A Short Story by Tzvi Fishman
Even before the jumbo jet came to a stop on the runway, Dr. Elliot Miller unfastened his seat belt and jumped up from his seat.
“Where are you going?” his wife, Sandra, asked.
“I want to be the first one off the plane,” he replied, pulling his carry-on down from the overhead rack.
“Please remain seated until the aircraft comes to a complete stop,” the voice over the loudspeaker commanded.
Though the doctor normally respected regulations and rules, his excitement overcame him completely. He pushed forward down the aisle like a sprinter determined to win the race. To please his wife, they had remained in America as long as they could, miraculously surviving the Corona plague and pogroms against the Jews. But now the ingathering of the exiles was ending, and they were among the last Jews to come home.
“The Land of Israel!” he thought to himself. “Thank God, I finally made it!”
Using his elbows and shoulders, he fought his way to the front of the cabin.
“I’m a doctor,” he said, when other passengers protested.
In truth, there were over one-hundred doctors on the planeload of affluent Jews, but the other new immigrants bought the excuse, figuring there must be some kind of emergency.
When the flight attendant swung the cabin door open, Elliot felt so overwhelmed, he nearly lost his balance. Ben Gurion Airport didn’t look so different than other airports around the world, but there was an Israeli flag flying on the roof of a building. In the distance, the mountains of the Holy Land rose toward a biblical sky.
Elliot flew down the steps of the ramp. When his feet touched the runway, he collapsed to his knees and pressed his lips to the asphalt.
“I’m in Israel! I’m in Israel!” he thought to himself, feeling he was going to faint.
“Just what are you doing?” his wife asked, appearing behind him.
Elliot looked up and blushed.
“Kissing the Holy Land,” he responded.
“Look at your trousers,” she said. “You’ve got them all dirty.”
“Who cares?” he replied. “We’re in Israel!”
“Woopey doo,” she answered sarcastically. “If you want to make a fool of yourself, do it when you’re alone. People recognize me.”
It was true. Wherever they went, people recognized Elliot’s wife. The witty and attractive woman had become one of America’s most well-known personalities as the host of a nationwide TV talk show.
“Let’s go, Joe,” an airport worker growled, giving Elliot a kick in the butt. “Get into line with the others.”
A pain shot up Elliot’s spine, but he didn’t protest. No doubt he deserved it, he thought. He should have made Aliyah sooner, after graduating med school, but he had college loans to pay back, and then he started to make a lot of money…. Grimacing, he stood up from the runway and wiped the dirt off his knees.
“How dare you!” Sandra declared. “You can’t treat my husband like that! He’s one of New York’s leading physicians.”
“This isn’t New York, lady” the worker replied. “We’ve got so many doctors from America here, they’re like sand in the desert.”
Obediently, Elliot stepped into the long line of passengers that had formed on the runway. He wasn’t going to let the kick in the rear get him down. He was finally in Israel, and he was grateful for that.
Everyone wore anti-Corona surgical face masks. Though the epidemic was under control in Israel, the Government was keeping precautionary measures to guard against further outbreaks.
“Aren’t there buses or something to take us to the terminal?” Sandra asked, as a Nefesh B’Nefesh worker started to march the new arrivals toward the distant terminal.
“All the buses are busy with regular passengers,” the Israeli retorted.
“And just what are we? Lepers?”
The man kept on walking, followed by the plane load of rich American Jews.
“This is preposterous,” Sandra complained as she wheeled her carry-on suitcase along the sunbaked runway. “I’m going to do a story on this!”
“Just thank God we got here,” her husband replied.
When they reached the terminal, they were told that the two Jewish Agency officials who had to stamp their papers had gone out to lunch. After waiting an hour, the long line of Olim started to move. It took another two hours before Dr. Elliot Miller and his wife reached the Absorption Desk at Ben Gurion Airport.
“Why are there only two officials working here to handle a flight of over four-hundred people?” Sandra asked pointedly. It was her beauty and wit, combined with her hard-hitting journalist style, which had propelled her to the top of America’s media ladder.
