Israel at 70: 5 stories, from Haifa to Jerusalem

Israel is now 70 years old. Throughout her history the media have emphasised Israel's wars and conflicts. However, Israel is actually a very human country which continues to absorb immigrants from all over the world. So this week and next I will be giving you a more personal story about what makes Israel tick, based on encounters with extraordinary human beings who have turned Israel into the wonderful country it is. We start with the 40-year period from 1964–2003.

PixabayA view of Jerusalem.

1. Kfar Saba: The Sabra cousin, 1964

In 1964 I visited Israel for the first and only time with my parents and brother, arriving by boat in Haifa. I was 13 and this was before the reunification of Jerusalem.

In a tiny, spotlessly clean apartment in Kfar Saba we were warmly greeted by children, our cousins, on the steps, cleaning all the shoes. Inside, the prize piece of furniture was the piano, and my older cousin and I sat down without words and played duets together.

There was no TV or other normal western amenity. And I knew in that moment that my brother and I were indulged and pampered (a word unknown to Israel aged 16, the same age as my cousin) and that life in Israel was better and somehow purer than in England.

2. Herzlia: The Moroccan neighbour, April 1982

In April 1982 I visited Israel for the second time, this time for Pesach with my husband and daughter. The flat found for us in Herzliya by a friend of my husband's was in a state, so I spent a large part of the stay trying to clean it out.

I also travelled by bus with my daughter, aged seven, to the beach and encountered a number of German tourists complaining about the lack of bread in this 'G-d-forsaken country'. Didn't they know it was Pesach? Probably not. On return to the flat, the door flew open and a lady appeared. 'You are at war!' she exclaimed in French. I had never met her before. 'Come into my apartment and watch it all on TV.'

So I went into her apartment with my daughter, and there it all was on her TV. I saw the beginning of the Falklands War from Israeli eyes, bearing in mind all those Argentinian Jews fleeing to Israel because of the junta. My neighbour was Moroccan – the first I had met. No messing around – straight to the point – and what an elegant, chic apartment she had. And this Moroccan stranger plied me with delicious food and drink and asked me to call on her at any time during our stay. At the Seder in Herzlia I was sat next to the Argentinian son-in-law of the host and we didn't have to say it: Argentina and England paled into insignificance in comparison with our mutual joint home, the State of Israel, even if my apartment had been filthy and the host rushed through the Seder as if there were no tomorrow.

3. Jerusalem: The Moroccan child minder, April 1984

From 1983-4 our family was on sabbatical in Jerusalem. I decided that despite the new baby and the incredibly hot weather I would get myself a proper Jewish education. So I found a childminder who lived next door, and was also Moroccan like the lovely neighbour in Herzlia.

Maria was perfect – loved children, possessed all the amenities (most importantly a phone) and her apartment was on the same electrical circuit as the famed Sharei Tzedek Hospital. This meant that unlike everyone else in our neighbourhood she was never cut off. These factors would prove crucial. In addition, Maria was a marvellous cook, taught baby Esther Hebrew songs, and was generally amazing. Every day I would take our elder daughter to school and then two or three mornings a week would attend theological colleges where I gained the equivalent of a rabbinic education. I deliberately chose two completely contrasting colleges. One was Haredi and I joined the Hebrew language section. The other was Zionist and intellectual and there I learned about Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel under the British Mandate.

I also attended Modern Hebrew classes in the centre of town, joining a class for journalists from the Jerusalem Post and Israeli TV and radio – mostly American.

The teacher was a retiree who volunteered this service and threw me straight in. Then the teacher asked where I lived, and it was in the same street as him, so he took me home. I owe everything to all these teachers, but most of all to Maria, the childminder, without whom I couldn't have done it. Then I got ill and ignored the symptoms, but then it got so bad and my husband wasn't around, so I called Maria, who immediately commandeered her husband's taxi and took me to the Hadassah hospital, where I fainted. When I came round I had lost half my blood and would have died and that extraordinary hospital saved my life. But if not for Maria...

4. The most regal person I have ever met (Israeli first lady Aura Herzog, 1983)

In autumn of the same year, during the Sukkot festival, it is customary for Israeli citizens and visitors to meet the president and first lady in their residence. At that time the president was the legendary Chaim Herzog, born in Ireland, where his father was Chief Rabbi. The president had attended a Methodist school and fought with the British army. There he was, ramrod straight, like the soldier he was, with his wife Aura from Egypt via South Africa by his side. She immediately engaged our elder daughter, aged eight: 'Where are you from?' 'Liverpool.' And then Aura waxed lyrical. 'I adore Liverpool and have visited often from Ireland' she said. 'How lovely to meet you. You have made my day.' No wonder our daughter dreamed of living in Israel and made Aliyah in her twenties.

5. Jerusalem, 2003: The world's greatest antisemitism expert, born in Kazakhstan but brought up in England

In August 2003, Yad Vashem invited me to a seminar for educationalists. On arrival I was asked to interpret for a government minister from Lithuania who spoke German. And then Professor Robert Wistrich arrived to give his lecture on contemporary antisemitism. As soon as he saw four people from England in the room, he altered his intended lecture to concentrate on England. He outlined four areas of concern: the unions, the media, the churches and the universities. After the seminar, he invited me to have coffee with him. 'You have to get involved' he said. 'You must tackle these four groups.'

I told him that the unions were beyond my reach and the universities were beyond the pale, but I'd have a go at the churches and the media. 'By the way, he said, 'the effort will probably kill you – you will die young (he himself died prematurely aged 70 a couple of years ago), but what are we put on this earth to do?

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.

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