I have an interesting perspective on two moments in the life of an oleh (someone who moves to Israel). The first is my own dating back over 21 years of living in Israel; the second is seeing Israel and life here through the lives and eyes of my friends. I read a wonderful post by my dear friend, Rivkah Adler. Her The Courage of Olim is an important testimony to the difficulty that olim face in communicating in a language to which they were not born, in a country to which they came as adults.
When my husband and I discussed aliyah, my dream not his, I told him that I could live with failing; I could not live with never trying. And so we came and we stayed – mostly because leaving was never an option.
Rivkah detailed her attempts to learn Hebrew. Having seen these many attempts, I am so proud to be her friend. It is acceptable to try and not succeed; it is not acceptable to never try. Having improved my Hebrew to a functioning level, I sometimes am impatient with those who demand that everything be presented to them in English.
I seek a balance – one where they continue to try to understand and the rest of Israel tries to help. I don’t want either side to stop attempting to bridge the gap. I don’t want olim from any country to stay comfortably on “their” side, unable to communicate while waiting for the rest of Israel, nor do I want Israel to be so accessible in every way that we become, for all intents and purposes, an English speaking country. I don’t need the radio broadcasters to slip in words of English to sound more sophisticated by speaking of a “vin-vin” situation, or whatever.
The problem is that too often, people are measured by the wrong yardstick. It isn’t what you speak, but what you do. It isn’t your language, but your actions. Rivkah and her amazingly generous, funny, intelligent and absolutely wonderful husband Rabbi Elan Adler have been in Israel just over four years – I was there at the airport waiting with tears in my eyes as I watched their plane land and hugged Rivkah with all my heart.
Reading her article, I remembered a conversation I had with a rather nasty neighbor back when we were the new immigrants – four plus years after we had made aliyah. I had complained to the town managers because they had dug a meter-wide and meter-deep hole in the dirt path that would eventually be paved but was, at that point, a nightmare for pedestrians and nearly impassible in the rain for man and car.
They apologized for the three week delay and explained that it was because of all the holidays. Why they dug it if they didn’t have time to complete the task was something no one could ever explain but the day my oldest son came running down the hill and slipped and landed inches from the hole, I’d had enough.
What I didn’t know was that the hole was illegal and all I had to do was call the police. Instead, I called the town — the very ones who had made the hole. You can imagine how successful that was.
Days later and another near miss, I decided to push things back into the hole to lessen the danger. And, as we worked, out came nasty neighbor and her husband. Only the words she screamed at me were hard to understand at first. I didn’t know what “nezek” (damage) meant back then. I didn’t know what a “keresh” (board) was. I didn’t know what a “biyuv” (sewer) was. I only knew my child had nearly fallen into a deep hole that endangered lives and property.
The neighbor was annoyed that I didn’t know sewer and damage in Hebrew and then she spoke words that tore my heart apart, words I did understand but wished that I didn’t. By then a few other neighbors and the head of security had come and heard her attack:
“Who are you? What have you given to Israel? My husband came in 1947. He fought for this land! You came and got everything for free! What have you given to this land? It isn’t your land!”
Seventeen years later, and I still remember the words — word for painful word; my eyes still fill with tears and even a little shame, where none was earned. We were among the newest olim, and one of the few olim families out of 350 or so that had chosen to live in that town. People knew we had come from America and that we needed help with everyday Hebrew things.
Everyone who heard her was stunned into silence for a few seconds and then the head of security turned to her and said, “you’re an idiot. Shut up and go in your house.” And then he turned to me, a man who was clearly not comfortable with a woman’s tears and said, “Stop crying. This is your country. I’ll get them to fix the hole.”
Years later, I can smile. For months after, he would stop me and ask how I was doing, ask if “that idiot” was bothering me. At that moment, with my heart in pieces, I couldn’t have cared less about the hole. I went into the house and sat crying. Hearing her words over and over again. “This isn’t your country….What have you given to Israel?”
It took me a while until I figured it out and, as I often do, I wrote it down because that’s how I cope. What came out was a letter to Israel — I told Israel what I had given her and found peace.
I gave you my heart, I wrote. But knew, even as I wrote the words, that that wasn’t enough. What value does a heart really have for a country that needs so much more? I asked Israel. It can’t defend the country. It can’t fight, as that man did for Israel in 1947.
I can never make up the time, I wrote. If I came in 1993 and he came in 1947, he will always have come here first, he will always have done more. Defeated before I even landed.
Next I wrote not what I had given, but what I had given up. I gave up, as Rivkah pointed out, my ability to easily communicate with those around me. I speak as a child, certainly write as one, I wrote. I gave up being there when my in-laws became sick, when my grandmother died, gave up seeing them in the last years of their lives.
I found no consolation until my next thought… Israel, twenty one years ago, I gave you my future. I brought you my children. Three have already served; one begins next November – each has given years of their lives to defend, to protect, to benefit. I have built a business that employs others and has trained and found employment for hundreds of people.
It took me years to come up with the right and only answer to that nasty neighbor’s ignorant comment. When it was published in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post, for the first time in my life, I not only got notes, but I got phone calls from Israelis – each with a story. And I remember those too.
One came in 1930 from Germany – this is our land too!
One was a 6th generation Yerushalmi (resident of Jerusalem) – this is your land too!
One was a new immigrant – I’ll carry your article with me.
One came after World War II – you’ll give what you can, when you can. Don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t your land too.
The head of security stopped by with Haaretz and the translated article in it, “good for you,” he said and then smiled and went back to his truck.
The courage of olim shouldn’t be measured in the level of Hebrew they speak. Even with what Rivkah claims to be minimal Hebrew, she and her husband have made an indelible mark on Maale Adumim, running charity events that have brought in tens of thousands of shekels to help Israel’s poor and ill; our soldiers, and more.
Twice a year, she organizes a Book Swap that raises over 20,000 NIS a year for charities, local and national. Last week, she organized a “teichel” swap that raised 1,400 NIS for a local organization that helps soldiers, and then turned right around to organize a community-sponsored Shabbat for another group of lone soldiers and if that wasn’t enough, in the middle of last night, moments after hearing of the death of a recent immigrant, she quickly created and posted a document to provide meals for the family in mourning.
What have we given you, Israel? We who were not born here? We have given you our hearts, we gave up so much to come and received so much more for that decision. We have received a new land, a new language, a place that is more ours than any place else.
And more, we give you our dedication to deal kindly with others, to bring compassion to our communities. We give you our sons and daughters to defend this land and we give you our words to spread across borders. Most of all, if we can’t give you our past, we have given you our future.
We will never be completely fluent; our children will always out-speak us in Hebrew but as we had the courage to leave and come here, we have the courage to live here.
It is our land too.