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Becoming Israeli: A life of meaning

On the inevitable and essential ups and downs of aliyah that build a life of meaning

People ask me all the time why I made aliyah.

Israelis especially. They think I’m crazy — giving up an easy life in LA, a block away from Coffee Bean, around the corner from the park, five minutes from the mall and Target.

Many Americans, too.

And the fact is, I had an easy life — but being here in this country – choosing Israel — is a meaningful life.

OK, the truth is, this place isn’t easy and becoming an Israeli is a work in progress.

And I will tell it to you:

For one thing, there is no routine. There is no quiet — even in the middle of the night, there’s an energy to this place, that makes it alive and thrumming.

Israel is a work in progress — a history in the making, shaped by a history that was, and our hopes for the history we will create.

And maybe that’s what I love about being in Israel most of all — being part of a living, striving and insistently thriving history.

The truth of this place is in the details — in the individual stories that shape this country.

Every one of our stories matters here as we come together as a nation. We are more than just the constant fear of nuclear weapons. It isn’t just the constant threat of terrorism. It isn’t just the looming reality of the army. Israel is more than a headline or a soundbite or a paragraph in a speech on foreign policy.

And, yes, while these stories are informed by the very real existential challenges we face as a people surrounded by so many who hate us –like, really and truly want us dead — we also face the same triumphs and challenges that people all over the world face.

It’s funny — not funny ha ha funny but funny sad — that there is a microscope on this country digging deep into the minutia — I mean, let’s be real, no country in the whole entire world has been more dissected than Israel.

But it’s only a tiny part of Israel that is analyzed like this — like one single paragraph in an entire epic poem, or a corner of a giant tapestry. And the rest of the details that make up the bigger picture — the details that can unite all of us instead of divide are overlooked.

These are the details of daily life, and maybe you can relate:

Like worrying about rent.

Or laughing with family over the dinner table.
Or the kindness of a neighbor bringing over a basket of tangerines.
Or dealing with a leaky roof in the middle of a winter storm.
Or worrying about your kids

I’ll never forget a chilly afternoon in November 2012. I was eating hummus in Ramle.

Before I go any further, let me tell you about Ramle. Ramle is awesome. It’s a small city where Jews, Muslims, and Christians live and work and eat hummus together like it ain’t no thang. There are no CNN news cameras here because let’s be real: coexistence is, like, super boring.

So that’s where I was — at Samir’s Restaurant in Ramle where the owner is Christian, the guy in the kitchen making the hummus is Muslim, the waitstaff are all Jewish, and the customers? From all walks of life, and from all religious backgrounds.

It was lunchtime — I was eating kabab, hummus, pita, those really delicious sour pickles. To my right was a couple speaking in Hebrew. To my left, two women in traditional Islamic headdress.

Jalil, the owner’s son brought out a tray with small plates of falafel “al ha bayit” — on the house. And we ate inside where it was warm.

The TV was on in the background as we ate. A reality show. Or maybe sports news.

And then, suddenly, the TV got louder. A lot louder. Jalil had turned up the volume because a story was breaking: In response to extensive missile fire from Gaza pounding the hell out of southern Israel, The IAF had just assassinated a known Hamas terrorist.

We all knew what this would mean.

And while the news played out on the TV — picture after picture of the rockets falling from both sides, we diners sat together, shaking our heads and asking — in Hebrew and in Arabic —

“When is this going to end?”

Now, I live in a place that is just far enough away from the Gazan border to be in a safe zone. Sure, Gaza could hit us, but they’d rather use those missiles on places like Tel Aviv, where they can do more serious damage.

But still, we felt it.

The ground would shake.
And then, the sky would rattle with the sound of a fighter jet and my son would twirl like F16, his arms outstretched.
But my daughter was more wary.
“There are a lot of planes today, Mama.” my daughter said.
And there were. Israel was at war.

And then, just a short 18 months later, we had another war — this one REALLY shook us, because I was wrong before. Hamas wasn’t just sending rockets to big targets — they were hitting everywhere they could.

For the whole entire summer, we slept with our shoes on, with one eye open, when the sirens would wail, we would run for our lives, over dry earth, to our public bomb shelter.

I’ll never forget the second time we had to run. I had my daughter in my arms because she was sick that day, and my son was running as fast as his sweet little legs could carry him, but he fell, screaming, crying on the dry earth when, suddenly, out of nowhere, someone I had never seen before — surely a neighbor — doubled back, swooped my son up, and we all of us ran the rest of the way.

