Becoming Israeli…Without Making Aliyah

Fifteen years ago I radically changed my life.

Fifteen years ago I made aliyah to Israel.

Nothing could have prepared me for the adventure that lay ahead, the numerous ways in which I would be challenged, or the diverse ways in which I would change.

Looking back I can divide these 15 years into 3 distinct phases.

The first: the “I live in Israel!” phase.

The second: the “Becoming Israeli” phase.

The third: allow me to briefly explain the first two before getting to that.

“I Live in Israel!”

I imagine every oleh/olah (immigrant) to Israel goes through this phase. It’s characterized by a hyper-awareness of having made the incredibly historical decision to make aliyah and live in the Jewish state with Jewish people everywhere you go. It means being in awe of those thousands of little, and not so little, pieces and parts of Israeli society and culture that native Israelis either take for granted or don’t even notice.

It happens when you go to do errands, starting with going to the bank and realizing the teller is Jewish and then going to the post office and realizing also the worker there is Jewish and then stopping by the corner store and that guy is Jewish too!

It’s marveling at the fact that the garbage man who picks up your trash wears a kippah on his head.

It’s being simply amazed to see a security guard learning Talmud in his guard booth between checking people’s id’s or bags.

It’s being blown away to see a store owner, with a slick haircut, ripped jeans and tattoos, take 10 minutes out of his day, everyday, to put on tallit and tefillin and say the Shema.

It’s getting emotional seeing young soldiers walk the streets of Israel, forming the first official Jewish army in over 2000 years.

It’s stopping and standing for the siren on Yom HaZikaron and thinking and realizing and deeply feeling, “I am a truly part of the Jewish nation back in our homeland.”

“Becoming Israeli”

This second stage doesn’t ever fully replace the first phase because, let’s be honest, to some degree we olim will always have those “I live in Israel!” moments for the rest of our lives.

But this next stage begins with a growing awareness of how truly different Israeli culture is, progresses into a desire to acclimate and acculturate to (some of) the ways native Israelis live and peaks with an attempt, conscious or not, to fit in more to Israeli culture.

A few classic examples of “Becoming Israeli” are:

Trying, and then actually liking, cafe shachor (Turkish coffee). And eventually only drinking coffee from a glass.

Saying yes when the felafel guy asks if you want harif (spicy sauce) in your pita (even if you qualify that yes by saying, “but just a little”).

Trying to get rid of, or at least seriously dilute your thick American accent by practicing your “Reish” at home or in the car.

No longer practicing in your head how you are going to say something in Hebrew before you have to say it.

When hanging out with “real Israelis” and one of them makes a joke, you laugh along with everyone else. (That’s the best!)

Talking to your kids’ friends in Hebrew, no matter how many times they told you not to.

Leaving a parent-teacher meeting at your kid’s school and actually feel like you understand how he/she is doing.

A friend of one of your kids calls at 6 PM and asks if she can come over for a play date. And you say yes.

Starting to make couscous and marak (soup) for dinner.

Going to your youngest kid’s end-of-the-year gan party and actually (and finally!) knowing the words to many of the songs.

Passing 3 cars at once on the highway. (Even if in America you would rarely if ever pass one.)

Allowing your kids go on a 2 or 3 day hike with Bnei Akiva even though those in charge are only a few years older than your kids and don’t exactly know what they are doing.

While there are hundreds of more examples I could give for these first two phases, let’s move on to phase three, the main focus of this blog. I haven’t come upon the perfect name for it, but for now let’s call it:

“Wanting all Jews around the world to become Israeli…even if they don’t make aliyah!”

Allow me to explain.

Fifteen years of living in Israel has changed me. On the simple level, I have become more Israeli, the way any immigrant to any nation would naturally assimilate and acculturate to their new environs.

But it goes deeper than that. Slowly and subtly, I have realized that taking part in this historic chapter of the Jews returning home and reshaping ourselves into a nation has impacted me in ways I never expected, to the extent that I am not the same person, and not the same Jew, I was before.

Something profound happened when Jews from the four corners of the world started to return home after 2000 years and brought with them the customs and mannerisms, colors and cuisines they picked up and developed during their journeys in the Diaspora. Out of this convergence of Jewish global experiences a new kind of Jew was created, never before seen in our long and diverse history:

The Israeli.

And it is living amongst Israelis for the past 15 years that has simply changed my life. They’re loud. They’re proud. They’re real. They’re upfront. They’re funny. They’re friendly. They’re lovers of life. They’re passionate. They’re dedicated. They’re strong.

