A new set of eyes and Herzl’s prophecy fulfilled
Last year, I graduated college, made aliyah, and drafted to the IDF for a two-year service. Now, coming back to my childhood home after over a year in Israel is… bizarre. As a lone soldier, I am entitled to 30 days off per year to visit my family — so here I am, doing just that and everything in my hometown looks different yet the same.
My little brother is now taller than I am and has grown armpit hair, but the bagel place is serving the same bagels and plastic-wrapped iced coffee. My friends seem to be the same except moving on to their next chapters — a full-time job or a second degree (or a marriage!) — but what initially hit me the hardest is that everything looks… ugly.
Coming back to see family and old friends is awesome, but coming ‘home’ also reminds me why it’s no longer home. Even the prettiest days here lack the warm color palate Israel offers. My dad chooses new flowers to plant on the lawn because last month’s are already withering and I can’t help but compare. In Israel, they’d be growing beautifully, larger and wilder and no one would trim them to fit an excessively manicured garden in a Long Island suburb.
Maybe “ugly” is too dramatic a word but the plants are unmotivated and the sun here doesn’t cast a dreamy gold onto everything it touches the way my beloved Israeli sun does. Local fruits are not growing pleasantly on trees around me as they do on the beautiful kibbutz that has adopted me and there are no waterfalls of bright orange and pink flowers spilling onto the sides of highways and streets, buildings and trees.
I didn’t expect it to happen so fast — but I miss my pomelo, guava, and lychee trees on the kibbutz. (I say mine but they’re not mine. What makes them so great is that they’re everyone’s and anyone’s.) I even miss the Israeli graffiti because I respect the author’s implied vision of what Israel ought to look like, the often-political messages — though controversial — reminding me of the flourishing democracy of the country that’s my home. I respect the utter effortlessness of the flora and I feel like the epitome of Israel when I pick a fruit from the land I call home, images of old-school kibbutznikim working the land rolling around in my head, the land-soul connection between Jew and Israel seemingly as old as history itself.
It shocks me how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to my old new home because I used to view living in Israel as a faraway dream. Once I became encompassed with the yearning for the distant-yet-familiar land, everything until aliyah was a mere layover — my life-to-come all I could truly think about.
But these are just side-notes — comparisons I can’t help but now notice. Leaving Israel now is not only reminding me why I love Israel, (not that it’s something I’ve forgotten, but unequivocally a love that fizzles and sparks, morphing and altering constantly — mainly when I find myself in a fight with a native-born Israeli) it is reminding me of my life pre-aliyah, and even before my infatuation with Israel began.
Leaving Israel now is allowing me to think about Israel. I mean think deeply about the State of Israel the way I did pre-aliyah, zoom out and look at her from the outside — adequately compare her to the rest of the world, or as Israelis would say — to chul, an acronym for “chutz laaretz,” translating to “outside of Israel,” and meaning anywhere but here.
While I sit on the subway with the most random assortment of people New York could offer, the August heat accompanying the smell of urine, I’m reminded of the feeling of purgatory I felt before moving to Israel last year. Like life in the US didn’t belong to me, I was a tree, uprooted by my family’s decision to leave Israel (laredet, to spiritually descend and the opposite of “making aliyah”) and join the Diaspora. Planted in a different land, on hold before the next stage of my life claimed me (a.k.a., waiting for the Jewish Agency to process and approve my aliyah documents).
Natural felt my return, like it was the bridge I had to cross in order to return to my wholly unalloyed self. Homecoming. It’s a feeling I constantly attempt to describe in words, but never succeed. Since making aliyah, words about Israel have been harder to string together. I used to love writing and I would still consider it a passion, but I haven’t been formally able to write since moving there. Its almost like — my greatest craving fulfilled, there was nothing to yell and scream about anymore.
I still, however, feel like I have a lot to say about the experience: what it’s like to live on a kibbutz in 2022, placed on the Gaza border along with 16 other North American lone soldiers; how my academic interest in Israel Studies has changed; how Israelis perceive my ideological arrival; and, perhaps most interestingly, what it’s like to draft as a post-grad American to the Israeli army where age, language, and cultural gaps constantly differentiate me from those around me.
But now I can see that the feeling of homecoming is connected to the hindrance to writing that I have felt. Herzl prophesied that when Jews would return to Israel, they would finally be rid of the worries of a Jew in the Diaspora. The Jewish person could finally be “normal” and take part in civilization fully without being held back by antisemitism, pushed to the outskirts of a society that rejected the nature of his “otherness,” and ultimately distracted by the Jewish question.
And it’s true — I no longer take it personally when Israel is attacked on social media, and even though instances of antisemitism in the streets or on campuses upset me, they no longer drain me of my mental energy the way they used to. Now I am just another Israeli, no longer bearing a weight that separates me from my surroundings.
Now, a visitor to my ex-home, I hear a bit of Hebrew on the train and I suddenly return to my pre-aliyah self, awakened by the sounds of the deep rrr and throaty chh sounds, overly excited to be around Israelis the way I no longer am when in Israel. On base, speaking Hebrew all day can make my brain hurt, and I find myself relieved to come home and speak English with the Americans I live with.
The eerie silence of my hometown now feels unsettling. Meanwhile, a new operation, Breaking Dawn, has broken out in Israel — and suddenly I miss the chaos and feel uncomfortable being so far. If I were on my kibbutz or my army base, I’d be hearing Red Alert sirens, rockets, and Iron Dome interceptions. On a normal day, we even hear the Gazan muezzins call five times a day — that’s how close we are. I think of how, during last year’s May escalation, there were emergency flights bringing Israelis home — oddly enough to the rest of the world — during a time of violence.
Being back here reminds me also of a time when being an American was enough for me, when Israel was just the country my parents had emigrated from and a place reserved for summertime visits. When having an Israeli passport was a fun fact of mine, not a representation of my identity. I think of Jabotinsky before Zionism took over his life too — when he was Vladimir and not yet Ze’ev. He was a young person in Odessa who happened to be Jewish, a product of his time, a liberal bohemian journalist. I can’t help but relate, briefly imagining how my life would have turned out if I stayed a product of my time instead of becoming a product of the eternal Jewish longing for return. Swept up by the weight of Jewish history, the chains in time leading from the ancient Israelites all the way to me, and propelled towards aliyah — this timeless particularist venture suddenly became so much more attractive to me than the universalist temptation that keeps most American Jews in the US. Attractive enough to pack my life up and board a one-way flight to Ben Gurion.
If nothing else, coming back to New York for the month has provided me with the intellectual stimulation I didn’t know I was craving. The food for thought that reminds me why Amos Oz writes in Where the Jackals Howel (1965) “ideological work… the only real mark a man can leave on the world” because now that Israel is my home and the mundane thoughts of everyday life distract me from the significance of this fact, it can be easy to forget the ideological backing of my reasons for aliyah.
If the argument that — post-World War II — Jewish people wanted to live in the United States, as opposed to Israel, because it provided a pleasant break from Jewish history, then Israel is the intense altercation of Jewish history and the Jewish story with the rest of the world. The magic of this reality should not be taken lightly. Life in Israel is extreme. Even when it rains, it rains. I’ve learned from my first year there that there are two seasons, giving everything a larger meaning — an intensity and richness that everywhere else seems to lack. (Of course, this is a result of the significance of the State of Israel, the cumulation of Jewish history that has led us to this point, but the weather definitely adds to the drama.) Nowhere else can provide me with the piercing feeling of home, the feeling that just by living there, I am taking part in something remarkable.