After years of telling people that I’m going to make Aliyah, I have finally done it. Some people have no problem leaving their families, countries and homes; some people might even be desperate to leave. But for me the idea of moving made me feel completely torn, which is why it took me so long to actually do it. My family in London is home. Israel is home. But however much I love and need my family, eventually it was time to make Aliyah.
While I was in Israel on holiday in November my aunt who’s lived here for years convinced me that an Ulpan programme would be the best way to integrate and settle into life in Israel. So I decided to apply for Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, starting in January 2014.
My last two months in London were so busy that throughout the Aliyah application process I barely had time to take in what I was doing – not the moving to Israel part, the leaving my home of 26 years part. In my head I was already living in Israel, but things happened that made the idea of leaving feel completely wrong and like the most selfish thing in the world. Every member of my family supported me though and convinced me to keep to my decision.
Just one and a half weeks before I made Aliyah I was at the embassy in London collecting my long-awaited visa and asking the Jewish Agency to book my flight.
No one knows what will happen in the future, except that there will always be challenges, but being an Olah Chadasha at this time feels right. I’ve been in Israel for just under two weeks but it feels more like two months – in a good way. It’s hard to imagine not being here and not knowing the people that I’ve met.
I had an idea what to expect as an Olah, and so far Israel has met my expectations, for the good and the bad!
On my first morning, I went with my Hebrew-speaking aunt to open a bank account – an experience which made me realise just how much I need Ulpan, as I’m still not quite sure what those 30 contracts that I signed were. The larger-than-life Russian lady who served me insisted on speaking in Hebrew because I’m an Olah, and would tell us off when my aunt whispered translations to me. But she wasn’t completely unreasonable; if there was anything I didn’t understand, she would explain it either in s-l-o-w-e-d down Hebrew, or in really bad English.
I was prepared for my room at the Ulpan to be a hole, but I admit it was still a shock at first. Even while I was whining about the fact that the shower was literally a curtained-off corner of the bathroom, and my bed was in the living-room area, and the mattress was hard; I was ashamed of my Spoilt London Girl attitude. So I braced myself and prepared to live like a tough Israeli, and showered in water that was barely warm, assuming cold showers is part of that culture shock everyone talks about; after all it’s Ulpan, not the King David Hotel! Only afterwards did I realise there’s a switch for the hot water..
After that, nothing seemed so bad. And now I am used to the mattress, and my room is spacious, and who needs a shower floor anyway, that’s why we have ‘spongas’.
On my second day as an Olah Chadasha I ventured out again to experience some more of the famous Israeli bureaucracy. I went to the Absorption Office to arrange the payment of my benefits, but didn’t have the right document from the bank. No problem, the bank is only 5 minutes away, all I need to do is go and get a statement. Except the bank was shut, because why should they be open after 2pm? So I went to the post office instead, to pay my Ulpan deposit. Why at the post office? Same reason as a lot of things in Israel: ככה. According to my ticket there were 236 people in front of me in the queue (it was tax day or something). So I went to the shuk, came back, and 45 minutes later it was my turn.
That evening I met the unofficial Ulpan Cat, which sneaked into my apartment when I wasn’t looking, and was waiting there to surprise me when I got back from dinner. Later on it gatecrashed a party in another apartment. Luckily for me, I like cats, just not so much when they appear out of nowhere in your apartment.
When I went to register for health insurance the next week, I was told to come back another day because of the length of the queue. Israeli-style, I refused to take no for an answer. I’d been in the country for a week and a half without insurance, I would not skip our morning programmes and classes, and this was the only day they were open in the afternoon. So they let me in. I wondered if these offices deliberately make everything difficult as a kind of initiation test for new Olim!
The Ulpan is in Talpiot Mizrach, East Jerusalem. So not only am I an Olah Chadasha living in Jerusalem, I am also a terrible right-wing fanatical Zionist settler. The area is so far out that unusually for Jerusalem, I’ve not done a lot of walking; so one evening my fellow settler-Olim friends and I decided to walk back from Nachlaot. It took about an hour and a half, and once we reached Talpiot started looking for stairs to use as shortcuts, as the roads double-up on each other because of the hills. One flight of stairs ended suddenly and we found ourselves walking down a steep hill with no path. It turned out to be one that I could see out of my window, and was always wondering whether the people I’d occasionally see on it were lost or hiking. Now I had my answer: both!
The Shabbaton we had in Ulpan had a brilliant atmosphere, and was all down to the Olim, and of course our excellent kitchen staff. Friday night was full of energy, singing and dancing (and a game that involved fighting over chairs and falling over a lot… apparently we are already channelling our inner-Israeli!)
Of course Ulpan is all about learning Hebrew, but there is so much more to learn if we want to really feel like Israelis.
So my advice to any new Oleh who is finding things difficult here: Have a cold shower. It really puts things in perspective!