There were many reasons for me to be making this trip to Israel, especially at this time. But none was more compelling than to be planting trees in honor of my dearly departed parents. Neither of them had ever made the trip to Israel. But both of them would have sacrificed greatly if they would have been able to. Instead of going in life, I brought something of theirs to leave behind, in their death.
Before leaving Canada, I visited the cemetery where my parents are buried side by side. And with my bare hands, I dug out two small rocks from the earth that covered their graves. These rocks were going to be buried in their honor, and in their name in Israel.
In 1901, The JNF, Jewish National Fund, began a project of planting trees in Israel. As a young child, I, like so many other Jewish children grew to understand that we all had an obligation to plant trees in Israel. And since 1901 to date; more than 220 million trees have thus far been planted.
Just as a side note: it would be nice if the Palestinians, and other Middle Eastern Arabs, would apply the same teaching values to their children. Instead of teaching them how to hate Jews, and hero worship suicide murderers and terrorists.
The trees that have been planted since 1901 cover enough area to create the equivalence of almost 300,000 acres of forest. And I was a part of it; somewhat vicariously as a child and an adult donor. But now; my determination was to physically plant several trees in one of the forests – with my own hands.
Early in the morning, with the help of the Hotel front desk clerk, I was able to make arrangements with the JNF by telephone, to plant trees. More than anything else, this was the part of my trip that I was most looking forward to. So, when I got into the taxi to head off towards the “President’s Forest”, located more or less a half hour from Jerusalem towards Tela Aviv, I finally began to feel some of that emotion I had heard so much about from my family and friends who journeyed to Israel before me.
I met with Eli, who was the forest manager. He is a soft spoken articulate Israeli, who like so many others, spoke excellent English. We talked about the forests, and some of their history, and the need to never stop planting trees. And just as interested as I was in hearing about the Israeli forestation program, he was interested in knowing why I had come to Israel. Especially now, during a time of war. And when I told him, I think he became nearly as emotional as I was feeling.
I chose 5 pine trees to plant. Eli asked if I wanted to would use a shovel or my hands. So, in his words, “I can feel the Israeli earth with my bare hands, and leave my finger prints behind”. There was no question. I dug the cemetery rocks out from my parents grave site in Montreal with my bare hands. And that is the way I wanted to place them in Israel.
We walked to a beautiful area in the forest, which overlooked a winding road at the bottom of a gentle slope. And there I buried the two rocks which I had carried from Montreal. I didn’t tell Eli about the rocks until I finished pulling the soil back with my bare hands, and when he saw me taking them out of a clear plastic bag, his curiosity got the best of him. And when I told him, he could barely control his emotions.
I planted the first pine tree with a cemetery rock from Montreal, and buried it amongst its roots, and within a couple of paces, I planted and buried the other. My aunt Pearl asked me before leaving Montreal, if I would plant trees in memory of her infant child who died in a fire more than 50 years before, and in loving memory of her late husband of well more than 50 years, who passed away not so long ago. I also planted a tree in memory of my Brother-in-law’s father, who died a year and a half ago. And then I planted a tree in memory of all the magnificent pets we’ve loved; which have passed on.
I stayed on my bended knees, as I pulled the soil together over the roots of the last tree, feeling the Israeli sunshine on my neck and arms. And I appreciated the quiet of the forest, with only a gentle breeze to be heard rustling through the pines and leaves above me. Eli stood a few meters from me, also in silence.
When I finally stood, Eli approached me with a prayer written in Hebrew and English, and asked me which I would rather read. I can read Hebrew. But; I can’t understand it. So, in English, I read the prayer that begged for all the conditions to make the roots of these trees take hold and build a mighty forest, so that Israel, the Land of Milk and Honey, could once more be restored. And then the emotion it hit me. And I struggled to finish the prayer.
If I did nothing else in Israel. This would in itself have been more than enough.
After the emotion passed, and we walked away from the trees, Eli offered me a seedling to take back to Canada, to be planted on our little horse farm. I would have loved to have done that. However; I was certain that Agriculture Canada would have not been pleased for me to be bringing a tree from a foreign land into the country.