We made it on time. And the rocket landed in a field close enough to smell the smoke and scorched earth.

There were pieces of shrapnel scattered across the field we had run through earlier — the field where my son fell and I couldn’t carry two children at the same time.

We still have nightmares. A low frequency hum, and it feels like wild birds are beating their wings in my chest.

My kids don’t sleep with their shoes on anymore, but they line their shoes up by the door.

“Why don’t you come home?” my friends and family ask me back in LA.

But this IS home. Moving to Israel was a choice — and I choose it every single day. And it was a choice made from love and trust, with no small measure of insanity thrown in.

I fell in love with this country the summer I was 16, and I have dreamed of living here ever since.

But I’ll be real with you: It wasn’t easy.

Grocery shopping, for example. I remember wanting to make a birthday cake for my daughter:

And during that first year, grocery shopping in Israel was a nightmare. It must be what dementia feels like — everything looks poignantly familiar. From a distance, the colors make sense, the layout is almost what you would expect, but then, you turn a corner, and bam — another dimension. The canned goods are in the same place as the vegetables and fruit. The Cheerios are on one end of the store, the oatmeal on the other. And there are three aisles of crackers and chips and snack type things. But no salsa.

It almost feels like tugging the hand of a woman you are absolutely sure is your mom, and then realizing that you’re mauling a stranger.

Midway through the juice aisle, I started hyperventilating.

By the time I reached the baking goods aisle, I was almost in tears.

There were seven different kinds of flour — all labeled in Hebrew. I couldn’t find the baking powder, and while I was looking for the vanilla extract, I knocked over a jar of colorful sprinkles — the plastic container split open, spilling thousands of tiny rainbows to the floor, while an old man came over with a broom and began to sweep.

“I just want to bake a cake for my daughter’s birthday,” I sobbed half in Hebrew, half in English.

He rolled his eyes and gave me a look as if to say, “Lady, you think you’ve got problems? I was in the Palmach when the road to Jerusalem was cut off and we almost starved to death!”

“Take!” he said. And he handed me a blue cake mix box.

“And take this, too,” he added, handing me a bottle of rainbow sprinkles. “I think you need a rainbow.”

And then there were more serious challenges that put things in perspective: Like being in an Israeli hospital.

My son got really sick.

It didn’t look like a “stam virus,” either — his skin was grey, and he lay over my shoulder, clammy and damp

We went to the clinic, and they sent us to the ER, and an infusion later, the doctor thought it would be prudent to keep him overnight in the hospital.

There were two other women in the room with me — a woman with her head covered with a flowered scarf who recited Psalms over her sleeping child, and a woman from Belarus who listened to Russian gangsta rap through tinny headphones while holding her febrile child.

Hours in a hospital are meaningless, and we measured time by the doctors’ rounds and what food appeared on the plastic trays. Strawberry yogurt and a stale roll? Must be morning. Tepid vegetable barley soup and a half a schnitzel sandwich? Lunch. Flaccid chicken breast and rice with corn? Dinner.

We understood without words, but with tired smiles that whoever’s child was sleeping was in charge of getting coffee for the rest of us, and so we rocked our babies in that little room while we waited for the next doctors’ visit or the next meal.

Kol Yisrael arevim ze-la-zeh,” — “all of Israel is responsible for one another,” the young mother from Belarus told me in Hebrew as fractured as mine.

The religious mother nodded and handed us each a cup of water.

We celebrated milestones: No vomiting for 10 minutes. No vomiting for an hour. First sips of water. First bites of food: Tiny victories that left us flushed with hope. Tethered to our babies, who were tangled with IV wires, we took care of each other. I think I learned more Hebrew in those few days than I had learned in an entire lifetime of Hebrew school.

And I certainly learned more about what it means to be part of the greater Israeli family.

Kol Yisrael Arevim ze-le-zeh” — All Israel is responsible for one another. Sometimes we forget — in between our differences that divide us. In between the way we see things, and the way we bicker. But really, we’re all just people, wanting our kids to be OK — and when we can see clear to that, we will show up for one another with no questions asked.

AND THAT EXPERIENCE WAS a wake-up call though — that life is precious, and it’s left me on edge — on edge where you appreciate things differently, where the view is breathtaking.

An edge that Israelis live on all the time.

But it took getting used to.

And that first year, wow, that first year, I wouldn’t wish that first year on anyone.

But… Thank God for it. It was culture shock therapy, learning to swim in the deep end, where to find new meaning in all the little things that come with living, like a night out with friends, or a really good cup of coffee, or a perfect sunset over the darkening sea.

