Illustration by Denis Shifrin
My first time traveling to Israel was as a 23 year old Jewish Theological Seminary student embarking on a year’s study program in Jerusalem in the fall of 1969. Immediately upon the announcement of my trip, I was set upon by relatives giving me things to take to Israel in my suitcase for relatives of theirs, some of whom were not even related to me except through the marriages of aunts and uncles. The most egregious of the items foisted upon me was a very heavy, old-fashioned Mixmaster, which included metal and 220 volt electrical parts as well as a huge, thick ceramic bowl. At check-in, my suitcase was, of course, overweight and so (saintly, devoted nephew that I was), I unloaded a lot of my clothes and an extra pair of shoes, all of which I needed for an academic year’s stay in Israel, in order to accommodate that Mixmaster! My parents took my stuff back home from the airport, and I vowed never to take anything for anybody anywhere in my suitcase again.
The rationale for schlepping a Mixmaster to Israel in 1969 was that electrical items there were inordinately expensive and the relatives in Israel were of relatively modest means. And of course, in those days the relatives in Israel viewed it as a stroke of good fortune to have “rich” relatives in America to buy them the things that they requested and bring these things in suitcases when traveling to Israel. We American relatives were expected to treat Israel as a Third World country and our relatives living there as sacrificing for all of us while fulfilling the Zionist dream.
Why the “rich” American relatives couldn’t just put the Mixmaster in a shipping box and mail it to them always baffled me. Then, years later, it came to me. My “rich” American uncle was cheap and didn’t want to shell out for the mixer, plus the shipping plus the taxes. So he preferred to have a 23 year old student become a smuggler.
Over the decades, after marrying and becoming a father of two sons, my family and I made trips to Israel every few years on summer vacation. By this time we had friends in Israel who kept in touch with us and who also had requests for things we should bring from America.
I went through my “blue jeans period”. At first the blue jeans requests were very specific. The jeans had to be “Lee”, with a big Lee patch on the back beltline. That patch would prove authenticity – “jeans amiti’im”. Over time, in subsequent visits, Wranglers and Levi’s would also do. Horizons were broadening.
After making aliyah in 2001, my wife and I still make frequent trips back and forth to America to be with our kids and grandkids in New York. We no longer get requests to bring electrical appliances or electronic items or even blue jeans to Israel. Since 2001, Israel has come a long way in reducing the price of these items. Our Israeli friends all live extremely well in beautifully furnished homes. They travel to America and buy sneakers and jeans ‘amiti’im’ for themselves.
Ironically, as we now ready ourselves for our latest trip to New York to be with the kids and grandkids, I am looking over what we are stuffing in and around our clothes in our suitcases. We are taking aa supermarket aisle’s worth of Doritos and Mentos at the request of our grandchildren, because these items do not have a hechsher in America and they pigged out on them on a recent trip to Israel. Then there are the Kinder Happy Hippos that we are also bringing in quantity.
My days of being an amateur importer of American goods to Israel are finally over. Now I find myself bringing Israeli products in our suitcases to America! Israel is certainly no longer a Third World country. And we are happily living the Zionist dream.