“Nu? You’ve decided to stay here? To live in Israel?” asked the veteran immigrant who stood just to the side of the mirror. Despite her slightly aggressive tone, we were on neutral territory — the women’s toilets at the Jerusalem Theater. This former New Yorker, a very good friend of the woman who would eventually become my mother-in-law, gazed and measured me up in the mirror.
Apparently I passed. The no-nonsense woman, who had immigrated to Israel some 50 years prior, even slightly smiled.
“You need to understand something: No matter what, you’ll always have an American accent and it will always be easier for you to read in English,” she said.
Twenty years after that conversation, I still do have an accent and undoubtedly I prefer to read (and write) in English. But, thanks to a former landswoman, I’ve never had any illusions otherwise. Likewise, I have no doubts that my wisest life decision was to immigrate to Israel (with a close second being my choice of husband as a life partner).
I came to Israel with a (rather large) backpack and a violin upon the conclusion of my BA in Jewish Studies and History at Indiana University. In my final semester, at the ripe old age of 23, I understood that it was finally time to begin thinking of the future. (According to my father, well past time.)
I wanted the impossible – to live a full Jewish life without being tied to a synagogue congregation. In the States there are few possibilities for finding a secular Jewish atmosphere, and for a poor girl from Indiana, even slimmer pickings. Israel seemed a logical choice – and somehow less frightening than New York.
With little money of my own, I considered moving to a kibbutz where I could at least find room and board. But a month before finishing my studies, I heard a fascinating lecture on Talmud by Dr. Aviva Zornberg and I understood that I had many holes in my higher Jewish education. I found out where she taught in Jerusalem – the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies – applied, was accepted and immediately purchased a plane ticket for my first voyage to Israel.
With the help of a scholarship of $400 a month, I rented the least expensive room I could find – a tiny niche carved out of a small two-and-a-half bedroom apartment. My room was the “half” and its window opened into the tiny, shared living room.
My flatmates were a couple newly arrived from Argentina, who fought all night, every night, and an illegal foreign worker from Sri Lanka who cleaned apartments in the city. Unlike the hot-blooded couple, he spoke English and significantly helped me acclimate during my first month in “Altneuland.”
The High Holidays came early back in 1999, and the great traditional garbage strike arrived as well at the beginning of September. As one unused to the Holy City, I didn’t then understand that it is generally not all that clean to begin with. During the strike, however, piles of litter very quickly became hills of garbage and rats frolicked among them in the daylight. At strike’s end, the smoke from these incinerated mountains of trash was a biblical pillar of cloud.
But for me, the chaos and discomfort caused by the strike and its aftermath were sure signs I’d come to the right place. “It’s genius,” I said to myself. “The Jewish garbagemen are using the Jewish holidays as leverage to get a raise.” What could reflect living a secular Jewish lifestyle better than that?
The real moment of truth before my final decision to stay came a few weeks later at a visit to Mount Herzl. Like any good tourist, I’d asked several people in the know which sites I should take in while in Jerusalem. After several answered Mount Herzl, I chose an open Friday morning to go see the place. I’d thought perhaps it would be a museum, or some kind of monument to the Zionist visionary. I did not expect a military graveyard.
A few years earlier my family had buried my older brother, a US army soldier, in a military cemetery in Indiana after he lost his battle with skin cancer at the age of 22. The reality of an early death was not foreign to me. But there, at Mount Herzl, surrounding by the graves of far too many youth, I asked myself if I believed enough in this Jewish State to (God forbid) “sacrifice” myself, my future husband, or any children we may have.
It is better to never face such an awful reality, but I staked my future in the Land of Israel from that day on Mount Herzl. Unfortunately, a few short years later, two of my schoolmates in Jerusalem lost their lives in a terror attack and another was severely injured. In a separate attack, a coworker was almost killed when his bus exploded during a suicide bombing.