After 15 years of living in Israel, I can confidently say that making aliyah not only transported me to a new country, it transformed me into a new person. And while this never could have happened to the extent that it did without actually living in Israel, I believe that the qualities and traits that Israelis embody and exhibit can, at least partially, be taught, learned, and shared with the part of Am Yisrael that lives outside of Eretz Yisrael. To help them to also reap the benefits that have been born out of our return home and our return to nationhood, even if their permanent residence is found within the borders of another country.

Now, I’m not naive. I know that Israeli society is not perfect and has many areas in need of repair and improvement.  But I cannot allow that fact, which is true of every country, to cover up the myriad of ways in which Israeli society is one of the greatest Jewish societies to ever exist. It has returned strength and pride to the Jewish people and has helped to heal the wounds inflicted upon our people throughout our 2000 years of exile. It has formed the Jewish people into a nation again, allowing it to once again strive to fulfill its spiritual-national vision and mission.  And, most importantly for the purpose of this blog, Israel has become a living model for Jews in the Diaspora to better understand how as well as why to be Jewish and live a life inspired and informed by our national history, character and identity.

Allow me to briefly enumerate some of the ways.

Jewish Strength and Pride

Growing up in America, I was raised on a fairly constant dose of negative, and at times embarrassing, stereotypes about Jews. I was made to believe, both by the media and society in general, that what most accurately characterized my people was having big noses, being cheap and, above all, being weak. Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld were our heroes, our people’s representatives in mainstream American society (sorry, guys). Oy-veying and kvetching were our song. I feel bad saying this, but many of the Jews I knew and saw around me internalized these stereotypes.

In the world I grew up in, being Jewish was not a source of pride. It was something to hide or to downplay or to straight up ignore. It was something you were born with, like freckles or big ears. Jews were not strong and we didn’t think of ourselves as strong. We were meant to be the lawyers and the doctors of American society, not the soldiers and the blue collar workers who worked hard and with their hands. We didn’t fight; we avoided fights at all costs. In high school, the Italian kids and the Irish kids and the black kids fought. We watched. And if it was targeted at us, we ran as fast as we could.

Coming to Israel for the first time completely shattered that image and stereotype. For the first time in my life I saw Jews with not just political pull and financial power, I saw Jews with physical power as well. I saw Jews with real muscles! I saw Jewish soldiers who were trained to defend and, if necessary, to kill those who tried to kill us. But beyond those externalities, I saw Jews who were not afraid. Who would not back down when confronted by an external threatening force. Jews who wish they could go back in time, bringing their guns with them, and right the wrongs of the past by helping their defenseless ancestors protect themselves against their ruthless enemies.

In Israel I also saw an abundance of Jews who were proud to be Jews, to a degree I never saw in America. From Hasidim with long peyot to Tel Aviv hipsters with Magen David tattoos on their arms. It was like seeing a different Jewish people. A Jewish people who felt at home, who felt strong enough and secure enough to display their Jewish identity with pride in diverse and personalized ways.

In Israel, I have witnessed a people, my people, rise from the ashes, not just of the Holocaust, but of two millennia of an unceasing and violent oppression that taught us to master the skills of running away, of hiding, and of picking up the broken pieces and searching for a new home, but in no way to believe that we can rise up and defend yourself. In Israel, we rediscovered our ability to stand up for ourselves, to defend and to fight back when necessary. In Israel, we have restored our pride and our belief in ourselves.

This strength is obviously a necessary survival skill that Israel developed given the neighborhood our Promised Land is located in. But it also represents a return to normalcy on the physical and mental levels that all nations possess, one that our nation lost somewhere along the way in our long exile. This is a skill, a stature and a state of mind that Jews in the Diaspora would also benefit from developing more and integrating into their lives and into their Jewish identity.

Rosh Gadol

A little story.

I was with a group of students at a hostel across from the Dead Sea. We woke up at 4 in the morning to take the 15 minute bus ride to Masada so that we can start climbing the mountain and make it to the top in time for sunrise. Everything was going according to plan. All 50 of us were on the bus ready to go. We drove a 100 meters and arrived at the gate of the hostel, which was supposed to open for us automatically. But it didn’t. The driver tried backing up and approaching the gate again a few times, but each attempt proved unsuccessful. I started to freak out as I sat in the front seat of the bus, thinking that this delay was going to cost us arriving to the top of Masada in time for the sunrise, a highlight of our program. I was complaining. I was stressing. I didn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile, without me even noticing, my 23-year old madrich (counselor) who was fresh out of the army, had made his way off of the bus, over to the gate and was fiddling with some wires. After a few minutes, that fiddling opened the gate and we were on our way. Sunrise saved.

