I knew when my wife and I made the decision to make aliyah, to emigrate from the United States to our homeland, the land of Israel, that there would be a lot more to it than learning a new language and trying to figure out how to read Hebrew without the vowels under the letters as we had been used to in Hebrew school and synagogue. Believe it or not, this was really on my mind and, to this day, trying to recognize a word without the ‘N’kudot” beneath the letters can make my eyes cross. What is really humorous is that most of the time, it is a word in English that has been “Hebraicized”.
For me, it was returning to an Israel where I had lived for almost two years back in the late 1970s, when I was single, much stronger and in search of identity and the fulfillment of my Zionist activist youth. For me, at that time, and even now, Zionism means more than the rights of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland, but living and building the land as well. Herzl would not have been satisfied with only Zion loving Jews but only with Jews loving and living in the land. Above all else, Zionism means aliyah.
Yes, the primary reason for our leaving kith and kin behind was the fact that our daughter had made aliyah 3 years previously and thanks to a Birthright experience, had determined that there was no place on Earth where would rather be-and, with our eyes reddening, full of tears of parental pride and concern ,we saw her off on a Nefesh b’ Nefesh flight and returned to our home and made the decision that whatever it would take, we would come to Israel and make it our home.
No, I will not dwell further on the personal, but rather on what I have observed over the past seven years. There are so many misconceptions about aliyah and living in Israel that either discourage the would be immigrant, or fill the head of a wild eyed dreamer who comes here only to be disappointed and disenchanted.
There are books, films, and a plethora of speakers that go out to the Diaspora and tell tales of successful immigrants and explain all the rights and benefits that are available to “olim chadashim” or, new immigrants. The representatives of the Jewish Agency, the Immigration Ministry, the Housing Ministry, et. al, do yeoman’s work and I cannot praise them enough for what they do.
However, in the situation of Western immigrants, mainly from the US and other democratic nations, I believe that the tactics of the Israeli “shlichim”, “messengers” have to direct themselves into a different mindset. There is a world of difference in the history of immigration to Israel that must be recognized. For there are Jews who had to come here to survive and Jews who want to come here to live.
There have been, in reality, two groups of Immigrants-those fleeing for their lives from nations where Jews were being officially persecuted and forced to emigrate and those who come here out of choice from nations where the threats to their existence were more subtle and more individual.
What needs to be fostered is an atmosphere for aliyah that is positive and that does not use a strategy of fear and the possibility of a national movement of virulent Anti-Semitism-Jews have to come here out of desire, not for fear of destruction.
One of the most heartening manifestations of aliyah, for me, is the movement of young Jews who come here to serve in the Israel Defense Forces-an example of courage, love of Israel and dedication to the Zionist spirit that many of our native born youth can take a lesson from.
Native born Israelis, nicknamed “Sabra” after a desert cactus that is hard on the outside yet, sweet on the inside, have a constant question for those of us who come here from the US, Canada, Australia or any country where the young Israeli native see prosperity and no reason to leave the golden freedom of the lands of our birth. If I had a shekel for every time I was interrogated as to why I left New York to live in the desert of Judea, I could probably buy half of Tel Aviv (oy, not an pleasant thought but who wants the “tsuris”)?
Yes, there are many times when we ask ourselves how we can deal with the overburdening bureaucracy, the slow pace of many workers in the post office, the supermarket checkout lines where people leave full carts on line and then go and shop for other items one at a time, where the store clerk is too busy talking on her cellphone to pay any attention to us as we enter the shop, the incredibly invasive practice of bank standing orders (hora’ot keva) the credit card that is a debit card, The nefariously ingenious practice of buying things with “tashlumim”( a shekel down and a few hundred a month plus interest) and worst of all, needing to pack our own groceries in the supermarket with the clerk shoving the next customer’s items on top of our own.
Little things do mean a lot. Yes, we get together and k’vetch (Yiddish for whining, but more like, well, for lack of a more genteel word, bitching) about all that, we believe must be changed to make Israel more efficient and less, dare I say, Middle Eastern? As one of my friends put it, quite succinctly, for all its hi-tech and modernity, Israel is still an amalgam of Poland and Morocco with a tiny bit of America trying to squeeze in the doorway. Indeed, I remember being at a conference in New York several decades ago, where the main speaker was the late Ariel Sharon z”l, and like most of these events, after the speaker had finished his address, a microphone appeared in the aisle and folks were invited to ask questions. What I recall most vividly was a young man who asked, in all sincerity, what was the most important thing that we, as Diaspora Jews, could do for Israel? The answer given by Mr Sharon was this-“What Israel needs most is several hundred thousand young Jews from America with business degrees.”
No, we will never be Sabras, but we can be an American version of that hardy variety of native desert cactus. We have to be tough enough to adjust to the many differences that we face here, to the things that make us crazy and the factors that seem all too incomprehensible to our previous way of life. We also have to be soft enough to understand why and how life has been so miraculously survivable here in this tiny Jewish country of ours.
We have lived previously, in a country with friendly neighbors to the north and south( well the neighbor to the south has been hostile from time to time) and surrounded by huge oceans that discouraged invasion after the War of 1812. Anti-Semitism, as a wide ranging political movement never took hold in America and the few pernicious acts of Jew hatred were not long lasting, and for the most part, were the deeds of individuals against other individuals. The era of the “Gentleman’ s Agreement” did not murder Jews en masse. True, incidences did happen, the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, the nativist prejudice of the Ku Klux Klan and a collection of Nazi-like organizations and the anti-Semitism of the Rosenberg trial and maybe, the outright injustice of the Pollard case give rise to fear and the knee jerk reaction of Jews to national tragedies like the Kennedy assassination where, I am certain, many American Jews prayed deeply that the killer was not a Jew.
So, how do we adapt to the Israeli sabra mindset? How do we manage to be absorbed into the society here that, in so many ways, is not the Jewish style of living that we are accustomed too? The Jewishness of Israel is national and a majority culture when we, as former American Jews, have had to live as a tolerated minority? How many of us have had to explain our holidays to our friends, co-workers and neighbors? How do we as immigrants, become more Israeli? How do we develop our sabra-like character?
Maybe, instead of wanting to be sabras, that hardy desert cactus, we though, need to have those same qualities. Perhaps an American version that is also hard on the outside, yet sweet on the inside, G-d willing, our children and grandchildren will be sabras. But we, their parents and grandparents, need to have our own native born-like characteristic-hard on the outside, sweet on the inside. Something that reflects our American side-we also must be hard on the outside and sweet on the inside-like Tootsie Roll Pops.