To live in Israel is one thing; to integrate into Israeli society is something altogether different. I decided that the only way to nurture the Israeli sprouting inside of me was to find an equally crazy spouse — but Israeli born — and to learn good Hebrew.
Before I met the man who would become my man, I’d already moved to a more suitable living situation with two religious American-born women. The window on my new “half” room opened into an enclosed balcony and there were no lovers’ quarrels at night. It was my first — and only — time living in an apartment in which the occupants fully observed both Shabbat and kashrut. At Passover, I found myself using toothbrushes and toothpicks while cleaning. The stress level in the shared house rose in proportion to the sunset on Friday afternoon. I decided keeping Shabbat was not for me.
A few months after I’d moved in, I returned to our bachelorette pad post a horrible date with a French guy (I mean, who loudly guesses what’s about to happen in “The Blair Witch Project”?). I asked one of my flatmates, who’d already lived in the country for a decade, if she knew any normal single Israeli men. She paused, thought a bit, and came up with… one.
‘I’ll take four bras’
After it became clear that the chosen one and I had a future together, the next challenge became learning Hebrew. But switching from our fun, high-level English conversations into Ulpan Level Alef Hebrew was not an easy matter. My stubbornness proved more firm — on this matter — and we transitioned to only speaking Hebrew from then on.
We were already living together by this point and in order to widen my vocabulary I made little paper signs for objects and furniture around the apartment: armchair, cup, bed, couch… When his friends came to visit, they surely thought I was a little cute and maybe a lot crazy.
When first shacking up, for months I was scared of answering the phone, and for every conversation I had to really gather my inner strength. Entering the great wide world of the supermarket presented its own challenges. “I’ll take four bras,” I asked a butcher, instead of chicken breasts. To his credit — and perhaps his own heavily Russian-accented Hebrew — he didn’t even crack a smile and wrapped them up.
Slowly, slowly, I began to understand the jokes flying around the Friday night dinner table with my future husband’s warm Israeli family. Like the scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” the tepid black and white world of misunderstanding turned into a panoramic rainbow of fluency.
Today there are entire vocabularies that I better know in Hebrew, especially related to pregnancy, birth, and really everything dealing with babies and kids. But sometimes, when I’m really tired and the words just won’t come, I go from being bi-lingual to a-lingual.
Secular and religious
At the same time, slowly, slowly, I also realized that I don’t want to live in a Jewish society without a synagogue, devoid of religion. When we saw the lack of Jewish text learning in the secular public school system in Jerusalem, we understood that our six children were at risk of growing up as ignorant Jews – just like their mother. Even living in the state of Israel, there was a chance they’d become adults without knowing the richness that lies within the Jewish texts, the creativity that gave birth to Talmud.
These children, I thought, already know Hebrew. They can read Aramaic. Why should they be taught about these traditional treasures, in mocked-up workbook/coloring books, rather than read them from the pages themselves.
We searched for an unusual “mixed” religious-secular school for our children and found a new home seven years ago in a small village on the way to the Dead Sea called Kfar Adumim. The settlement itself is a social experiment in which, unlike throughout most of Israel, secular and religious Jews live side-by-side, and their children sit and learn together in one school, girls and boys. The goal is to get to know the “other” until it is negated, and there is only “us.”
Along with our house and new community, however, I found an occasional spiritual home in the partnership minyan, which I (in)frequent on Shabbat and holidays. As I am a feminist to my core, it was important to me that my three daughters would have the chance to prove themselves in reading from the Torah at their bat mitzvas, just like my three sons. Although there is a mechitza, in this minyan, our girls are seen.
Two decades have passed since I landed in the Land of Israel and I still prefer to read in English, and certainly still have an accent. But 20 years after that chance meeting in front of a mirror with the veteran immigrant, there isn’t even a question in my mind whether I should live here in Israel. Here, with my little troop of Sabras, is my only home.
This blog originally appeared in Hebrew at The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.