That moment had a huge impact on me as it was one of my first encounters with what Israelis call being a “Rosh Gadol”.

Rosh Gadol”, literally translated as “Big Head”, is a phrase in Israel that describes a person who is forward thinking , who takes initiative, who does something before even being asked to.

This value and trait is something that is taught in the youth movements of Israel, as teenagers are given responsibility to run their chapters, organize events and lead days-long hiking and camping trips.

It’s revisited and further strengthened when Israeli teens don the uniform of the IDF and dedicate the next few years of their lives to their country. They are taught the value of not waiting around to be told what to do, to always have your eyes open to how you can help out and be of service.

And this value stays with Israelis for the rest of their lives, influencing how they act in their jobs, in the boardrooms and on the streets, in their communities, and in their families. Being a “rosh gadol” is at the core of Israel’s hi-tech success as workers search for answers to problems yet unsolved, including problems others around the world deemed unsolvable. This is the root of the Israeli custom of tinkering and improvising and making things happen simply because they have to.

Hebrew

Upon making aliyah, I had a working Hebrew vocabulary of about three words: “Imma”, “Abba” and “kelev”. So I went to ulpan, twice in fact, and embarked on an adventure to improve my Hebrew which, while sometimes frustrating, was absolutely fascinating. During those first few years in Israel, wherever I went, whether walking the streets or sitting on a bus, my ears were open and listening to the conversations happening all around me to better understand how the natives spoke. How they constructed their sentences; which words they chose to use and how they pronounced them. While doing this, I would often pause and marvel at the fact that I was hearing Hebrew at all. That the Jewish people were speaking in their native tongue once again.

The modern return of Jews to the Hebrew language is no less of a miracle than the return to our land. Language is the heart and soul of a people. And while it is absolutely incredible that we succeeded in preserving our ancestral language in prayer books and holy texts for 25 centuries, 2500 years of not actually speaking it added greatly to the already grand disconnect we Jews experienced throughout our exile.

Hebrew is not just another language. It is our language. It is our unique linguistic medium through which to express ourselves specifically as Jews in this world. I don’t know how to exactly explain it, but to me almost anything said in Hebrew sounds, well, better, more eloquent, smarter. When I hear native Israelis speak Hebrew fluently and fluidly, in their beautiful accents, it sounds to me like they’re reciting poetry or speaking words of Torah (even if they’re just ordering a pizza!).

I believe that Jews speaking Hebrew again has had a profound impact on the nation’s psyche and identity, even on our national soul. The Hebrew language is obviously intimately and inherently Jewish and Jews speaking it again brings back an important missing piece of who we uniquely are in this world, contributing a powerful and important piece to the creation of the modern Israeli Jew.

And that’s why I believe it’s so important for Diaspora Jews to learn to speak Hebrew. To experience, like Israelis, the personal, national and spiritual benefits of the modern revival of our ancient tongue. To feel the pride of being able to not just read but also understand the words of the prayer book, the Tanach and other Jewish texts, or a modern piece of Israeli literature. To be able to speak the same language our ancient ancestors spoke before we were exiled for the first time two and half millennia ago. And, equally as important, to be able to better communicate with Jews living in Israel today, who represent almost half of world Jewry, possibly helping to lessen the widening gap that exists between Israeli and Diaspora Jews in our generation.

Tradition 

Growing up in America in a large Jewish secular community that was located close to an even larger Orthodox and Haredi community, I saw the Jewish world as being divided into two distinct and disparate parts: religious and not. It was a binary reality of either being strongly connected to the Jewish tradition and lifestyle in its multiplicity of ways, or being mostly if not completely disconnected and disinterested in a life rooted in Jewish tradition; essentially being an American with a Jewish last name. There was no real middle ground and those two worlds never intersected or interacted.

Then I became religious and moved to Israel. At first, my wife and I lived on a moshav populated by Moroccan Israelis, which itself was an intense change from my New York Ashkenazi reality. On my first Shabbat there, I went to the one (Orthodox) synagogue on the moshav and saw grandfathers sitting with fathers sitting with their sons, praying in the traditional Sephardic style. Boys prayed with tallitim over the shoulders, kissed the Torah when it was brought out of the ark and listened respectfully to the rabbi as he shared thoughts on the weekly Torah portion.

