Forty-seven years ago, my grandparents announced they were making aliyah. They sold their house in Brooklyn, purchased an apartment in north Tel Aviv and enrolled my mother at a high school in Israel. But my mother, who was graduating eighth grade at the time was nervous about moving to another country. What’s more, it was difficult for my grandparents to leave my aunt, who was paralyzed from polio, as well as their two other adult children and grandchildren. And so at the last minute, they panicked, purchased a different house in Brooklyn and canceled their aliyah.
My mother and I often wonder what life would have looked like if they had gone. Would my mother have met my father? I also wonder if later in life, they regretted not making the move. Who’s to know? What I do know is that my grandparents continued to live and breathe Israel, even while they were not living there.
I recently learned this was not my grandfather’s first attempt at aliyah. When he was attempting to escape Berlin in 1938, he planned to board an Aliyah Bet ship to Palestine. But he missed the ship, and needing to get out of Germany ASAP, he escaped to France just before Kristallnacht and shortly afterward, made his way to the United States.
Despite never officially becoming Israeli, my Saba and Savta kept their Tel Aviv apartment and used it often, spending every three months in Israel. Either their living room was filled with suitcases from their recent trip to Israel or it was filled with suitcases, packed for an upcoming trip. As a child, I remember looking out my window tearfully on the days they took off, wondering if the plane I saw in the sky was theirs. It was the days before it became affordable to make international calls and this meant that it was months at a time of not hearing their voices. The only way to communicate with them was via airmail, which took forever, and I spent many afternoons waiting by the mailbox for a letter. When they were in America, my Saba and Savta lived across the street from us and their home was my second home. It was very difficult for us when they were away and I admit I sometimes wondered why they would choose to spend so much time away from the grandchildren they adored. But the answer was pretty clear: Israel was their life and their passion.
They would return from their trips with their faces aglow. When they weren’t in Israel, their table was filled with talk of Israeli politics and to this day, most of the Yiddish words I know are uncomplimentary words, which they used to describe Yasser Arafat. They would talk about the beauty of the land, about the places they visited, of people they met- of Prime Ministers Rabin and Peres who theoretically attended the same synagogue as them and Moshe Dayan who my Savta tried to photograph when he was staying in a hotel room across from her (she almost got arrested by the Shin Bet). They shared funny stories from Ulpan, when they used the wrong Hebrew words, confusing “shamenet”- sour cream” for calling someone “shmena”- fat. As a child, it was obvious to me that being in Israel just made them happy. And as a result, I knew I wanted to make aliyah, long before I ever stepped foot in Israel, at a time long before aliyah was as popular as it is today. My first email address was Zionist15 (I later graduated to a more mature “quittingcoffee”) and all I ever talked about was Israel- politics, history, etc. Not much has changed.
At nearly 38 years old, I am not living in Israel, although the dream has never left me. I rarely go a day without the word “Israel” leaving my lips and I’ve been blessed to take trips to Israel each year- whether it’s leading an 8th grade class, a shul trip or a women’s trip. My heart is in Israel and everyone who knows me or has heard me speak, is well aware of this fact. People often ask me why we don’t live in Israel. The unfortunate answer is that aliyah is not an easy career path for a shul rabbi married to a Director of Judaics of a Jewish day school (if anyone knows of a job for either of us in Israel, please let me know!) I also know we are doing important and fulfilling things in the Diaspora that we won’t be able to continue in Israel. And yet, aliyah is a dream that has never abated and one that I hope, pray and plan to make happen. But as much as I talk about Israel and plan for aliyah, as my father says, until you’re on the plane, it’s all talk.
But my younger sister has proved she’s more than talk. This summer, she and her family will be the first ones from our families to make it on the plane. If Saba was Terach, who started the journey towards Eretz Yisrael but never made the final jump, she and her husband and three children, like Avraham and Sarah, will be fulfilling the dream that he started.
Unlike when I was younger, aliyah is no longer a rarity and I have many friends who have made aliyah over the past 15 years. It’s hardly a surprise to hear about another family going. But to each family who goes, it is a huge deal. It means leaving your family behind, taking on new jobs and possibly, recreating new careers in your 30’s or older. It is taking a huge gamble. It means making a decision that is simply not rational. It is also a decision that changes the trajectory of a family’s future. One of my closest friends made aliyah from Australia 10 years ago. Over the years, each of her husband’s three siblings, his parents and his 100 year old grandfather followed. Most of her siblings have also followed them to Israel, along with her parents. They have replanted their entire families from Australia to Israel. At a barbecue to celebrate my sister’s family’s aliyah, my father shared his fervent wish that G-d willing, my sister’s aliyah will lead us all to follow, changing the trajectory of our family’s future. I only pray that his words come true.
In one month and a few days, I will be flying from Charleston where I live, to accompany my sister and her family to the airport for this momentous occasion in her life, and for our entire family. We will hug them good-bye as as they take their Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight to Israel, to start anew, living in the land our ancestors walked on, the land that Moshe Rabbeinu prayed 515 times to enter, only to be denied. What a Zechut — a merit, that I hope, despite the difficulties and frustrations they are sure to face, that they never lose sight of.
I imagine there will be many tears at this goodbye; bittersweet tears as our families envision the holidays spent apart and the cousins living across the world from each other. There will be parents blessing their children, that they should have an easy integration, a successful way of making a living and that they will be happy. And I know that among all of the family members, blessing their children and grandchildren before they take this great step, will be my Saba and Savta, watching proudly, knowing that while they didn’t get to fulfill their dream, my sister will be doing it for them.
V’hayshiv lev avot al banim v’lev banim al avotam.
May they have a smooth aliyah and may we merit to join them very soon.