
Lane: It was hard in Israel back then. It was the period after austerity. You probably heard about it, but we lived it. We were married during the austerity period. We had children in the austerity period. We had debts. We had a great time in London. We enjoyed ourselves and saw the wide world.
Olsheh: It opened a window onto new things. We traveled a lot in England and Scotland. We learned English. The Beatles had just started.
Have you been abroad together before?
Olsheh: We went on a roots discovery trip to Belgium with our mother, who died eight years ago.
Nuri: I was just a girl then. I’m really happy I was able to make the trip this time. Grandma is really something. She is the chair of the University of Haifa pensioners organization and she does voluntary work.
Lane: That is not interesting.
It is, actually. What do you do in the pensioners organization?
Lane: We have trips together and lectures.
Nuri: She is always traveling. She just got back from Sicily two months ago.
Lane: That really was a marvelous holiday. We were in Malta, too.
You don’t look like a typical 80-year-old.
Nuri: She isn’t. Grandma is the most special person in the world.
Lane: As a matter of fact, traveling is very characteristic of pensioners today. Elderly people used to sit in the house, even if they were healthy. At most they would go to a health resort. Nowadays, everyone who can go out and have a good time does so.
Olsheh: You are always running, running, running and me behind you. We recruited Maya for the trip so she would calm us down.
What did you do in the university?
Lane: I was deputy head of the student administration − in charge of exams, getting the degree and authorizations. I was also chair of the workers union.
The photographer: Hey, I’m in a union, too.
Lane: Yes, I read in the paper that there are many battles now. I think that what happened in the university, in the departments of foreign languages and humanities, is now happening to you. There isn’t enough demand, there aren’t enough jobs; things are tough.
I am changing the subject. Varda, were you born in Israel?
Lane: I was born in Belgium. My father was born here. After high school he wanted to study and Belgium offered free tuition at the time. He went there to study engineering, met my mother and they were married.
Olsheh: He met her at a flower show in Ghent and afterward brought the idea of flower shows to Israel. For years there were marvelous flower shows in Haifa.
Lane: I remember. Our father was the Haifa city engineer.
What do you have planned for the trip?
Olsheh: Food markets, a visit to Parliament, museums, plays − “Billy Elliot” or “Singin’ in the Rain.” Maybe we will also visit Cambridge.
Nuri: That’s why I brought my driving license!
Olsheh: But you don’t know how to drive on the proper side of the road.
Olsheh: Yes, because I live in South Africa and they drive on the left side there, too.
Since when have you lived there?
Olsheh: Since 1980. We were a young couple with two children and wanted a bit of a change. My husband, an engineer, wanted to get a master’s degree, and we knew that in the United States we wouldn’t have an easy time providing for a family as students.
Lane: And my husband, who was also an engineer, had ties in South Africa.
You both married engineers and your father was an engineer. I detect a pattern.
Olsheh: True. It’s funny. Anyway, we went there, got into it and stayed. Even though we all like Israel very much, it happens that my daughter, who went back to Israel, has now gone to live in San Francisco and my son has lived in London for years. And by the way, I spoke to him yesterday and he said it’s raining there. He said, “This summer we are having a wonderful winter.”
What I wouldn’t do now for a trickle that doesn’t come from the air conditioner.
Olsheh: I miss this heat. We will return to Israel in another two years, when my husband retires. That’s settled.
Josh Blau, 18, from Cincinnati, arriving from Zurich
You look bushed.
Yes, I had a hard day of flying. I flew from Cincinnati to Chicago, from Chicago to Zurich and from Zurich to Israel. I slept well on the plane from Chicago to Zurich but less so from Zurich to Israel.
What do you plan to do in Israel?
I am going to study for a year in Har Etzion Yeshiva, which is in the settlement of Alon Shvut in the Etzion Bloc [south of Bethlehem].
Are there many Jews in Cincinnati?
There is a very large community of Reform Jews there. Cincinnati is really the capital of Reform Judaism. But I myself am not exactly Reform.
What are you?
I am semi-Orthodox. I am semi-Reform. I am semi-everything. I do a lot of things differently. I am strict in certain things and not strict in others. For example, I wear a hat and I have never shaved completely, but I observe a high level of kashrut. It’s hard to explain.
Is it between you and God?
Something like that. I am going to the yeshiva to acquire a broader basis and to understand.
What are your expectations?
I don’t know if I want to have expectations. Maybe you could say that I expect to grow through my studies and be strengthened in worshipping the Lord.
What do you do in a yeshiva?
It’s a big yeshiva, with about 500 people. Many of the students are from abroad, especially the United States, so they have a special track. In fact, someone from my school in Cincinnati is also here and he will be my roommate. I know a few other American students, too. Basically, there are general lessons in which everyone takes part, but a lot of time is also devoted to studying with a learning companion. So, actually, you can decide for yourself how to build your day and what you will do with it. As always, some of the people will probably just sit and stare, and some will learn and teach.
What attracts you in particular?
Jewish thought. Gemara. Judah Halevi. Maimonides.
And why in Israel?
The level of study here is very serious compared to other places. Studies are hard and you also learn Hebrew much better. I want to devote a year to concentrating on Jewish studies the whole day. It is very useful for my future. And I also get college credits. It’s part of the program of Yeshiva University in New York, to which I have been accepted as an undergraduate student in Jewish studies.
Have you thought of immigrating to Israel?
I am not thinking of immigrating. First I want to understand things about Israel. Even though I have a good friend from Cincinnati who immigrated − I will be staying with him until studies start. He is French by origin and lives in Ra’anana. We were neighbors. I went to a Jewish high school.
Do you learn anything out of the ordinary in a school like that?
For example, we had a class on “Advocating for Israel” as preparation for encountering people with anti-Israeli views in college. It’s true that there is less chance I will meet anyone like that in Yeshiva University, but in regular colleges there are many pro-Palestinian groups and there are battles with them. I believe that it can serve me in my contact with the world, even after I complete my studies. Many people know very little about Israel. They don’t know anything. They repeat slogans they hear, like “apartheid state.” They don’t even know how big Israel is.
How small, you mean.
People are always shocked when I tell them that Israel could fit into Ohio 18 times.
What does your mother say about all this?
My mother is very happy for me. She is a bit uptight and stressed that I came here, but she wants to give me freedom.
Do you think you would believe even if you hadn’t been born to a religious Jewish family?
I understand rationally that there is an aspect of being born into belief. It’s clear to me that this is an integral part of myself, but I also think it doesn’t really make a difference. Each person, each individual, has to find for himself his specific relationship with God, and that only happens by experience.
What does your experience say?
Every time I pray, I try to summon up more intentionality. I feel that I am talking with God and he is listening. That’s what’s important.
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