Later that day as my wife and I took a walk around the serene moshav, I saw those same boys speeding through the streets on their ATV’s and motorcycles. I was dumbfounded. Weren’t they shomer Shabbat? Just a few hours ago they were kissing the Torah! How could they break Shabbat so openly and knowingly?

That was my introduction to the middle ground that many, if not most, Israelis identify with. Not entirely religious and not completely secular. Connected to Jewish tradition and respectful of Jewish ritual and custom, the average non-religious-but-connected Israeli lights Shabbat candles, sits down with family every week for a Friday night meal, fasts on Yom Kippur, builds a sukkah on Sukkot and a bonfire on Lag B’Omer, would never eat hametz on Pesach, has studied a fair amount of Tanach (Hebrew Bible) and has a strong built-in awareness of the annual cycle of Jewish holidays. This creates a strong sense of Jewish identity for non-Orthodox Israelis that is unparalleled in the Diaspora.

With approximately 90% of American Jewry not defining themselves as Orthodox, and with high and rising rates of intermarriage and assimilation, this Israeli attitude and approach to Jewish tradition and practice could greatly strengthen their Jewish knowledge, connection, and also pride, even if living a mainly secular lifestyle.

Of course it’s much easier to feel Jewish and live Jewish in Israel, the land of abundant (and delicious) kosher food, a country with a nation-wide awareness of Shabbat and with national holidays that parallel the Jewish holidays. But this idea of not needing to choose between one extreme or the other, fully religious or fully not, but being able to add aspects and elements of Jewish life into one’s lifestyle is of great benefit to individual Jews, Jewish families and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora.

Tikkun Olam 

The emphasis placed on the ancient Jewish value of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is not unique to Israel alone. Many Jews in the Diaspora, especially in America, see it as one of the most important pieces of their connection to the Jewish tradition. And rightfully so as it is one of the strongest foundational and fundemental components of Judaism.

But in Israel tikkun olam has come alive in a way never seen before in Jewish history. Now that we are back in our land, which originally was given to Avraham and the Jewish people in order to place us at the center of the world and thereby have the greatest possible influence on human society, we can dedicate more of our energy to helping the world become a better place. Now that we have our own government and army to protect us, and using the tools and capabilities of our modern day, Jews in Israel can invest more of their time and resources in coming up with solutions to the world’s most pressing problems and issues, whether in the field of medicine, agriculture, energy or the environment.

David Ben Gurion himself, Israel’s first Prime Minister, referred to the creation of the State of Israel as “a great historic privilege, which is also a duty…in helping to solve the central problems of humanity.” It seems as if the Jewish people, the Land of Israel, and tikkun olam are triangularly interconnected and interdependent.

And that’s exactly what is happening in Israel. A start-up nation that is continously challenging itself to develop new technologies and innovations that will improve people’s lives both in Israel and around the world. Turning our attention towards fulfilling the ancient Jewish vision of being a “light unto the nations” as has never been seen before. And having the holy chutzpah to believe that we can.

Conclusion

Israel is not just a land. It is not just a country. It is a space for the Jewish people to become themselves once again. It is a laboratory for us to experiment, to be creative and to be thoughtful in how we live our lives and why we live our lives the way we do, as Israelis, as Jews, and as human beings. And though, of course, Israel and Israelis are not perfect, they are an incredible work-in-progress that everyday blends the ancient and the modern into a lifestyle that is informed and inspired by the past and reaches forward into the unknown and open future.

This excitement, this strength, this beauty and this pride are what makes Israel such a powerful reality. And to share this with our fellow Jews around the world in the Diaspora is to fulfill the vision of the early Zionist leader, writer and thinker, Ahad Ha’Am, who yearned for the creation of a mercaz ruhani, a spiritual center, in Israel that would inspire the Jews around the world to be, well, more inspired Jews. To become stronger, prouder, and more in tune with the character and the soul of the Jewish people.

In effect, to become Israeli, even without making aliyah.

About the Author
Akiva Gersh is the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (www.becomingisraeli.com), a compilation of blogs and essays that speak of the inspiring and the sometimes wacky and crazy experience of making aliyah. Akiva himself made aliyah in 2004 with his wife Tamar and they live in Pardes Hanna with their four kids. He teaches Jewish history at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod HaSharon. He is also a musician and in 2010 formed Holy Land Spirit, an uplifting and spiritual musical experience for Christian groups visiting Israel.
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