A 25-year Irishman

In the much bigger scheme of things, 25 years isn’t really that long. But in the course of a person’s life, it is very significant.

On the Gregorian calendar, last week marked 25 years since my flight touched down at Ben Gurion International and I officially became an Israeli citizen.

So much has changed in the last quarter of a century, both in Israel and in myself. And while I can’t really explain it, the truth is that I have not regretted a single minute that I have lived here, and somehow I still have all of the idealism that I had the day I first stepped off that plane.

No doubt, this is the ultimate proof that I have absolutely no clue what is going on around me, but I’m OK with that.

For me, the decision to make aliya (immigrating to Israel) was a two stage process.

On an intellectual level, I had been active for many years, first as a member, then as a counselor and eventually an assistant regional director of a major Zionist youth movement in the States, I had been properly indoctrinated with the idea that Israel is the Jewish home, meaning that for me as a Jew, it will always “be there for me.”

I brought that premise to what I saw as its natural conclusion – if Israel will always be there for me, how much am I there for Israel? For me, that means being a part of Israeli society, economy and defense. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into, but for a 23-year-old full of ideals, that minor detail was irrelevant.

Second was the tachlis, or reality stage. Ideology and theology are all well and good, but the real test for any new immigrant is in being here and seeing if he (or she) and Israel are truly right for one another. While Zionism and aliya are wonderful ideals, the truth is that life in Israel really isn’t for everyone.

So I came, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with high hopes, expansive dreams, and a whopping $600 to my name. And somehow, against all odds, it worked for me, and I’m still here, a quarter of a century later.

Nevertheless, establishing roots, building a family and a life in Israel has certainly been a challenge.

Every year at my aliya anniversary, I am reminded of the song “Kilkelly.” On the surface the song has nothing to do with living in Israel, yet it really sums up what many of us who have made aliya experience..

The song was written by Steven and Peter Jones in about 1983 and is based on actual letters written by a father to his son who emigrated from Ireland to America in the mid 1800’s. Throughout the five verses, it is clear that the father misses and loves his son, yet he never berates him for leaving to find his fortunes across the sea. According to the first verse, dated 1860, the son traveled to America with the intention of working for a while before returning home.

But the son stayed in America, raised a family, and never did visit in his father’s lifetime. Even the final verse, written by the man’s brother after the father had passed away, has not even a hint of chastisement for the man living in America. The final line written by the brother is “Oh, why don’t you think about coming to visit, we’d all love to see you again”.

Yes, there are several differences between the family featured in this very moving song and myself. For one thing, even before internet, Instant Messenger, emails, video calls and low-cost international phone calls, the communication available to me and my family have always been light years ahead of what was available in the second half of the 19th century.

Yet for all the differences and for for all that it has been easier for me than for the son of the letters, this song still hits me to my core.

My wife and I have been very lucky. Like the Irish father, our parents have always been very supportive of our decision to live in Israel. We never had the “how could you abandon us” and “when are you coming home” interrogations to which so many of our friends have been subjected.

Unlike the song’s immigrant son, we have visited our families, and they us, albeit not as often as we would like. Our parents and siblings know our daughters, and more importantly, our daughters know much of the family in America.

We even have one of my wife’s sisters in Israel,and our kids have a wonderful relationship with her, her husband and their four children.

Even with the joys of modern communications, living 6,000 miles from my family is not an easy thing.

Our interaction in one another’s lives is a long-distance one, and there are times when that simply is not enough. I learned that lesson long before telecommunications became what it is today.

In the summer of 1991, while I was serving as a tank driver in the IDF’s Armored Corps, my mother underwent surgery for breast cancer. The surgery was successful, and following lengthy treatments, she has been cancer-free for very many years. Nevertheless, at the time, I felt that my hands were tied while she was undergoing surgery.

I know – there is nothing that I could have done had I been there. But I would have been there – with her, with my family, just as I would hope my kids would be there for me if I ever go through something similar.

But no, I was stuck on an army base in the middle of the Judean desert, waiting to get a collect call through to America (pre-cell phone era) and finally reaching my father a day and a half later – and only being able to talk to Mom several days after the surgery once she was back at home.

So the song resonates with me very powerfully.

2013 is a far cry from 1860, and moving from America to Israel is different in almost every way imaginable than moving from Ireland to America. I came to Israel for ideological reasons, with cultural and religious overtones, whereas those who moved from Ireland to America moved for financial reasons – period.

Yet the longing and the love written from a father to his son between 1860 and 1890 still strike a chord with the guy who misses and loves his family in North Carolina.

Moving to Israel from America without family is hard – financially and culturally (among other things). But the real price we pay is the distance from our family, our most natural support system. That is what we sacrifice in order to build the life in which we believe.

Yet it’s worth it.

Last week, my mother wrote to me reminding me how proud she and my father are of me for being here – in spite of how much they miss having me around. Letters like this make all the difference in the world to me.

Better yet, I watch my daughters every day – growing up as proud Israelis and proud Jews. The true future of our nation and our people.

What more could I ask than that?

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).