Eli couldn’t stop thanking me for coming to Israel, and for showing such solidarity. But I couldn’t stop thanking him for Israel’s resolve, courage and moral decency. And I told him, that whatever I hear, read or see in the media, such as the phony massacre in Jenin, I will always stand by Israel. And then he told me about Jenin.
All Israelis, up til their mid 50’s, serve in the military. Eli, who I would have guessed was somewhere in his 30’s, was no exception. And he had just finished his tour of duty, in of all places – Jenin.
“It was nothing like the media reported”. He told me. “The Palestinians were well armed, and waiting for us. And instead of moving out to where ‘innocents’ wouldn’t be at risk, they moved as close to civilians as possible. Women carried weapons under their dresses, and children rigged themselves to explode”.
“This is the enemy we faced. Not with jet fighters and bombers from a mile up. But, door to door, face to face, and man to man. That is, when the Palestinians were man enough to face us. Jenin was a dirty battle, where the Palestinian terrorists booby-trapped their own buildings, and hid behind women and children. When our time came to be rotated out, we were happy to leave. Had it been any other army; like the Americans for example; the fighting would not have been door to door. Jenin would have been bombed out of existence. Perhaps as it should have been”.
I offered my very best to this soft spoken guardian of the forest. And without looking back, drove in silence to my Hotel in Jerusalem.
From the Hotel, after freshening up, I walked to Ben Yehuda for lunch, to buy some gifts for friends and family back home. Especially for Anne, who was not pleased that I made this trip, and who was left all alone to hold down the fort while I was away.
I wanted to buy her some fine Israeli jewelry. And if you know anything about jewelry, you would know that Israel ranks right alongside Italy for some pretty gorgeous stuff. So, on Jaffa street, I found two Jewelry stores which displayed some magnificent pieces. By the time I got home, it would be our 29th wedding anniversary (May 1), and I wanted to buy Anne something really special.
The owners of the two jewelry stores were so pleased and grateful that I came to Israel to show solidarity, that whatever their best discounted prices were, they went out the window. It turned out that I was as rare a species, being a tourist, as any that existed in Israel during these troubling times. And spending money as a tourist, more so than just for food, accommodations and transportation, made me feel exceptionally good. As if I was doing my part to help the beleaguered Israel State. Anne, and some of our very close friends did very well because of the jewelers’ gratitude and my willingness to spend.
By late afternoon, and into the very early evening, Israel was closing down for the Sabbath. Nothing much was opened, and there were literally no people to be found anywhere on the streets or in public places, unless they were walking to Synagogues. I managed to find one place where I could sit down and have a meal, and then returned to my room for rest and television. By 11:00 PM that night, Israel time, 3:00 PM Alberta time; I would be doing live radio talk, on CHED in Edmonton Alberta, on the Leslie Primeau show.
The phone in my Hotel room rang just before show-time, as I was watching the end of what was a terribly distorted and unfair image of Israel, broadcast on CNN World. I couldn’t wait to tell Edmontonians what life was really like in the Promised Land. When Leslie came on the line, we chatted in generalities. She asked questions about what I had experienced, and I answered with a whole new sense of understanding. The exchange between us was great. And then came the first caller.
“I don’t like Jews. I don’t like anything about Jews”. And on and on this anti-Semite went: blaming Jews for just about every evil that was ever inflicted upon mankind; including the price he has to pay for his pipe tobacco. No kidding. He actually blamed Jews for the price he has to pay to stuff his pipe. And he wasn’t the only caller who was a vile anti-Semite. As a matter of fact, there were no callers who weren’t.
As soon as the show wrapped up, I hung up the telephone, closed the light on the end table; and in the darkness of my room gave thanks for taking this trip in solidarity with Jews everywhere. It is not just the Palestinians, Middle Eastern Arabs and Moslem fundamentalists we have to fear.
The next installment will be published shortly.