And at a certain point, right around the time my marriage imploded, I made a choice to remember how much I loved this place.

It happened on the way into work — it was early morning and I was on the bus from Ramle to Jerusalem… and that moment when you’re sitting on a bus and Joan Osborne’s “What if God was one of us” is playing on the radio and on your left is a religious Jewish woman and on your right is an Arab man, and they were both half-humming, half-singing along, and…. Wow. It hit me — maybe it was exhaustion, or the exhaust fumes. But it hit me as the sun streamed in that Egged bus chugging through the hills to Jerusalem: This is where I want to be. This place that’s so complicated, so nuanced, so freaking awesome. Because we’re all figuring out a balance in this place that three major world religions hold so dear — sometimes the harmony is exquisite, like that day on the bus. And sometimes you have to take a deep breath and deal with the challenges that come with strong feelings.

But each day, I find something else to love about this place.

Like the fact that just before Passover, some random woman at the bus stop invited me to spend the holiday her.

Or, like the fact that you can get lost in Old City of Jerusalem — it can happen quite easily when you wend your way through the alleys that lead back to that same place where you were moments before, when the light filters through the cracks in the stones in ways that turn back time a millennium and when the fragrances of resin and honeyed apple smoke from the hookah pipes waft around you. It can happen when you wonder what language to ssspeak — when the church bells toll and the call of the muezzin surrounds you, and a young family skips past you singing in Hebrew.

Or, like the fact that the nation grinds to a halt to remember our fallen soldiers. Like literally, grinds to halt. A siren wails across the country. Imagine the too-many screams of every mother, father, sister brother, uncle, aunt and cousin, of every wife of every husband of every child of every best friend who stood before an open grave and thought seriously for a split second about jumping in. Imagine these screams mixed down into one keening wail.

Arguments stop mid-sentence. Coffee cups are placed down mid-sip. A joke breaks at the punchline. Even the children stop playing, their bodies eerily still on the playground, stiller than the trees that grow deep into the ground, branches swaying against the sky. Every car pulls to the side of the road, and we stand to remember those who have given their lives for this country so that we may live.

In Israel, I am espresso and bitter chocolate. I am whiskey neat and messy hair. I am catching rides and flying past fields on a purple bicycle.

I am climbing fig trees with my kids.

I am zeros and I am ones, phone calls at 2 a.m., I am notes typed in the middle of the night — up too late to make it to brunch in the morning — but there’s always time for coffee or a drink, and chocolate croissants with the kids.

I am 18 browser tabs open at one time. I am a teal moleskin journal and a pen given to me at a train station.

I am the woman behind the camera, not in a frame.

I am working, digging, building, and tearing down to start all over, to make it better, to repair and piece together — building a home worth staying in that may never exist.

I am exhilarated. (I am exhausted.)

In Israel, I am am the journey, not the destination.

Yes, I love this place — for all these reasons and so many more.
Not that there are not challenges:

My ex-husband and I share custody of our kids — I live in caravan next to an amazing view of rolling fields and big huge sky.

But the walls are thin. And the roof leaks.

And sometimes, I have to climb up on a chair and patch holes in the ceiling.

Or deal with plumbing issues.

Or kill a snake that’s trying to get into our house.

And while I love living here, while I find meaning in my life here, there are challenges that come with being an immigrant mother without any family here besides my kids.

Everyone here knows that any single income in Israel begins in overdraft and works its way down from there. And for three very long, very scary weeks, my kids and I were homeless in the homeland. At first, I was too ashamed to tell anyone, and since it was still summer, we slept in a tent and it was kind of an adventure.
But then, it got darker earlier. The winds picked up. It started to rain, and I realized I couldn’t do it on my own.

And I didn’t have to. Because that’s the beauty of this country.

Israel is a nation of immigrants who basically understand that it isn’t always easy because even if we haven’t lived the challenges personally, our parents have. Or our grandparents.

And in many ways, this culture is shaped by this reality along with the existential threats we face. Because we face challenges to our existence, because some nights rocket sirens go off and the ground shakes while our children cry and we scramble toward a safe room, there’s a very palpable sense that we have to have each other’s back.
And we do.

Like the summer of 2014, when Israel got pounded by mortar fire from Gaza, families in the north opened their homes to take in strangers for the weekend until things calmed down. And when Hezbollah forces pound the north, families in the south will return the favor. Because that’s how we roll.

