Dov (lt) and David Levitas (center) working as building laborers, casting cement blocks in a Tel Aviv yard, during the 1920's. Thet eked out a living, supported family and endured hardships.
Every thought I have about what Israel means to me revolves round the theme of homecoming. My personal family story, like those of others, reflects or parallels the collective narrative of the Jewish people throughout the centuries, since our expulsion from the original homeland Eretz Yisrael some two thousand years ago.
Our story in essence is about migration, wanderings from one diaspora to another, adopting mores and customs of different countries and cultures, striving to maintain the spark of Judaism and yearning for Zion, losing family members to murderous death or assimilation, either forcibly or by choice, and for untold generations, uttering the prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem”, until eventually some one in the family, followed by others, actually made the transition, and the dream became a reality.
My paternal great-grandfather, Yisrael Yona Shoham, (a.k.a Shagam), was our first known family member to leave Lithuania for the Land of Israel. He came as an elderly widower in 1900, settling in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood, Meah She’arim, living till 1907. His grave is in the Jerusalem Mount of Olives cemetery.
My paternal grandparents, Yisrael and Tova Levitas, arrived in 1920 with my father Dov and his sister Hannah, to join twin elder siblings, David and Freida who had come pre-first world war in 1913 to live in newly founded Tel Aviv. An older brother, my uncle Aryeh, had struggled as a raw, pioneer, orange grove worker and guard in the fledgling village of Kfar Saba during 1906-1911 and them emigrated to South Africa. He visited Israel in 1955 to attend the wedding of his daughter Yehudit Kalderon (now in Raanana). Some of his grandchildren and great-grand children still live there.
My father left pre-state Yishuv in 1928 for South Africa. He and my South African-born mother Rose Hirschowitz (whose relatives had emigrated from Latvia to Eretz Yisrael during the early twentieth century), married in Cape Town, where my sister Yona Haffner (today in Jerusalem) and I were born.
After years of hard work, planning and preparation, our family left South Africa and settled in Israel in 1954. I was then just over eighteen, joined the army Nahal corps and became a kibbutz member at Gonen in Upper Galilee, where I stayed till 1963.
Having married an Israeli born Sabra girl, Erga Ashlagi, whose family was among the founders of Moshav Kfar Vitkin, where our children and grandchildren were born, grew up and continue to live in Israel. Today naturally enough, they tend to take citizenship and living as Israelis for granted, whereas I still reflect on the deliberate choices, hard work, commitment and fortuitous circumstances which made it all possible.
Roots in Israel are not lightly or easily established. The preceding generations paved the way for a modern Jewish state to arise and flourish in our time. Two of my cousins lost their lives defending Israel. Homecoming entails not just the palpable emotional sense of being at home in one’s own country, but obligations to a larger society and community. In good times and bad, with joys and sorrows, despite pain and exasperation at various failings in our country and people, Israel for me means my home. Emigrating elsewhere remains unthinkable. In the words of the Hebrew lyric: Ein li Eretz Acheret – I have no other homeland.
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