On the way home from my job in Newark, N.J., I met on the train a familiar figure from the Jewish community that I lived in. He had long side curls, was decked in black, and the fringes from his talit katan were out in the open (as we used to say in Yiddish, tzitzis aroys). The guy, who we shall call Shlomo, was not a Jew. He was however in the process of converting to Judaism. His seriousness about Torah and its commandments won him the admiration of many in the community.
I sat down to next to him and we began to chat. He told me that he had just returned from a visit in the land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel).
"How was it?", I asked.
"Let me tell you", he replied. "Tel Aviv is the dirtiest and most disgusting city that I have ever seen. Sabbath desecration is rampant. The Rabbanut gives a "Kosher For Passover" certification for canned corn! Can you believe it? The lone ray of light in the country is the Me'ah She'arim neighborhood in Jerusalem."
I was in shock. I had been in Israel a few years earlier, and had came back with totally different impressions. What did I remember of Tel Aviv? The beach, of course! Sand and the salty water of the Mediterranean Sea which was such a pleasure to bathe in on a humid day. The street and store signs were in Hebrew in a city that bustled with activity.
What about the Sabbath? I certainly felt the Sabbath in Israel more than I did in New Jersey. Commercial activity, especially in Jerusalem came to a standstill. This was a totally different Sabbath than those I experienced as a Jewish minority in the United states.
As for the "Kosher For Passover" corn, it is "Kosher For Passover" for all of those Jewish communities that did not accept upon themselves the Chumra of kitnyot. Thinking about that, it was really wonderful to meet Jews that came from all over the world to make their home in Israel, to see with my own eyes the (at least partial) fulfillment of the prophecy:
"For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you out of all the countries, and will bring you into your own land."
And yes Me'ah She'arim is a special place without a doubt.
How could I understand the difference in our impressions of Israel? Perhaps a person sees what he wants to see. Shlomo was connected with a Torah scholar who was very anti-State-of-Israel, and perhaps that affected his outlook. I, on the other hand, was raised in a very pro-Israel if not religious household.
Years later I would hear a very different, more mystical explanation. Rabbi Dov Begon explained that the land of Israel is like a shidduch. Sometimes a girl is set on a "blind date" with a guy that she knows and doesn't particularly care for. What does she do? She shows up for the date with dirty, smelly clothes, and disheveled hair. To top things off she eats a little bit of garlic before she meets the bachur. When this guy meets the girl he is of course totally repulsed. He informs the shadchanit that he is not interested in meetings this maidele any more. He thinks that he has rejected her when in fact the opposite is true.
So it is with the land of Israel. When someone is not fit to live in the land of Israel, when he visits the land he sees things that turn him off. He thinks that he has rejected the land of Israel, when it is in fact the land of Israel that has rejected him.