“You should have come two years ago,” an official answered. “In those days, the whole process took less than an hour.”
“Are we being punished?” she asked with the assertiveness of someone accustomed to getting her way.
“Please, Sandra,” Elliot said. “We’re almost finished.”
“I get the feeling that we are being punished, that’s all, and I want to know why.”
“Listen lady,” the other official said. “If you are not happy with the way things are done here, you can go back to America. We’ve managed so far without you; we’ll survive if you decide not to stay.”
“Well, I never….” Sandra stuttered. “I knew Israelis had chutzpah, but this is the worst.”
“Next!” the official called, stamping their passports and immigration cards.
That was only the beginning. They had to wait another hour for their luggage that was held up in some kind of strike. In front of a camera, Sandra was the sea of composure, without a hair out of place, but now her mascara was running down her cheeks with droplets of angry sweat.
“I told you we should have stayed in New York,” she said with growing irritation.
“Be patient, darling. You promised you would give it a try.”
“I am beginning to realize that I made a mistake.”
“So did I,” Elliot thought to himself with a sigh.
It was times like these, when Sandra had one of her tantrums, that Elliot thought about Miriam. In medical school, Miriam and he had been sweethearts. Miriam was quiet, gentle, with a happy smile on her face whenever he was around. There was never any question that she loved him. But then he had met Sandra at a party and everything changed. Sandra was exciting, flamboyant, the center of a crowd. Wherever she went, all eyes turned her way. Elliot lost his head. Abandoning the faithful Miriam, he ran after Sandra until she said yes. Instead of a life of marital harmony with Miriam, he married a woman who never really loved him.
“Why did you marry me?” he once asked her.
Like a surgeon wielding a scalpel, she answered, “You were the best thing I could find at the time.”
As long as his medical practice flourished, Sandra played the role of his wife. True, her credit-card charges were staggering, but he put up with it because he enjoyed having a stunning woman at his side on their almost nightly outings to the theater and the finest restaurants in New York. But with the start of her fame and nightly talk show, the couple hardly met. They continued to live together, but with their busy schedules, they were like airplanes soaring by one another in the night. At first, they stayed together for their son, and then out of familiarity and convenience. After their son, Larry, left home for Europe, and her celebrity salary grew to be several times his, they found themselves with less and less in common. More and more, Elliot thought about Miriam. One lonely night, he even made some telephone calls to old medical school buddies, hoping to make contact. He surfed the Internet for hours, searching for an address, but she, like his marriage to Sandra, had simply disappeared. Finally, in a chance encounter with an old roommate, he learned that she had married a non-Jewish lawyer.
“Boy was she crazy about you,” his friend remembered. “She probably married a lawyer in spite, just to get doctors out of her mind.”
That’s when Elliot started to learn a little Torah. At first on the Web, to fill up his lonely hours at night. Then, at the urgings of an Orthodox cardiologist, he began to study with a hevruta. As far as religion was concerned, the subject left Sandra cold. She had her life. He had his.
But then, with the coming of Mashiach, everything changed. Spellbound, the Corona-devastated world watched Israel’s miraculous triumphs in war. Sandra got swept up in the fever. Ironically, it was the excavation work of the Arabs in the subterranean tunnels on the Temple Mount that ignited the flame. Digging up ancient remains on the Mount to erase traces of Jewish history, the Arabs uncovered the Ark of the Covenant and the Two Tablets of Law. Arab workers approaching the sacrosanct vessel were stricken with blindness. In the hospital, their delirious reports were leaked to the press. Hearing that the cherished Ark had been found, thousands of Jews stormed the Temple Mount. Amidst a roar of thunderous shofars and trumpets, the mosques on the Mount crumbled into dust and disappeared. Though the Jews hadn’t fired one single shot, every Arab state declared war. Led by the Ark and Mashiach, the Israelis dealt a devastating blow to enemy forces, turning Gaza a cloud of dust. On television sets the world over, God reaffirmed His ancient covenant with the Jews. When the Temple Institute in Jerusalem set up an altar on top of the Mount, the Clouds of Glory returned. Day and night, the mystical cloud and pillar of fire hovered over the holy site like a Heavenly guard. Even a journalist as non-religious as Sandra was swept up in the awesome magnitude of the miraculous event.