People will help. People open their doors whether it’s to a struggling new immigrant and her children, or whether it’s people fleeing for their lives.

We may nearly come to blows over politics, we may nearly come to blows over the religiousness of this country, we may nearly come to blows over a parking space at Azrieli, but at the end of the day? We will feed each other. We will open our homes to one another. We will stand together in solidarity to remember those who cannot stand with us anymore.

And I’m so glad that my kids are growing up with these values.

Now, I’ll tell you the truth, parenting kids in a different culture and a different language can be really hard.

When I was a kid, my parents were ALL over me to do well in school. Hell, my mom would help me write my history essays. I remember we would sit together in her office, wrapped in a cloud of cigarette smoke and patchouli incense and she would break out Howard Zinn or Ken Burns.

“Saraleh,” she’d tell me while my fingers would fly over the keyboard “write this down. It’s important.”

And I know that it isn’t going to be this way with my kids. I can’t micromanage my children academically in another language. Which means they’re learning how to be independent without being taught how to be independent. And this is a beautiful thing — and a gift I m not sure I could give them if we were living on my home turf in Los Angeles.

In fact, my daughter — she’s 9 — has to sometimes fill in gaps for me. Like a during Israel Independence Day last year, all the kids in her class were given a chart with various markers of independence that they were to check off as they accomplished them: Like, “I can brush my own teeth.” Or “I can get dressed without any help.” She handed me the chart, and she told me to read it to her.

And that moment when you have to tell your daughter that you can’t read Hebrew, and she says “that’s OK, Mama, I’ll help you. We’ll read it together.”

And we did.

And then there are challenges that come with raising kids who are facing a very different reality than the one you faced: My children are going to be wearing army fatigues one day — and there is nothing I want less than that. But at the same time, it’s a reality that we face here.

And because of this, you have to parent differently.

It was so freaking obvious in the beginning that I was fresh off the boat. You could see it in my parenting, in the way my eyes darted, looking for dangers that don’t exist. They could see it In the way I clutched my daughter’s hand when we would walk down the sidewalk.

They knew it in the 18 trips we took to the health clinic during our first month.

They knew it in the way I would follow my daughter up the jungle gym.

And even though it was only like one foot off the ground, I would cling to her shirt lest she get too far from me and tumble 12 inches to the cushioned floor below.

They knew it in the way I’d bathe my kids in hand-sanitizer.
OK, I’ll admit, even by American standards, I was a hysterical parent.

So, Israel was a shock to the system.

Kids share popsicles outside the convenient store. They eat stuff off the ground. Five-year-olds walk to preschool BY THEMSELVES. They climb the jungle gym without their parents standing right next to them and telling them to be careful, to come down right this minute. Children as young as 7 play outside late into the night. There’s a fluidity, a flexibility, a focus on being independent and learning how to manage without an adult to tell you what to do.

In other words, living in Israel was like serious immersion therapy for me.

“Yiheh Beseder, it will be OK” is the mantra that most parents in Israel murmur when their kids take off for parts unknown.

The thing is, back in LA I wasn’t the lone mothership hovering over her child. There were others, like me — other middle class mamas raised in the generation of Adam Walsh where Very Bad Things could happen. And while the rational part of us knew that these Very Bad Things rarely do happen, just the threat of them is enough to ingrain in us the understanding that the world is a scary place.

But in the States, I had it easy. Even in LA, where police helicopters are more plentiful than stars in the smoggy night sky, things are pretty safe. I never thought twice about getting on a bus. I never looked at backpack lying at an empty table at starbucks and wondered if there was a bomb inside.
But things are different in Israel. Almost everyone here has been touched by tragedy. And maybe that’s why parents raise their kids to be more badass. Because they have to.

And at some point, I have learned to let go. . I’ve learned had to say “screw it;” my kids are Israel. And if they’re going to survive here — to bravely embrace life in spite of my neuroses — then I need to let go.

But it’s a one day at a time kinda thing, making teeny tiny baby steps toward Israeli normalcy. My kids tumble down the slide by themselves. And when they fall — which they do — they learn the limits of their bodies and gravity. My kids go barefoot on the grass. And when they get stuck with a prickle — which happens — they learn to watch where they’re going. My kids negotiate their own space and their own autonomy. And when they disagree — which is often — they learn how to defend themselves.

So there you have it.

And yet, … There was a recent poll that Israelis are some of the happiest people on earth.

