My mother’s singular aliyah

By Angela Epstein, September 18, 2013

It was, by all accounts, a “highly irregular” state of affairs. The business of assessing new Israeli immigrants, said the woman from the Interior Ministry, needed to be conducted from her office. Anyway, she had an aversion to hospitals.

But something clearly fluttered in this woman’s Jewish soul. And with only a little persuasion, she agreed to bend the rules.

Spool forward a couple of days and the needle-phobic bureaucrat could be found at my mother’s bedside at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, where, in heavily-accented English, she carried out the formalities of immigration.

“Betty, how are you? So you want to make aliyah? You sure nobody forced you to do zis?”

Despite her compromised state of health, my mother, always a lady of impeccable manners, said that yes, thank you, she would.

She was a tourist, a patient, and an olah

“Ok, fine, sign here.” And with the stroke of a pen and a courtly “refuah shelemah”, (the hope for a full recovery) the deed was done. Nurses wiped away tears of astonishment: never before had they witnessed a patient in their care become an Israeli citizen while in the throes of serious illness .

That was in March and though, sadly, my mother died in Israel four weeks ago, the story of her default aliyah — a tourist, turned patient, turned immigrant — is still repeated by doctors and those who knew her. It was testimony to the fabled and glorious Law of Return.

Here was a woman whose aliyah was purely tactical, a move which was only ever going to be a financial drain on the state because she was so ill. Yet this was of no consequence. Instead, Mum was given a pension, a new immigrant’s grant and rights to every health care facility: just because she was Jewish.

Not that Mum could have foreseen she wouldn’t be using her return ticket when she travelled to Israel last December for a two-week trip to celebrate the arrival of a great-grandson.

However, just before she was due to fly back to the UK, she developed cellulitis in her leg. A battery of tests revealed problems with her blood and she was advised to delay her return flight. Rapidly her illness, a degenerative bone marrow disorder, took hold, and in February she suffered a massive internal bleed. The heroic seven-hour procedure to save her — carrying a price tag of thousands of pounds — was performed without question of who would pay.

Only afterwards as a sluggish travel insurer battled with spiralling medical bills did doctors began to urge my brother and his wife to “get Mum into the system”. It was clear by then that she was too ill to return to Britain.

And so began an assault on the brain-aching bureaucracy of aliyah. My brother, an émigré of 30 years’ standing, toiled tirelessly to complete forms, amass documentation and dispatch emails at breakneck speed. .

Meanwhile our mother, though seriously ill, understood the move. (She also good-humouredly endured my jokes about her being just like one of those foreign “health tourists” who ride the NHS gravy train to get their teeth done).

She made only one, polite request: to hold onto her British passport. In her mind, she would one day get better and be allowed the choice to go home.

Sadly, she never did, and has now been laid to rest in a beautiful cemetery in Gush Etzion, close to my brother’s home, cradled for eternity by a land that cared so deeply for her in her hour of need.

As Jews — even during current times of pan-Islamic unrest — it`s easy to forget the astonishing privilege of the Law of Return. Yet in the dark, hard days of grief since Mum passed away, it remains a source of enduring comfort to know how Israel offered succour to her vulnerable offspring.

Last updated: 8:45am, September 18 2013