Once again, as the forces of Israel threatened to wipe out the Arabs completely, the United States stepped in to negotiate peace. Quickly, a deal agreeable to all parties was made. The President called it a swap. It was as simple as that. The Arabs of Judea, Samaria and Gaza were transferred to America, and the remaining Jews of America, those who had weathered-out the pandemic and murderous pogroms, were transferred to Israel. The Arabs received the million-dollar apartments and mansions of the American Jews, and the American Jews got to come home. That way everyone was happy. Except for Sandra. Like anything else, miracles on a daily basis become boring and mundane. Once the spiritual newness wore off, she realized that being a part of the world’s greatest saga wasn’t all glamour and fun.
“You mean we are going to live in the Gaza Strip?” she asked incredulously, as the Egged bus filled with new immigrants sped down the coastal road.
“Isn’t it great?” her husband responded, with an excited smile on his face.
Looking around her on the bus, she noticed that everyone was smiling, as if all of these successful doctors, lawyers, and businessmen had taken some kind of hallucinatory drug. Not only the men, but the women were smiling as well. When the bus driver started singing “Hava Negilla,” everyone joined in the song.
The new Olim all cheered when the bus roared into Gaza City. Staring out the bus window at the bombed-out neighborhoods and demolished buildings, Sandra was shocked. Did her husband really believe that she would agree to live here, when she could live in an elegant Park Avenue flat in New York? At a Jewish Agency building, which had served as a Gaza medical clinic that the Israelis had been careful not to destroy, they were herded into another long line. Once again, their immigration papers were stamped and they were handed a large cardboard suitcase called an Erkat HaSochnut La’Oleh.
“If anything on the list is missing, please let us knew,” an official kindly said.
“When will we be able to go to Jerusalem?” Elliot asked him.
“There’s a trip for your group planned for next week.”
“Will we be able to see the Mashiach?” the eager newcomer asked.
“He stops by the Temple Mount every afternoon to oversee the Temple’s construction. If you’re lucky, you may be there at the same time.”
Lugging their suitcases, they had to walk ten blocks through the war-torn city to their new home. Fortunately, a Nefesh B’Nefesh worker was sent along to help them. His name was David Hirsh, a brain surgeon from California. He said that he had been in Gaza for the past two months and loved every minute of it.
“It’s a chance to do my share in the Geula,” he told them with the same contented grin on his face.
“Don’t you feel that your talents are being wasted?” Sandra wanted to know.
“Thank God, this country has brain surgeons to spare. In Gaza, since the influx of Diaspora Jews, there are more doctors than patients. What we need now is Jews who are willing to do manual labor in order to make this great ingathering work.”
Elliot admired his spirit. He too was anxious to help. His specialty was cardiac transplants, but if he was needed in Gaza Strip greenhouses to pick lettuce, he was ready to tackle the job.
Everywhere you looked, construction work was in progress. College students, wearing surgical masks and athletic shirts from Harvard and Yale, pushed heavy wheelbarrows, carrying debris away from demolished buildings. Vendors with yarmulkes and beards stood behind sidewalk booths, selling vegetables, fruit, baked goods, and fresh Mediterranean fish. Other workers, with decidedly American accents, help lower new sewage pipes into ditches.
“Most of the workers you see are from L.A. and New York. The old guy pasting up posters across the street used to own one of the biggest department store chains in the States.”
The poster was a picture of the Mashiach with the caption “DON’T WORRY!” – the expression he had made famous during the war. With a big happy smile, the former, multi-millionaire businessman from New York splashed a brush wet with glue over the sign. While Elliot was watching him work, a horse and wagon drove over and stopped by the sidewalk.
