Left: During Cynthia’s years with KKL she met and accompanied many famous personalities including Alex Haley, author of best seller Roots (inset),
during his visit to the Kennedy Memorial in Jerusalem
Right: Cynthia with actor Rock Hudson who planted a tree in the Peace Forest in Abu Tor while filming the movie The Ambassador (inset) in Israel
Cynthia Barmor took the plunge and made aliyah 50 years ago.
Celebrating her Jubilee, she reflects on the past
November 10, 2018, marked the 50th “Jubilee” of my aliyah to Israel from South Africa. Usually one hears about fiftieth anniversaries pertaining to weddings, or a state’s independence, or openings, but rarely about moving to another country. However, making aliyah to Israel is not just “moving to another country”. For me, aliyah signified my identification with our homeland, my Jewishness, my acknowledgement of my ancestral line and my spiritual link to our centuries-old heritage from biblical times. I say this truly in retrospect, because as a very young mother aged twenty, I hardly felt that way at the time.
I well recall the conversation my husband and I had one evening in June 1968 in Cape Town when he returned home from work and stated that he wanted to start his own business.
Spontaneously, I replied, “Why don’t you start your business in Israel?” To this day I have never figured out why I said this because I had never wanted to nor dreamt about living in Israel. Perhaps it was the post-Six Day War euphoria that had pervaded global Jewish communities, perhaps it was my adventurous spirit, perhaps it was simply the “pintele yid” within our souls.
Whatever the reason, we signed the papers the very next day in preparation for our anticipated aliyah. In those days, there was no choice of when or where. We were assigned to the next opening session six months hence at the absorption center / ulpan in Haifa, and began our preparations: a visit to the local shaliach (who intriguingly asked us why we wanted to go live in Israel), selling items we couldn’t take with us, moving out of our rental apartment and in with the in-laws, making lists for the packers, and picking up a Hebrew phrase here and there (notably the first: kama kessef?- how much money?) because I didn’t know an aleph from a bet.
Upon landing at Lod Airport as it was then known, we took a cab up to Jerusalem where we had been booked into the Moriah Hotel (now the Dan Panorama) for the first two days. The drive up was long and arduous, not like the whiz highway of today. I remember some trees and passing the Hagana trucks located at the sides of the road. I remember seeing black and white TV for the first time in my life (South Africa only introduced television in 1976) and watching but not understanding a young Haim Yavin presenting the news.
Our first outing the following morning was – where else? - to the Old City and the Kotel. Walking through a dark and dank street called Mamilla, we made our way through Jaffa Gate and the Arab shuk, where we were greeted with smiles (yes indeed, smiles!) from vendors beckoning us to come in and check out the wares. I recall the cacophony of noise and smells that thrilled the senses and contributed to the throb of the place and the raw excitement of being there. And then the Kotel! Not the vast plaza of today, but still a cleared area in front. While my husband davened at the Wall, I stood looking up in amazement at those huge blocks of centuries of our history.
It was an easy walk up to Har Habayit (the Temple Mount) built on the site of the Second Temple. No checkpoints, no rock throwing, no restrictions, but a peaceful buzz in the air. We entered the Dome of the Rock with its impressive golden dome. The mosque was replete with beautiful carpeting surrounding the huge rock in its center from where Muslims believe Muhammed started his journey to heaven. In Jewish tradition, the rock bears great significance as the Foundation Stone and the site on Mount Moriah where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Isaac.
Two days later, we were en route to Haifa in a sherut – a large black noisy diesel car for seven passengers and hardly comfortable with faux red leather seats. Air conditioning was open windows. At the absorption center, we were assigned a room and curtained-off half room for our son. The kitchen was actually a sink in a small two-door cupboard large enough to wash dishes and cook one pot on a Bunsen burner. Although we had been scheduled to study Hebrew for six months, we left after four months when my husband found work in Jerusalem. The Jewish Agency (“Sochnut”) assigned us a newly-built 3-room 70sq m apartment in San Simon. To tide us over until the arrival of our lift from South Africa, the Sochnut gave us two metal bed frames, two mattresses, one infant metal cot and mattress, three pillows and blankets, three stools and a Bunsen burner, the standard package for all newcomers. We used them all for years.
Despite the lack of many home comforts which we had had in South Africa, we managed. Despite my lack of Hebrew, I managed. Every family in our complex were immigrants, most from the USA. So we had no problem with communication, at least around our homes. Life then was simple but peaceful. It was also an exciting time. The country was surging forward full of vitality, hope and promise, and we all felt proud to be a part of our young and thriving state. It was a time when the world loved us, we were the underdog, the David who had overthrown the Arab Goliath.
