For the first five months of my Aliyah, as I lived and studied at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, I made sure to tell myself that that was the easy part, not to get too comfortable, that “real Aliyah” afterwards will be completely different.
Life in Ulpan was fun, surreal, ridiculous, and I loved it. Even when I was stressed for whatever reason – and despite all the fun there was plenty of stress – there was always someone or something to distract me and make me laugh. As we got closer to the end of the 5 months, the pressure was on to find a job and a place to live. Everyone said it would all work out, but it was hard to believe them when I was one week away from being jobless and homeless.
The flat hunt was a lot harder than I thought. I thought, after the state of the flat in Ulpan, I can live anywhere! I looked at a lot of available rooms in flats and I wondered what the “right” one would be, how would I know? In the end, I didn’t even have a choice. (It was all a bit Harry Potter really – “the wand chooses the wizard, Harry”… “the flat chooses the tenant”.) At 11pm one night a week before the end of Ulpan, I went to see a flat which I’d heard about from someone I met who happened to be an estate agent – and had rented it to a girl who was looking for flatmates. Somehow in the first few sentences I and the girl exchanged, I discovered she had a Nintendo 64. And that sealed it for me! (That and the fact that I had no other options.) The main furniture we were missing was couches, and it turned out that my aunt was replacing hers, so she paid for her old ones to be delivered to us. It was so meant-to-be!
The flat is far from perfect but my flatmates are great and it feels like home already. And when I say far from perfect, I mean it. I mean old pipes that leaked and a broken fuse box and a door that fell off its hinges. And the time I found a cigarette on my bed, because the neighbours above evidently throw cigarettes out of their window, and the wind blew one through mine. So far, since the polite note I wrote to them in Hebrew asking them not to burn down my flat, no more cigarettes have landed in my room.
So it’s not perfect, but in everything there will always be problems that need to be fixed.
There are huge windows that make the flat light and airy, and even when it’s been the hottest day, a perfect breeze comes through at night. Also a bird, once. One that refused to go out the way it came and wouldn’t leave until I opened the side of the window nearest to it. Through the windows you can see lots of trees – palm trees! – and the hills of Jerusalem in the distance. Don’t look from too close though, cos then you can also see the school next door and a car garage.
I have also been very lucky to get a job, two weeks after I finished Ulpan. It was a relief, after the conversations we’d been having there: at what point do you give up on looking for a job you actually want, and start applying for waitressing jobs? Where is the best place to be a waitress, in a hotel or a restaurant? But where do you get the most tips? What would it be like waiting on people you know, who are in Israel on holiday: “How’s your Aliyah going?” “Great! Can I take your order?” The truth is, even if I did end up as a waitress, I would be proud. Any job is an achievement. Aliyah is not easy or glamorous, and nothing can be taken for granted. But it is all more than worth it, if you believe in it, and when you find everything in Israel to be so much more meaningful.
I wondered what “real Aliyah” after Ulpan would be like, and the answer I got was real, normal everyday life in Israel – during a war. My experiences have been nothing compared to so many others here, but it has still been a very difficult time for everyone.
The feeling when you hear your first siren – “Hamas are trying to kill me”. When you jump at the sound of police sirens and motorbikes; and whenever you’re outside, looking for the place you’ll go to if there’s a siren at that moment. That you can’t remember what it was like before all of this.
But after your first siren, in some parts of Israel we sometimes take the sirens a bit more lightly, because when you’re indoors and when you have the luxury of 90 seconds, you feel safe. We laugh at the different situations we find ourselves in, and practically saunter to the stairwell or safe room. But other times it’s not so funny. When you’re so used to imagining hearing sirens, one time when you really hear one you think you’re imagining it and only realize your mistake when you hear the boom. When you’ve become so complacent that you leave the safe room before the boom. When you’re caught outside and there’s nowhere to go, and you watch four rockets in the sky that look like they could land anywhere – and they could – but Iron Dome intercepts them and you realize how many lives are saved each time it does. And your initial reaction is anger at yourself – because you told your mum you’d look after yourself but you probably could’ve done better than standing rooted to the spot and praying. When you’re in the car listening to the radio when they start announcing cities where rockets are headed, and your city is announced just as the siren starts up.
Reading the news every minute, but when you hadn’t in a while – particularly when the soldiers were in Gaza – you were scared to look and had to mentally brace yourself before checking; torn between needing to know everything going on, and not wanting to know any more bad news.
The gut-wrenching last letters fallen soldiers had written to their families, in case they wouldn’t return – to let their families know that they are happy and grateful, that they believe in what they are doing, and are proud to serve their countries.
But only in Israel would you find so many things that lift you during such a sad time.
The posters and banners everywhere reminding each other that we are strong together, telling the soldiers that we embrace and trust in them, and thanking them. All the learning and praying for their merit. All the things people would do to help soldiers, their families, and residents from the South.
The “Bomb Shelter Selfies” Facebook groups, to show that we are still ok. All the parodies of Hamas’ scare-video, with the catchy tune and ridiculous lyrics. The rock version, piano ballad version, Glee-style acapella version, Teletubbies, acoustic reggae, dramatic reading of the lyrics, the electro remix.
The videos and photos from the soldiers themselves, of all the things citizens had provided for them; of pictures that kids had sent, stuck on a tank; or just joking around to pass the time and keep their spirits up; all the singing and dancing. (For whoever can’t understand the words they’re singing, the songs are about not being afraid and having faith.)
We wanted to reassure the soldiers, but they were reassuring us. We could not do enough to show our thanks and support for the boys who just want to live normal lives, but are risking their lives to protect ours.
It’s strange that the world still can’t grasp the concept of the Israel Defence Forces, why we love and need them so much.
Hamas live to fight, we fight to live. Hamas themselves say they love death like we love life, and even when our country faces such horror, we insist on singing and dancing and laughing.
So the first couple of months of my “real Aliyah” have been, as expected – but also not as expected – very different to my first few months in Ulpan. War is not normal, but it is a reality here.
Last night I went to my cousin’s army swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel, after the first stage of his basic training. There were hundreds of them, most still in their teens, many looking even younger, so proud in their uniforms, the different units competing to see who could chant the loudest. I saw no fear or doubt or resentment. They were joking around like boys their age do, but very aware that they have a job to do, and that they take seriously.
A few days after the soldiers pulled out of Gaza, I was at an incredible Shlomi Shabbat concert in Jerusalem, with thousands of Israelis including hundreds of soldiers, singing and dancing to the ‘Golani sheli’ song celebrating our soldiers; and in the same concert crying out the words to another song, saying ‘please don’t let me know war, let me grow up in quiet’. And there is absolutely no contradiction in it, that’s just Israel.