It was 16 years after I moved here, when just after making havdalah the phone rang, breaking the post-Yom Kippur calm. It wasn’t all that unexpected…the second Palestinian “uprising” had been in full swing for some time now. We had listened to the news on the radio and, from our back porch, had heard the shots ringing out as the Palestinians aimed their sniper fire at Jerusalem’s southern flank. I figured that it was only a matter of time, and as the sun had set that evening shots indeed were fired at the northernmost homes of my town. But still…it was a bit disconcerting to be given half an hour to get my gear together and report for emergency IDF reserve duty.
Over the next year and a half of Arafat’s newest war I would spend months in uniform, not getting enough sleep, doing guard duty and riding patrols. Once, I finished a shift just in time to run to a friend’s son’s brit-milah, tired and dirty, still wearing my khakis. Time and again I would listen to the graveside sermons describing the qualities of my neighbors who had been murdered by terrorists on the road that runs a few hundred meters below my home. I would watch in surprise as others daily made their way to work on that same road, first donning flack-jackets and combat helmets, wondering whether I was witnessing profound bravery or supreme lunacy. And I would, in between finishing my doctoral course work and reassuring my pregnant wife that, “Yes, the local ambulance that will take you to the hospital when the time comes is bullet-proof,” ride my bike for hours on the same roads, waving to the young soldiers manning their road blocks while enjoying the fresh air and cool breezes for which Gush Etzion is famous — although I did cut out a few of the training loops that took me through some less-than-friendly villages, like Husan and El Hader, where I had once enjoyed riding.
It was nearly a year after dozens were blown up as they read the Four Questions in Netanya, and the IDF was given the go ahead to put an end to this latest reign of murderous PLO-sponsored terror, that a group of prospective American immigrants came to our house. By then, my wife had given birth to our first daughter, the roads were being resurfaced to clear them of tank-tread grooves, the hundreds of soldiers who had camped out in the gym across from my house were gone, and our community center no longer ran weekly coffee shop/movie nights to provide local entertainment when people wouldn’t venture out to Jerusalem if they didn’t really need to. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the smiling Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesperson was extolling Efrat’s many pluses: good schools, English-speaking neighbors, etc.
I was asked to add my own description of what life “in the Gush” had to offer. I pointed out my picture window and said that while now things were very pleasant out there, they should all be aware that aside from their friendly English-speaking neighbors, Efrat and Gush Etzion were in fact surrounded by others who just recently had acted in a much less friendly fashion. As the slightly panic-stricken NB’Ner tried to signal behind my audience’s back that I should stop, I went on. I wanted to let these people know the truth. Basically, I recounted what life during the “intifada” was like, telling them that they deserved to be told more about their potential neighborhood than how good the schools were and that their kids needn’t leave their baseball mitts behind as we have our own little league in the spring. “You should know what moving here can mean,” I summarized as the Nefesh B’Nefesh rep hustled them out of my house giving me a parting grimace. Needless to say, we were never again asked to host a group of potential olim again.
Purpose — not fate
The recent chatter on these pages about immigrant struggles should not, I think, be dismissed as mere whining, yet neither should it be blown out of proportion. Like anywhere, life here sometimes does suck. (Although I’ve been here long enough that now American manners make me uneasy.) Few “natives,” who celebrate their weddings (or mourn their losses) surrounded by dozens of extended family members, alongside friends who they have know since gan, can readily appreciate what it means to do this relatively alone. In a month I’ll be taking my youngest daughter to her cousin’s bat-mitzvah in Boston. All of my extended family will be there. I know that I’ll feel, along with the joy, a pang of jealousy. I was once part of a grandiose memorial event on which literally hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent. If the generous donor had inquired, though, I would have asked him if a few thousand couldn’t be allotted to enable my US-based family to stand beside me at this difficult time. Life away from “home” is never always easy. Life in Israel, of course, has its own unique challenges as well.
This period of time in the Jewish calendar finds us between the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Rabbi Josef Dov Soloveitchik famously described these two events as corresponding to two different covenantal archetypes of the Jewish people. The first, born of a common history — suffering and redemption — is one of “fate.” As with the passengers on a nerve-wracking flight that nearly ends in tragedy, the bonds of shared suffering can serve as a unifying factor among even a crowd of strangers. Thrown together by a common fate, the Jewish people emerged stronger and more united at the foot of Sinai than they had ever been before. Yet, R. Soloveitchick argues that it is the receiving of the Torah which actually creates the stronger national bonds. This is, he calls, the “covenant of mission.” The shared goal is what truly creates community. Whether we are discussing a sports team, an orchestra or a book club, it is only the commonality of purpose that binds disparate individuals into a cohesive unit. For R. Soloveitchik, it is just this Torah-given outline of our people’s mission that allows us to exist in covenant, not only with God, but with each other as well. And this covenant brings us together in a meaningful way, one ruled not by mere fate, but by purpose.
Those who muddle along, staying wherever fate has led them (or their parents), may never have to ask themselves about purpose. (The wonderful Israeli poet Haim Gouri once described to me how his generation, the generation of 1948, with the Shoah behind them and the War of Independence staring them in the face, in a sense “had it easy.” There was nowhere to go but up and at it.) But, for those of us who have taken our fate in our own hands and moved out of choice half-way around the world, not having an answer to that big “why?” can be devastating. I am not arguing that the only answer worth giving is that suggested in the previous paragraph. For some, the chance of being oggled by hyper-libidoed Jewish men instead of an average horny Californian guy might be enough. (I have my doubts, though.) But what gets you through the thousand annoyances of not being native-born — the mishaps, the misunderstandings, the real loneliness — if not purpose? Why get up at six a.m. to pull on your still-damp boots and get in the jeep after a few hours of fitful sleep to face a horde of angry young men (or worse) when you could be back in Sidney, or Cincinnati, or Seattle, drinking your coffee and tut-tutting at the news? And why raise your children here when we know (despite our best hopes) that one day we’ll be driving them to the induction center for more of the same?
To be able to answer that is to be able to, in the end, take the sharp elbows and lack of an old-boy network (our beloved protektziah) on the chin and to keep going. To lack a real answer is to see each struggle and disappointment as yet another argument for packing the bags. (And this holds true for even the most blue-blooded of Sabras as well — see under Avrum Burg). Ultimately, each oleh needs to find his or her own answer.
I was born to a father whose family lived in the same small German town since 1650. He escaped almost certain death as a young boy, together with my grandparents, to New York. Yet, I have lived here in Israel for all my adult life. Ups and downs, of course. But, in truth, I have never regretted my decision to “make aliya.” I have never regretted joining my own people in the most wondrous expression of national rebirth and rejuvenation that the world has ever known. I feel privileged and proud to be a part of it. And, I believe, no matter what has induced us to leave our native homes behind, so should we all.