Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Arrivals: From Boston and New York to Rishon Lezion
The first time Dr. Esor Ben-Sorek ever set foot in the land of Israel, he became so hysterical that security personnel had to take him to a waiting room and wash his face.
"I immediately fell to the ground and kissed it," says Ben-Sorek. "It was the culmination of a lifelong dream to arrive in Israel."
That was in 1951, but it would be over half a century before Ben-Sorek could actually begin to fulfill the rest of his dream. He finally made aliya in 2001, and currently spends four months a year in Israel. Come 2008, he will move here permanently.
Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Ben-Sorek grew up in a home that placed a strong emphasis on Hebrew and biblical studies.
"All my life I have been committed to Zionism," Ben-Sorek says. Rather than idolizing George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, his childhood heroes were Henrietta Szold and Chaim Weizmann. "I have spoken Hebrew all of my life. I was the only boy in my synagogue to give my entire bar mitzva address in Hebrew."
In 1951, after attending one year of university in the United States, Ben-Sorek came to Israel to study at the Chavat Halimud agricultural center in Jerusalem.
"I was very impressed by life in Israel and I wanted to stay, but my parents convinced me to finish my education in the United States first so I could contribute more to the country."
In 1957, Ben-Sorek received his doctorate in literature from the Universit de Poitiers in France. His doctoral thesis focused on the centrality of Jerusalem in Hebrew poetry. In 1958, his career as a lecturer at Boston University began, but summer vacation provided an opportunity for annual, prolonged visits to Israel.
One year, after fatefully missing his first ship home, Ben-Sorek ended up on another boat, where he met his Israeli wife, Rachel. Both Ben-Sorek and his bride-to-be had been instructed never to eat liver outside the house. They were destined to be the only two passengers aboard ship not ill with food poisoning subsequent to a meal of chopped liver, and this good fortune provided them with many hours to get acquainted.
"She was on her way to visit an uncle in France, and as soon as I saw her I fell in love. I only knew her for six days when I asked her to marry me."
In January 1960, the couple married in Tel Aviv, and a few months later, Rachel joined her husband in Boston.
In 1970, the couple moved to New York City and in 1971, Ben-Sorek was ordained as a conservative rabbi. After raising three children and delaying their imminent return to Israel, Ben-Sorek and his wife planned on moving back to Israel full-time in 2001. The unexpected death of a colleague changed their plans as Ben-Sorek was asked to fill the position of coordinator of Hebrew studies. Thus, the permanent move will have to wait until 2008. For now, the couple content themselves with four months out of every year in Rishon Lezion.
Ben-Sorek's father was born in Belarussia, or "white Russia," and immigrated to the United States at the age of ten. He later became a lawyer and stressed the importance of education in his children's upbringing. On his maternal side, Dr. Ben-Sorek's family originally hailed from Lvov. They moved to the United States before his mother was born, making her a first-generation American.
A ninth-generation descendant of a hassidic dynasty that stretches back more than 300 years, Ben-Sorek says his rabbinic ancestors would turn in their graves if they saw him now. Married for 47 years, Ben-Sorek and his wife Rachel have three children and three grandchildren, all of whom reside in the United States. Their oldest daughter is a physiotherapist, their son is a physician who has three children of his own, and their youngest daughter is a deputy county attorney.
Last year, Ben-Sorek retired from his work as a conservative rabbi in Long Island after serving for 33 years. "Today, my career is concentrated solely on my position as the university coordinator of the Hebrew language program at City University," says Ben-Sorek. "I consider it sacred work."
As one of the few qualified Hebrew professors in the American University system who is both Jewish and fluent in Modern Hebrew, Ben-Sorek tries to give his students an idea about what life in Israel is actually like. "The Jerusalem Post is my textbook. My students have to read it and know what's going on in Israel for class."
"We never asked for any benefits or special treatment when we made aliya in 2001," says Ben-Sorek, whose wife and he both travel on Laisser Passer ID cards. "I have always been hurt that I've never been given an Israeli passport, and that they couldn't make an exception to the rule of residing in Israel for one full year for me and restore my wife's passport privileges to her," says Ben-Sorek with a sad look at his blue ID card. "It makes travel a lot harder."
Part of his contribution to Israel was the purchase of an apartment in Rishon Lezion in 1998 that he paid for without aliya benefits. On the second floor of a building on Jerusalem Street, the cozy one-bedroom apartment has just enough space for he and his wife, and Ben-Sorek says he enjoys his morning coffee on the terrace in the sun. "We always planned on buying something here, but it got delayed once we had children because we wanted them to get a decent education," he says. "We're planning on living here full-time when I retire in two years."
"Hebrew is the language of the home," says Dr. Ben-Sorek, who is a native speaker of English and also converses, reads and writes at varying levels in an impressive array of languages. Among them are French, Yiddish, German, Polish, Dutch and Spanish.
Known to friends and family as the three musketeers, Ben-Sorek and his friends Reuven Yitzhaki and Yitzhak Mizvahi, former member of Rishon Lezion's city council, were closer than brothers for 56 years before Mizvahi's death in 1998. "One cup of coffee in Eilat changed my life," says Dr. Ben-Sorek, who had no idea that sharing a drink with Reuven and Yitzhak would lead to a life-long bond of friendship. "All of our friends are Israelis," says Dr. Ben-Sorek. "We don't associate much with the Anglo-Saxon community. We just always felt more comfortable with Israelis."
"Our home is modern orthodox," says Dr. Ben-Sorek, who adds that his wife and youngest daughter are the most observant members in the family. "I keep kosher, pray every morning, and attend synagogue on Shabbat. Judaism is the most important element in my life." The trilogy of Judaism, Zionism and Israelism, as he refers to Israeli culture, are intricately intertwined. For Dr. Ben-Sorek, "none of these things could exist without a Jewish root, which is Israel."
Four months out of every year, Dr. Ben-Sorek and his wife Rachel reside here in Israel, while the other eight months are spent in New York. When in Rishon Lezion, Dr. Ben-Sorek walks to the central park at 10 a.m. every morning to buy The Jerusalem Post. Then he sits in the park to read it, occasionally watching Russian grandmothers speaking Russian with their grandchildren and pondering language. In the afternoons, he meanders through the streets, sitting in caf s and talking about current affairs with the locals. "Being here gives me material for my classes. I can teach my students what the common man is thinking and what people are saying that doesn't get reported," says Dr. Ben-Sorek. "I delve into what life in Israel is all about."
"As a kid in the United States, when people would ask me where I was from, I always said Palestine," explains Dr. Ben-Sorek. "I feel a strong bond with Israel, and I always have. I never identified myself as American. I sometimes think I was born in the wrong generation and at the wrong time."
Dr. Ben-Sorek hopes to establish an American junior college for Americans who want to get credit for studying in Israel before returning to the United States. "If possible, I would like to have it in Rishon Lezion with a faculty of volunteer Israelis, Americans, and Canadians who would spend their retirement years helping Americans understand what Israel is really all about."