Huh? That, like, makes NO sense. how can it be that the citizens of this tiny, embattled nation surrounded by enemies, hated by so much of the rest of the world, living with the looming reality of mandatory army service, dealing with the very real fears that surface when a war breaks out, where bitching about The Conflict – capital T capital C – is a way of life, how can it be that Israelis are so damn happy?
For precisely these reasons: Let me explain. There’s this old Jewish folkstory about the poor man who lives with his seven kids in a tiny hut in a small town. The kids are getting bigger. The house isn’t.

So the man goes to the rabbi and he says to the rabbi, “rabbi what do I do? There’s no room for anyone to
move in our tiny house.” T

The rabbi tells him to bring in the family goat. Of course the man is even more miserable with the goat milling around and knocking stuff over and eating the bed sheets. So when the man goes back to the Rabbi, the Rabbi tells him to bring in ANOTHER goat, and then another, until the man is so overwhelmed and so miserable that he can’t take it anymore.

“What do I do, Rabbi? The house is sheer chaos!”

“Take out the goats,” the rabbi tells him.

The next day the man comes back and thanks the rabbi because – THANK GOD! – the house is quiet, the house is calm…

It all comes down to context, and it can always be worse.

Well, Israel has a lot of goats running around this country: Wars. Missiles. Terror. Life and death crises that sends our adrenaline through the roof, our pulses raising to the whoop of the sirens.

Not to mention all the other challenges that we face living here liking housing costs, and traffic, and breaurocracy … or the personal stresses informed by all of these, but unique to our own lives.

But as stressful as this all is, it does offer perspective, just like that flash of fear I felt when my son was so sick, and while we are all on a slow boil much of the time, just waiting for something to tip the balance, it also allows us to seek life, to seek the simple pleasures like drinks with our friends by the lip of the sea, or an afternoon spent with a good book and a good cup of coffee. Living like this makes us prone toward hugging harder and laughing louder because, hey, we’re here now, and who knows what tomorrow will bring.

It also makes us resourceful – in a profound and meaningful way. But that’s part of our birthright, isn’t it?

As we know in Parshat Toldot, Esau sold his birthright to Jacob – because Jacob was resourceful, Jacob took what he had – his intelligence, his creativity, and he leveraged it. And that’s what we do in Israel – that’s why

But despite all of this – despite living in a place where you’re trained from babyhood to notice an unattended bag at a café which could be a bomb, or a man or wwoman wearing a heavy jacket in the height of summer who could be a suicide bomber, we aren’t this weird bizarre death wish people – we have a life wish, which is why we came here. To get our hands dirty and be part of building this incredible nation from scratch.

I’m not going to BS you – there is a lot of work to do. We are a really really REALLY young country. We became a state in 1948 – within our parents lifetime. And as a nation of immigrants where people have come from all sides of the globe, we’re hugging and wrestling with what it means to be an Israeli, and we don’t always agree. We question. We challenge. And in these disagreements, we grow.
Basically by choosing to live here means choosing to really reach in and take on the challenges that comes with helping create a new country.

While dealing with some very real existential threats that shape the way that we handle stress.

Besides the staggering cost of living, there’s another reason why Israelis are so often living in the minus: We live for today because straight up, we don’t know if there will be a tomorrow.

Another reason why we’re happy? Because life here has meaning. Our national narrative means that simply living in the state of Israel and making it through any given day is meaningful.
Our national anthem is called “HaTikvah” – the Hope – and that sums it up. Israelis are hopeful, as we deal with all of these challenges.

And? Anyone living here has to be an optimist – sure, we can be cynical, and most Israelis are, but we also see the possibilities of this place which is why we move here, which is why we stay.

And I hope you’ll join me next week on Sunday, July 23 at 8:00 pm at Cafe Nocturno in Jerusalem when we talk more with Akiva Gersh, editor of Becoming Israeli, and contributors Yossi Klein Halevi, Benji Lovitt, Hilary Faverman, and Chaya Lester, about their experiences in this country.  

About the Author
Sarah Tuttle-Singer, author of Jerusalem Drawn and Quartered and the New Media Editor at Times of Israel, She was raised in Venice Beach, California on Yiddish lullabies and Civil Rights anthems. She now lives in Israel with her two kids where she climbs roofs, explores cisterns, opens secret doors and talks to strangers, and writes stories about people. Sarah also speaks before audiences left, right, and center through the Jewish Speakers Bureau, asking them to wrestle with important questions while celebrating their willingness to do so. She also loves whisky and tacos and chocolate chip cookies and old maps and foreign coins and discovering new ideas from different perspectives. Sarah is a work in progress.