An article in Issue 14, October 27, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

I remember a high wind and driving rain. Night is darker here, I thought, as the bus's engine expired in a series of knocks that sounded like the final beats of a broken heart. We pulled our duffel bags and backpacks from the luggage compartment and dragged them in the direction of the faintly lit doorway of the remotest of immigrant absorption centers, in Kiryat Shmona, in the Galilean panhandle, in the uttermost north. It would be, for the next three months, our home and our school, the beginning of a year's stay in Israel.

"Only once in his life can a person arrive in the Land of Israel for the first time," wrote Yehuda Ya'ari, with regret and, probably, considerable remorse. Ya'ari, a literary light of the idealistic, ideological, post-Great War Third Aliya, abandoned his socialist kibbutz paradise early on and parted from his utopian comrades. He was still alive, and living in Jerusalem, when I arrived in the Land of Israel that October night three decades ago - not that I knew of him then.

There were 28 of us in the shabby lobby of the absorption center, waiting to be assigned our rooms. Damp spots stained the corners of the ceiling where the rain was seeping through, and the plaster was cracked. A telephone - one of a handful in the entire town - stood on the reception desk at one end of the room, firmly locked.

I'd made some initial acquaintances on the four-hour ride up from the airport. Most of us were Americans, but there were a handful of Brits and Canadians and one easygoing Australian. A girl from New York was religious; two, one guy and one woman, weren't even Jewish. We were only seven men. At first glance, that seemed promising, but I had no great hopes. The women's eyes gravitated mostly to the Australian, who was the tallest, and to the non-Jew, who was by far the best-looking. One of the women was a quick-witted, committed lesbian, and many of the other women had announced on the ride up that they had serious boyfriends back home and that they intended to remain loyal. When I expressed skepticism about their simple faith, they dismissed me.

Another interesting statistic had emerged on the bus. Seven of our group - the Australian among them - declared that they had come on aliya. They were Zionist idealists who intended to spend the rest of their lives in Israel. Fourteen others were open to the idea. Seven of us - I was one of these - were certain that we had come for a year and had no desire at all to make Israel our permanent home. All of us were enrolled in Sherut La'am, a program sponsored by the Jewish Agency in which we would spend three months learning Hebrew in Israel's most beleaguered urban center and then disperse to development towns across the country to do what we could as untrained volunteers to help these poor and neglected communities.

It was 1978 and I'd graduated from college the previous May; I was one of the youngest members of the group. When it came to Israel experience, I was at the far low end. Most of my fellow volunteers had been here several times, in many cases for extended periods, living on kibbutzim or in one of the big cities. A large percentage had been active during high school and college in Zionist youth groups; I had not.

I'd made my first and only trip two winters previously, a quick two-week tour in the company of a group of extremely unpleasant Long Island college students to whom I'd been attached after the trip I originally signed up for fell through. Through the screen of their interminable bitching I'd managed to see the sights and get intrigued enough to want to come back. But certainly not to stay.

It was hol hamo'ed, the intermediate days of Sukkot when we arrived - a fact of which I was only vaguely aware. Sukkot was not a holiday my family had ever paid much attention to. The country was on vacation, we were told as we dripped in the commons room. So classes would not begin until after Simhat Torah, five days hence. Meaning that we were free to leave the next day and go wherever we wished. We heaved our duffel bags up to our rooms and fell asleep.

"Had they shown us such a Galilee in a dream, our souls would have ached with yearning and longing for it; now that it revealed itself to us face to face, in reality, our souls were in awful anguish," Ya'ari wrote in his 1937 novel "Like Glittering Light." Perhaps Ya'ari was recalling his first dawn in Beit Alfa, then a lonely outpost at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. But when I rose to look out over the Hula Valley the next morning, I'd had no dreams that could be shattered. A mist, coaxed out of the green fields before me by the morning sun, broke the early morning rays and made it seem as if I were seeing the Galilean landscape through a crystal ball. The Golan Heights looked like a mossy embankment close enough to touch, and just to the northeast the Hermon rose into a bank of clouds that, I imagined, were grooming and dressing the mountain for the day before it.

