Digging in

It was the fall of 1963 when I flew in to Tel Aviv, Israel from Lagos, Nigeria. I carried robes made of brightly-colored Dutch Wax-printed fabric covered in cheerful sayings such as, “Keep On” and “Be Happy,” as well as a selection of spears from villages I had visited. 

My bags were filled with lovely carved beads, some quite old and unusual. After settling in to my host family’s house in Ramat Gan, and contacting my family back in California that I was not ready to return home quite yet, I began to make plans for the next months ahead. 

I decided that I needed to learn Hebrew as a first step. Israel has a wonderful language learning program called Ulpan—an intensive language school where only Hebrew is spoken from the first minute forward. Students from all over the world attend Ulpan. Most are immigrants who have decided to return to settle in Israel but many just want to learn the national language.

In a single class, there will be students from many countries with usually no one common language between them all. At the beginning, everyone is at the same place—one single language for all, Hebrew. I remember my first class at Ulpan Akiva. The mixture of languages included Polish, Spanish, English, French, Romanian and Russian. We had no common tongue in which to communicate. The teacher entered the room and greeted us with Boker Tov, “Good Morning,” and so it began.

Ulpan Akiva was a boarding school in Natanya. At that time, there were rules to follow, curfews to adhere to and more older people than younger ones for fun activities. I met a student from Canada and after a month we decided to move to Jerusalem (a divided city at the time) to share an apartment. We entered another good school, Ulpan Etsion. Here, we continued our studies and roamed the streets of Jerusalem, sampling freshly-made pomegranate juice from street carts, exploring book stores and wishing we could visit the old section of the city that was off-limits from Israel. 

Upon a return visit to my neighborhood in Ramat Gan, a good friend told me about a major archaeology dig that was about to begin in the Negev Desert at Masada. It was here that 960 Jews around the time of Christ defended themselves against the Roman army.  They had established themselves high on a mesa originally established by King Herod and had cisterns full of rain water. Their houses were built along the perimeter of the site. The only way to the top was by a snake path, which they guarded, so the Romans and their Jewish slaves took three years to build a siege wall. They eventually made it to the top where they found the Jews had killed themselves rather than submit to slavery. This was to be an important dig and was directed by Yigal Yadin, a well-known Israeli general and archaeologist.

I applied for a two-week position and was accepted in January l965. This was the move that changed my life direction. I met my future husband, who had come for the experience, and while working together at the wall’s edge we fell in love. He was from England and was not Jewish and so we could not be married in Israel. No mixed marriages allowed. Within two weeks, we decided we wanted to marry and in less than two months from meeting we married in London. 

My parents seemed very laid back to me as I remember it. They helped with getting the paper work completed from their end so that my new husband could enter the United States. While we waited, we visited his parents in Nottingham. I remember he had told them nothing. We arrived at their front door, knocked and when his mother opened the door he said, “Hi, Mom. This is my wife.” She shrieked, and my father-in-law said, “Let’s go up to the pub.”

We sailed on a British Ship to Los Angeles. I remember Michael dragging suitcases (no wheelie ones then) plus my Nigerian spears up the gangplank. It was a two-week journey and the ship stopped at a few ports. We moved into in my old apartment in West Los Angeles and began to reinvent ourselves as a settled couple. But Michael needed a job. He was bearded, foreign, educated and trained and could not find a job anywhere.

Several months later, he shaved off his beard and was hired by Kaiser Steel in Fontana. We were glad but then the realization hit. I would have to move. There was no freeway to get from West Los Angeles to Fontana in those days. I called my mother in tears, where would we live? Going to Nigeria and Israel was an adventure but to live in Fontana??And I heard my mother say, “Claremont, my dear, Claremont. Don’t you remember when you were little I would take you to Padua Hills for the Las Posadas theater production and meal that you loved so much?” So Michael took the job and we moved to Claremont.

I did not move to Israel, nor did I return to Nigeria.  Plans are just that, plans.  Open to change or to follow or to dream in. I did live in Greece, New York and Arkansas and I do travel as much as I can. India and Japan are favorites. I am happy that Claremont is where I live. It is my home. I make plans, and follow some of them, but always return home. 

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