Most of us who have made aliyah over recent years, have been blessed to do so by our own volition. We represent the ‘aliyah of choice’ to quote the indefatigable Natan Sharansky, rather than the ‘aliyah of necessity’ born by antisemitism or other forms of hardship. Our integration into the country’s housing market, social fabric, military, and economic engine are made exponentially easier by programs geared towards new olim, as well as our country’s precocious coming of age.
Nevertheless, few of us are here because of improved economic opportunity or other tangible quality-of-life gain. Many of us work harder, for many more hours, and for significantly less money, than we did before. For those in the aliyah extremist club, who think every able-bodied Jew should be living in Israel (disclosure: I’m considering joining), this is dry economic reality, not an indictment of aliyah.
We are dreamers and idealists. We are here because we believe that the State of Israel is the most monumental event in modern Jewish history, and we wanted box seats to the show. We imagined our futures in the Jewish state, and our grand contributions to it. Â I, for one, thank God every day for the opportunity to be here, and cannot imagine how high my psychotherapy bills would be, if I ever had to leave Israel.
Yet, despite brief bursts of inspiration and validation (like the first time hearing your kids fighting in Hebrew), we most often live in pure survival mode. The tiger is poised to pounce, and we are living at threat level red. This is most evident in road traffic, where another car cutting us off, is the equivalent of vehicular castration. Some will recklessly endanger their own and others’ lives by playing chicken with oncoming traffic, in order to gain one car’s length of distance ahead. Witness also a typical ‘line’ (relative term in Israel) of people at the bank or post office. I always thought it would be neat to measure short-term heart attack rates of people who’ve been ‘jumped’ (or perceive to be) in line. Extreme psychological stress and sympathetic hyperactivity are known risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The greatest impact of survival mode living, is in the work realm. We go to extraordinary lengths in order to provide for our families, and in most cases, everything else is a distant second. My grandfather (may he rest in peace), came to Brooklyn, New York in 1960. He began work the day after disembarking from the Queen Elizabeth ship. He worked 17 hour days (beginning at 1 am), every day, at a frigid chicken factory, before coming home and preparing dinner for his family.
To compare our average degree of effort and labor to our grandparents or to earlier Israeli pioneers, is simply fallacious. They lugged chicken crates and drained malaria ridden swamps, while most of us sit at a computer. But the mindset of economic survival mode is very much present in us modern olim lives as well.
We may need (or think we need) more material comforts than our predecessors, but we too, are under mental economic siege. Salaries are relatively low and expenses high. We devote our intense cognitive efforts to paying the arnona, and rent, and kids’ after school activities bills. We take the jobs that best enable us to cover those costs, and toil most arduously within our work frameworks, to cover those bills.
Economic survival mode is valuable and necessary in that it enables fulfillment of our ‘physiological needs,’ a fundamental building block in Maslow’s hierarchy. It is the base of the pyramid, and no further building can occur in its absence. For my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor and uneducated man, building a family and providing for their physiological needs, was a heroic accomplishment. And he was rightfully proud of it.
Yet, many of modern olim survived just fine in New York and London and Paris. We came to Israel because we were not content being spectators. We came armed with fancy degrees and resumes, and we want to not only be present in Israel, but make it better. We are not satisfied sitting on the sidelines. We want to be prime time actors on this glorious stage of modern Jewish history. We want to be the best doctors and lawyers, and engineers and soldiers that this country has known. We want to be tech geniuses, and cutting edge scientists, so that we can catapult Israel to even greater heights, and be an even brighter light unto the nations. We want our children to get the best education, so that they will dream more imaginatively than us, and surpass our accomplishments.
So how do we reach the pinnacle of Maslow’s pyramid, ‘self actualization’ (read ‘national actualization’ AF)? We start climbing. We take our individual talents and abilities, and we develop a vision of what the pinnacle looks like. And then we never lose that focus. Not when we fall down, and not when clouds of hard reality blur our vision temporarily. Certainly not when pessimistic veterans tell us it can’t be done. Not even when battle-hardened, native Israelis do their best to stifle the dream out of experience driven cynicism.
Most of our contributions will pale in comparison to the modern giants, without who, the current State of Israel may look very different. Think Dayan, Sharon, Rabin, and Peres with regards to Israel’s defence, and Netanyahu with regards to Israel’s current economy. But neither are we tiny cogs in a machine so big, that we are individually without value.
Israel is still a young state, and its path in so many realms, is still unpaved. There is so much good work to be done and we have much to offer. Â Let us recall the passionate longing that drove us to make Aliyah, and intense desire to make Israel better. Let us, olim of choice, remember why we’re here, and develop the chutzpah to make it happen.
Let us remain dreamers and idealists. Let us move beyond survival mode, and focus on our pinnacle. In our home lives, in our jobs, and in our relationship to this tiny sliver of land that God has so graciously returned us to.