The women stayed home looking after the children, the men went to work. We organized play groups so that mothers could have free time. We got used to bus routes, schedules and graduated prices, the highest of which was 17 agorot to get across town, while many of the buses spewed black smoke behind them while they rattled along. My recollections of those days include the never-ending digging up of sidewalks to lay more pipes and cables for the spreading community. There were not many privately-owned cars, and although traffic jams were slight, travel time was much longer with single-lane roads from north to south for the most part.
Shopping in the shuk at Machane Yehuda was an all-morning affair. Supermarkets meant the expensive Supersol. Fish could only be had in frozen squares which were impossible to cook. When frozen chickens were unavailable, we bought fresh, feathers and all. When HaMashbir Hatzarchan, the first real department store, opened in Jerusalem, it generated huge excitement, but prices were high. After one year, we purchased our apartment in 1970 for the princely sum of IL30,000, today worth about NIS3,000.
The idyll abruptly changed with the Yom Kippur War. In spite of the hard-won military successes, the atmosphere darkened. Golda resigned as many charges were laid. Hope was renewed in 1977 when Menachem Begin won the election, in my opinion, the last great statesman Israel has had. Begin was a superb orator, and never “bent a knee”. He stood up for his principles, he was fearless, and represented Israel not only with pride but with a dignity so lacking in today's modern political world. Yet, even he could not bear the losses of the Lebanese War and he too resigned.
Over the years, Israel endured unrelenting threat: wars, inflation of over,400%, killings, kidnappings, terror and heaven knows, the loss of so many precious and beloved lives. Yet for all this, our spirit has never flagged. We did not pack our bags to go back to the old country. We stayed and got on with the task of building our lives and our country. We contributed in so many ways to ensure that our aliyah remained meaningful and rewarding. After three children, and now eleven grandchildren, we have created our own legacy of first and second generation sabra-born Israelis.
My husband did start his own business after a few years, but this was not without challenge. Bureaucracy ran riot even then. It was more primitive and always dependent upon the perennial “pitka” or note. Today it is called a tofes, or form. Then, we ran around with little official notes. For my part, I was enormously fortunate to work for many years for Keren Kayemeth (KKL) where I was able to express my love for this land by literally helping to develop it. My first salary slip, which I still have, stated 573 lirot, today about NIS57. The 1970s, 80s and 90swere such a fabulous time of accomplishment, when Israel was mature enough to invest in beautifying the country as well as in building it. There were more forests to be planted, new roads to be forged, infrastructures to be laid for new communities everywhere and reservoirs to be built to save water. Recreation and leisure facilities became as important as tree planting or land reclamation. And I was thrilled to have had a hand in that.
There were continual waves of aliyah as we were concerning the level of the water in Lake Kinneret. News of this nature always impacted upon us. In the mid 1990s, as a shlichah (emissary) to New York as the National Projects Coordinator for JNF USA, fundraising was part of my portfolio, but what I loved best was being able to talk publicly, week after week, about Israel and the huge and ongoing development. When our national anthem Hatikva was played at these events, I was unable to sing, as I would always choke up with the words.
Life takes turns, and after I retired from KKL, I joined the PR department at Schneider Children's Medical Center, where I encountered accomplishment of a different kind - saving young lives and learning the wonders of modern medical science – yet another privileged position.
Volunteering was part of my modus vivendi, and volunteering in Israel brought special rewards. These ranged from initiating a new nonprofit organization in Jerusalem called Hillel, the Hebrew acronym for parents of learning disabled children, the KKL workers' committee, our shul, the Modiin Municipality and most recently, ESRA. That I was able to help develop ESRA in Modiin over the past nine years gave me particular satisfaction. I had, for the most part, a pretty free hand to initiate many programs and projects of benefit to the community together with my colleagues, while raising needed funds for our afternoon care center for children at risk.
Never has life here been dull, but at the same time I wish it would be from time to time. We live with a constant reality that has never changed – that our neighbors seek our destruction and that anti-Semitism world-wide is rising. I am ever thankful that we made aliyah. If I never knew at the time why I made that suggestion, it is ever clear to me now that this is where I belong. Israel is the past, present and future for all Jews everywhere. It is only here where our survival is up to us, where our army is Jewish and where our problems are ours to resolve. I for one stand tall, proud to be Jewish, proud to be Israeli and proud that in some small way, I have contributed to our heritage. I have no doubt that my ancestors are smiling upon me from above. I hope they are for you and for all Israel too.