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The Promised Land

Inna Guelfand waited 27 years for the perfect moment to step on the soil of the "Promised Land".

By: Inna Guelfand
Published: April 3rd, 2013 in Culture » Society » News
Inna Guelfand

12 hours on a plane is a long time. Especially for someone like me, who has difficulty sitting in one spot for more than 30 minutes. My back was aching, my right leg kept falling asleep, and I had to pee at least 8 times.

I couldn’t sleep. I can never sleep on a plane…I have to be physically comfortable in order to relax. Tommy, on the other hand, is out like a light the second he buckles himself in. I scowl at him, jealous of his talent, trying to curl up with my feet on the seat and squeeze my whole entire body into the tiny space. I get the bends, like scuba divers who come up to the surface too fast. I’m always cold.

But this time I couldn’t sleep because I wasn’t tired. My heart was racing and I would periodically catch myself holding my breath. I felt as if I drank 3 cans of Redbull and one of those 5 hour energy shots, chasing it all down with a double espresso. I watched 2 very forgettable movies, ate a few servings of airplane “food”, and I counted the hours. 7 more…5 more…2 more…

I was anxious. This wasn’t an ordinary trip. It wasn’t New York or Paris lights that would wink at me through the round acrylic window. It wasn’t Miami, or Mexico, or an island in the Caribbean (that looks exactly like every other island in the Caribbean) stretching its palm tree arms out to embrace me and whisk me off to a fluffy sandy beach. It was a different soil awaiting me at the bottom of the airplane staircase. Soil of the Promised Land.

You see, some kids grow up on bed time stories about Winnie the Pooh and Cinderella. I had those too, lots of them, and not to mislead anybody into thinking otherwise, I hereby confirm that my childhood was full of color, joy, innocence, and warmth. But the stories I remember the most, the ones that took centre stage, weren’t stories…they were events retold through first-party witnesses. Events of the Holocaust…of loss and survival, of hatred and pain. About how all 4 of my grandparents, with their own hair-raising set of circumstances, got through it all and made it out alive. About how most of their loved ones did not. I was a product of these events. I carried them with me everywhere I went because they form part of who I am. In fact, they formed part of my everyday life then, since in communist USSR Jews weren’t liked nor were they welcome. I was spit on, pushed around, singled out and called names that I did not understand. Once, in 3rd grade, before a surprise Math test all my panicking classmates were praying and crossing themselves. With a quivering lip I turned to Tanya, my blond-haired blue-eyed best friend, and begged her: “Do the cross for me! Please! If you don’t, I’m going to fail!” Because what do Jews do for good luck? For protection? I didn’t know…

One day, when I was 10 years old, I marched into our living room and announced to my parents that I’m quitting ballet. The first Sunday Hebrew School ever opened in Minsk, Belarus and that conflicted with my recital schedule. My mom laughed: “You want to study instead of dance?!” I did. I needed to find out who I was. I needed to find out why everyone hated us so much. I needed to find out what Jews do for good luck. For protection.

I got a silver Star of David necklace for my Birthday that year. I wore it on the bus. “You can’t do that! Don’t let people see it!” my grandmother exclaimed, hurriedly tucking it into my shirt with her dry, weathered hand…that beautiful hand… the hand that braided my hair, the hand that knitted me sweaters, that made me my favorite pastries in the shape of delicate swans. I remember holding it, standing in line at a grocery store. A man, a big sweaty man reeking of home-made vodka, cut us off and barked in my grandmother’s face: “Get the F*** out of our country, you dirty Zhidovka! Go back to your precious Israel!”

And we did get out. A year later. Sitting on our packed suitcases in our now empty, sold apartment, hugging relatives and friends who just found out they’ll probably never see us again. (It was 1994, after all…not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse. You didn’t tell anyone you were leaving until you’ve already crossed through immigration.) We quietly got into a car at 5 am and left for the airport. Tania was standing at her kitchen window from where she had a clear view of my building entrance. Pulling back the curtain, her nose pressed against the cool glass, she was crying, crying, crying. I didn’t see her, but I knew she was there.

Related articles: Promised Land, Israel, Toronto, Travel, Holocaust, Jewish
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