“Throw your suitcases in back and climb aboard, partners,” the driver called out with a familiar Western drawl. Sandra recognized him immediately. It was Robby Roth, one of America’s box-office favorites. “Welcome aboard the Tshuva Train!” the actor called out, tipping his cowboy hat to the newcomers.
“Robby!” Sandra called out, happy to see someone from home.
“Sandy!” the Jewish actor exclaimed. “America’s prettiest interviewer!”
In times past, the two would have hugged, but Roth was religious now. Sensing it, Sandra backed off. Elliot asked Hirsh if he should pay the actor for his trouble, but Hirsh said the service was free.
“There’s a shortage of cars in Gaza for all the new immigrants, so the Jewish Agency uses these wagons to help people move in.”
“You drive this wagon for the Jewish Agency?” Sandra blurted in wonder.
“Why not?” the movie star answered. “If the King of Israel can ride on a donkey, why shouldn’t an actor from Hollywood drive a broken-down wagon?”
Their new home was a four-story building facing the Mediterranean Sea. Their apartment was on the top floor. By the time Sandra made it to the doorway, her heart was pounding from the long climb upstairs.
“There’s a mezuza in the Aliyah Kit,” Hirsh said. “Be sure to nail it up today. If you need something, give me a call. Welcome home and Baruch haba. I’ll see you tonight at the Homecoming Barbecue out on the beach.”
“If we need anything!” Sandra mumbled, staring at the devastated apartment. “Tell me I’m dreaming. Please, I beg you. Tell me I’m dreaming.”
An entire wall of the living room had been blown away by a missile. The sea looked close enough to reach out and touch. Chunks of plaster hung down from the ceiling. Anti-Israeli graffiti was scrawled in Arabic over the still-standing walls. A box of fresh fruit was waiting for them in the salon.
“When the L-rd brings back the exiles of Zion, we will be like those who dream,” Elliot exclaimed, quoting a verse of Psalms. “Will you look at the view of the ocean!” he raved. “It’s breathtaking!”
“Breathtaking?” Sandra asked in amazement. “We’re missing a wall!”
“We’ll put in a window the length of the room. It will be an architectural knockout.”
“There’s no furniture,” she said.
“So? We’ll rough it a little until our furniture comes.”
“It’s coming by boat,” she protested. “They said it would take two to six months.”
“What’s two to six months? The Jewish people have been dreaming of coming to Israel for two-thousand years.”
“Maybe you have – not me. This is a nightmare. I’m not living here. There’s Arab graffiti all over the walls!”
“The place needs a painting, that’s all. With all the American Jews here, there must be a top interior decorator from New York. Please, Sandra,” Elliot appealed. “You promised to give Israel a chance. If we had made the move sooner, we could have gotten a beautiful apartment in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Thank God we got here at all. Do you know what Moses would have given to live here in the Holy Land in an apartment like this?”
“I’m not Moses. I’m a spoiled rich girl from America, and I want to go back.”
“Please, Sandra, I don’t want to fight.”
“This place doesn’t even have a working kitchen,” she exclaimed, walking through the debris on the floor.
“Master of the Universe,” he thought to himself. “Why didn’t I marry Miriam?”
The bathroom was even worse. A mortar shell that hadn’t exploded was sticking out of the toilet.
“There are portable toilets on the street,” he told her. “We passed them on the way.”
“That’s just wonderful,” she answered. “The dream of a lifetime. Elliot, I’m sorry, but this is not going to work.”
Her husband let out a sigh. He knew the change wouldn’t be easy, but it was a time of miracles. He thought a miracle could occur with his wife.
“Let’s open the Aliyah Kit,” he said, trying to change the subject.
There were four mezuzahs, a kippah, two women’s kerchiefs, a pair of tzitzit, a tallit, a siddur, a Chumash, a Kitzur Shulchan Oruch, two gas masks, a complimentary smartphone, a Guide to Israeli Expressions, two blankets, two pillows, a can opener, a can of pickles, and eight tins of army tuna fish that smelled like expensive dog food.