Behind me, the Menara cliff face provided a rich brown backdrop to the homes and housing projects of Kiryat Shmona, which insisted on looking peaceful and pastoral, even if Katyusha rockets and terrorists sometimes came over the mountain from Lebanon to wreak havoc in the town.

I threw a spare pair of jeans and a couple shirts into my backpack and headed with the others up the street to the Kiryat Shmona bus terminal. Many of the volunteers were going to spend the long weekend with family; others were heading off, unannounced, to the kibbutzim where they'd formerly spent summers or semesters, knowing that they'd be welcomed warmly. I had a scrap of paper with the name and address of cousins of a friend of mine who, he had assured me, would be delighted to host me whenever I could get to Jerusalem.

The scrap of paper led me to a small downtown street, geographically just off a main street but notionally oceans and eons away. Three flights up a narrow and dusky staircase, I knocked on a door. A tall, thin, unshaven, scholarly-looking man in a wrinkled black suit opened it and smiled when I introduced myself. "We were expecting you," he said, even though I'd had no way of informing them that I was coming.

Yesterday's refreshing rain had now turned into a fierce heat wave. The small apartment was stuffy. Even with my 22-year-old male blindness to disarray, I could see that the rooms had not been cleaned any time recently. A small girl, perhaps three years old and clothed only from the waist up, was running and shouting among cast-off toys and discarded slices of bread. A voice called out a greeting from an inner room. "It's my wife," my host said. "She is nine months pregnant and can't get up."

Perhaps I shouldn't stay, I suggested. We insist that you do, he replied, seconded loudly by his wife and his daughter.

He took me out to the sukka on their tiny balcony and asked me if I would like to say the blessing on the lulav and etrog. I would and I did, for the first time in my life. That evening we attended Friday night services in a tiny, crowded ultra-Orthodox shtiebel and returned home to dine on boiled chicken and potatoes. My host made up the couch for me in the dark. I'd never before been a guest in Jerusalem and if this was the city's customary hospitality, it seemed good enough to me. A bit strange, perhaps, but certainly different and interesting.

A commotion disturbed me briefly in the middle of the night; someone whispered something about my keeping an eye on the little girl. I nodded and fell back into a deep sleep. The next morning my host woke me up. "I have a son," he said happily.

"They were all young - of the generation of the war. A great terror was in their hearts, the terror of war, and in their souls an ambition for redemption, redemption of the nation and redemption of humanity. And I'll tell you a secret: this ambition was much larger than they could contain or conceive. A huge need in a soul that is not so large can make a man lose his mind," wrote Ya'ari in his story, "What He Had Not Yet Told Her."

Three days later, the morning after Simhat Torah, I took the 963 bus down to Jericho, heading north in the Jordan Rift Valley, through Beit She'an, around Lake Kinneret, via Tiberias, up to Kiryat Shmona. I stood most of the way; the bus was full of soldiers returning to their bases after the holiday. Despite the open windows, the air in the bus was dense with heat, damp with humidity, and smoky from the soldiers' cigarettes.

I didn't have much of a vocabulary, but in Hebrew school I'd been that peculiar and rare sort of student who loved grammar, and I knew my conjugations very well. So I was placed in the highest level Hebrew class, taught by Yitzhak, a multilingual elder who had come from Holland in the late 30s to help found a nearby kibbutz.

"It was very tough. Many grew disappointed and disillusioned," he told us. "But I wasn't like most of the others. I hadn't dreamed of being a pioneer in Palestine and came almost by chance. So the experience far exceeded the very low expectations I'd arrived with. Perhaps that is the secret of a successful aliya."

To the best of my knowledge, of the seven declared olim in our group, only one remains today. And I, who swore I was here for a year and no more, am now celebrating the 30th anniversary of my aliya. Yehuda Ya'ari knew the anguish of broken dreams; my teacher Yitzhak knew the value of having no dreams at all. My heart was small then, I think. Looking back, I wonder whether it was not perhaps for the best that I did not try to cram either dreams or love into it then. Life, and Israel, were far from paradise in the autumn of 1978. But they were interesting, unexpected, entirely different. That was good enough, and there was no disappointment.

Haim Watzman is the author of Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley. He blogs at

An article in Issue 14, October 27, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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