Everyone knows that feeling you get on a really great holiday, that you don’t want to leave, that you want to live there; but with Israel that feeling is different. Israel is our homeland, the one place we can truly be ourselves as Jews, and the one place we can really defend ourselves.
I always get sad when I leave Israel, and I’d wanted to make Aliyah for years. On my last holiday here, in November 2013, I decided that would be the last time I leave as a tourist; I finally felt ready to move here on my own. So I was standing on the beach in Netanya telling my sister I’m going to make Aliyah and this time I mean it, and if when I go back to London I change my mind, she should remind me that I said I really meant it. And yes, I was on the beach on the most perfectly warm day in November when I said it, but I knew that that is not what Aliyah would be.
We very nearly missed our flight back, and normally I would’ve welcomed the chance to get stuck in Israel, but that time I was yelling at my sister in the airport “I need to get back to London so I can make Aliyah!!” I never would have thought that the first hurdle in my Aliyah would be arguing with check-in at Ben Gurion to let me to the front of the queue, so I could get back to London, so I could make Aliyah and come back to Israel again. It was very much a taste of things to come!
My aunt made me see that an Ulpan programme would be the best way to integrate into life in Israel and meet other like-minded Olim. From the time I arrived back in London there were only two months until the January session at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem that I wanted to join, as I didn’t want to have to wait 8 months for the one after that.
But my Aliyah application was delayed before it even began, as out of all 5 siblings in my family it had to be my birth certificate that was missing. While I waited for a copy to arrive, I had to hand in my notice at work before I was even officially approved for anything, but had been assured by my shaliach at the Jewish Agency that it would all be fine and that there was a space for me at Ulpan. Except, with 2 ½ weeks to go – bad news: it turned out I was only on a waiting list for Ulpan. But, good news: my Aliyah application was approved! So, I could just hang around London jobless for 8 months until joining the next Ulpan. Some praying, begging, convincing and phone calls later, my shaliach had got me onto the January session. And if before that I thought I wasn’t 100% sure about going, my reaction told me I knew exactly what I wanted. Maybe she did it on purpose.
It’s important when you make Aliyah not to think everything will go smoothly and life will be perfect. I came expecting it to be difficult and annoying living here, and that way I don’t feel let down or disappointed when it is, I sometimes even embrace it. Overcoming the various challenges and hurdles makes everything even more of an achievement (You founded a kibbutz? Well I opened a bank account and registered for health insurance!) and I appreciate even more all the Only-In-Israel moments that you get living here.
It sometimes feels like the bureaucratic offices in Israel deliberately make things difficult and complicated for Olim as a kind of initiation test. Because to survive here you need to have endless reserves of patience and feistiness! To be able to breathe and go with it when something frustrates you, but also to know when not to go with it, when it’s worth fighting it instead – and when Israelis expect or maybe even want you to put up a fight for something.
Despite all the challenges here, we should remember that Israel is a miracle, and that for this country to have achieved everything it has, Israelis have to be ‘Sabras’. We could all do with picking up some of the better Israeli character traits that make the impossible possible.
It was not at all an easy decision to leave my family and comfortable life in London, but in a way, I felt like that was even more of a reason to do it, to push myself, accept change, and take the risk to do what I’d wanted to for so long – make a life for myself in Israel.
Israel is home now, even though it is hard here sometimes. But if you look at Aliyah as real life and not as a dream, then you might realise that you’d rather have all those real life problems in Israel than anywhere else.
Sometimes when I’m travelling on a bus on the motorway here, I get that old sinking feeling I’d have whenever I leave Israel. For a split second I think I’m leaving. And then I smile when I remember: I live here.
What to expect when you make Aliyah:
- You will need to figure out the opening hours of all sorts of offices (but not try to understand why the hours are so bizarre); to know whether the number on your ticket at the post office/ Interior Ministry etc means that the 16 people in front of you will take two hours, or if the 148 people in front you already left and so actually it will be your turn in a few minutes; to know when it’s best to fake not knowing any Hebrew, and when even using bad Hebrew is better than using English.
- To at least not mind all the cats (loving them too much leads to Secret Jerusalem/Tel Aviv Facebook posts asking: “What should I do with this poor, sweet cat I took in? It wrecked all my furniture and keeps trying to attack me and I’m scared to go to sleep!”)
- To break your phone in an Only-In-Israel fashion by having it fall off the Tower of David.
- To be prepared for craziness in the supermarkets on Thursday nights, Fridays, Erev Snow Day, and especially before Chagim, as this brings added dangers, such as Friday afternoon before Chanukah, someone trying to “accidentally” steal your carefully chosen crème brulee doughnut.
- To feel proud every time you navigate a conversation with a dentist or doctor in Hebrew and leave with the correct treatments and some new words and phrases, like ‘filling’ and ‘I scratched my eye’.
- To know that even if there’s a war you will feel lifted by the pride and support of your fellow Israeli citizens; all the praying and learning and initiatives to help soldiers, their families and residents from the South; by the banners everywhere thanking the soldiers and reminding each other that we are stronger together. And by the parody videos mocking Hamas’ scare-song with the catchy tune and ridiculous lyrics.
- That Aliyah not only doesn’t mean going to the beach every week, but during the summer means being busy with work and a war and not going to the beach for two and a half months. But that when you do eventually go, when it’s all over, the sea is warm and calm and it feels like the day and the beach and the whole country are breathing a sigh of relief after the terrible summer.
- To know that yes, Israelis will get involved in your business. Conversations with strangers somehow end up with them inviting me for Shabbat and offering to matchmake. Hiking at Ein Gedi, they will inform your friend she looks like a tomato and offer you both extra sun lotion, water and their hats. (But not ice cream, which is what you really wanted at that moment!) But the plus side of Israeli bluntness is that it goes both ways and you can say what you want to Israelis.
- To experience the way the whole country changes as we celebrate the Chagim – our Chagim; and to dance on Yom Haatzmaut feeling like it is the biggest Jewish wedding you’ve ever been to.
- To know that if you get a call from an Israeli charity and you tell them you will donate online, they will keep on calling you to remind you if you haven’t yet done it – and when you do, you will get a genuinely grateful email full of exclamation marks thanking you.
- To fall in love with the country again and again every time you visit somewhere new or go on a hike in nature or a walk with the most beautiful views, and for countless other reasons.
- To accept that you might end up living in an old flat that has problems with the plumbing, electricity, gas, heating, and just to make things even more fun, the bathroom door falling off its hinges. But even with all of those problems you love it, because it’s in Jerusalem and because you made it your home.
Which kind of sums up life in Israel in general.