With a look of disdain, Sandra held up the kerchief. “If you expect me to wear this, you’re crazy.”
“Sandra, this is a religious country. As Israeli citizens, we have to obey the laws.”
“I want to go back to the airport right now,” she insisted.
“I’ll buy you a wig that looks just like real hair,” he promised, raising his hands in a gesture of prayer.
“Listen, Elliot, you may get your kicks from religion, but I don’t. I get high when a television camera is pointed at my face, and I know that millions of eyes are focused on me. I feel their eyes like the sun at high noon. It makes me feel loved.”
“I love you. Why can’t my two eyes be enough?” he asked softly.
“They just can’t,” she replied, walking away toward the missing wall that looked out over the ocean and beach.
“I’m certain you can get a job with Israeli TV,” he assured her.
“Without knowing one word of Hebrew.”
“They have broadcasts in English.”
“Oh, Elliot, don’t you see? It isn’t enough.”
“The eyes of the world are focused on Israel. You can be more famous here than anywhere else. Just give it a chance, sweetheart. You’ll see.”
Sandra didn’t answer. Elliot didn’t know what more to say. He asked her if she wanted to go out with him and see about buying a bed, but she was too tired.
“We’ve had a long trip. After a nap, you’ll feel better,” he said, spreading the two Jewish Agency blankets onto the floor. Then he left to do some shopping.
“Don’t forget to call someone to get that mortar shell out of the toilet,” she shouted after him as he walked down the stairs.
He returned two hours later with a wagon loaded with furniture – beds, a dining room table, a sofa, two mirrors, a bookcase, a carpet, a portable fan and some chairs.
“Enough to get started,” he said.
Two giant black men hauled the furniture up the stairs. They, and thousands of others like them, had converted to Judaism with the incredible discovery of the Ark. Since then, the Chief Rabbinate had banned all conversions, turning literally millions of people away.
Even with the new furniture in place, Sandra still looked depressed.
“OK,” he admitted, trying to cheer her up. “It’s not the Upper East Side, but it’s something to get by with until our stuff arrives from the States.”
While he was directing the movers, a bomb squad showed up and went to work in the bathroom. Before leaving for the barbecue, Elliot put up the mezuzahs and said the blessing that was written in their “Guide to the Oleh.” At the beach, it was a beautiful evening with a big yellow moon glowing out over the ocean. Hundreds of people were on hand for the party. Festive fireworks lit up the sky. The men davened maariv around a bright bonfire while hot dogs and chicken legs were grilled over coals. A representative of the Government gave a short speech. Men and women danced in separate circles to the tune of old-fashion, religious Zionist songs. Elliot had a great time, but Sandra sat alone in the sand down the beach, staring across the sea toward America. Later, after some more speeches and dancing, Elliot felt relieved to see his wife socializing with a group of TV and movie celebrities.
“She’ll find her niche,” he assured himself. As every new immigrant to Israel was told, “savlanut.” Patience was the key to successful aliyah.
Three beers later, Dr. Elliot Miller was in the greatest of moods. Back in their new apartment, he collapsed down on the couch and gazed happily out at the glistening sea. In the distance, he could make out the roar of the ocean. Sandra sat meditatively down on the floor by the missing wall, as if she were relaxing outside on a terrace. Crossing her legs in a yoga position, she too set her gaze out to sea.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” he bantered. “At the party tonight, I ran into my dentist, my accountant, Larry’s old shrink, and a friend from high school whom I haven’t seen for over twenty-five years.”
His wife made no comment, as if she were deaf.
“Didn’t I see you with some people you know?”
“I suppose that you did,” she answered.
“Didn’t I tell you that things would work out? It isn’t the end of the world.”
With a practiced fluidity, his wife stood up from her meditative pose. “To me it is,” she replied. With that, she walked down the hall to the bathroom. Moments later, she returned.
“The toilet still doesn’t work,” she announced.
“I’ll call a plumber in the morning.”
“And tonight, what do we do?”
“I guess that it is our turn to suffer a little,” he answered.
“Who wants to suffer?” she said.
“It comes with being a Jew.”
“Who wants to be Jewish?” she asked.
Elliot didn’t know how to respond. Though she was clearly exhausted after their long, drawn-out journey, the look in her eyes said she meant every word.
“I can’t get into the role, Elliot. It just isn’t me.”
“It has to be you. You’re a Jew.”
Her silence unnerved him. She didn’t say anything. She looked at him with a cold, haunting expression and gazed back out at the sea.
“My father was Jewish,” she said. “Not Mom. I lied to make you happy. So your parents wouldn’t try to stand in the way.”
Elliot couldn’t speak. He felt as if he had been shot in the stomach.
“All of these years…,” was the only thing he could think of to say.
Suddenly, he understood why his son, Larry, had always been indifferent about living in Israel. He wasn’t a Jew.
“You wanted to marry me that much?” he asked her.
“I guess I did then,” was her icy reply. “You were going to be a doctor, and my family was poor.”
The next day, he accompanied her on the bus back to the airport. She had made up her mind. She didn’t want to convert, even if she could have. And she didn’t want to live in Israel, acting out a part. She wanted to go back to America where she grew up and where she belonged, even though it had been taken over by a minority rabble.
Elliot was anguished and broken. At the entrance to the airport, a huge billboard of Mashiach with the slogan, “DON’T WORRY,” towered over the highway, but Elliot didn’t take heed. His wife was walking out of his life. And there was nothing he could do to stop her.
Elliot stood by her at the ticket counter. He walked with her past the security guards. In the duty-free section, he waited outside a bookstore as she chose a paperback novel to read on the plane. At the departure gate, they stood facing each other.
“You realize, we may never see one another again,” he told her.
“There is no need to. Our lawyers will draw up the papers and negotiate the deal.”
Dr. Elliot Miller remained by the boarding gate several long minutes after Sandra had gone. A short distance away, a woman wearing a surgical mask and kerchief waved goodbye to a man carrying a laptop computer and briefcase. Elliot didn’t think twice about her until she appeared once again outside the terminal as he waited for a group taxi to Gaza. Strangely, as if throwing away an unpleasant memory, she reached up and pulled off her kerchief. Pulling off her mask, she took a deep breath, as if experiencing air after a long quarantine. Though years had passed, she had the same gentle expression, the same soft-spoken eyes.
“Miriam? Is it you?” he asked in amazement.
“Elliot?” she replied in a voice just as startled.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Like everyone else, I came too,” she answered.
“The man… at the boarding gate?” he stammered.
“My husband,” she replied, lowering her gaze in embarrassment. “At least he was my husband. I thought he would get used to Israel, but it wasn’t for him.”
A passenger jet roared overhead. So that was her non-Jewish lawyer, Elliot thought. Maybe he and Sarah would hit it off on the plane.
“What are you doing here?” Miriam asked him.
“My wife left me too.”
For a moment, the two old sweethearts stood speechless.
“You’re going to Gaza?” she asked.
“To Gaza? Why yes,” he replied as if waking up from a dream. “I’m going back home to Gaza.”
“So am I,” she said softly with the same tender smile he remembered.
Just then, the driver of the next sherut-taxi in line walked over clutching a falafel and Coke.
“That’s all? Just you two?” he asked.
“Seems that way,” Elliot answered.
“You’ll have to wait until the car is full,” the Israeli said gruffly.
“I’ll pay for the whole cab, just for the two of us,” Elliot offered.
Stepping gallantly forward, he opened the rear door for Miriam.
“It’s your money,” the driver said, biting into the pita.
With a schoolgirl blush, Miriam got into the car.
At the terminal exit, as the taxi pulled out onto the highway, Elliot caught another glimpse of the giant “DON’T WORRY!” sign and the smiling, confident face of Mashiach.
“Mashiach, Mashiach, Mashiach, da, da, da, da, da, da….”
[Revised Corona-version taken from the book of short stories, “Days of Mashiach” by Tzvi Fishman.]