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Confessions of a wannabe Zionist

This virile Israeli archetype fantasy was going to take care of me -- until it didn't and I had to forge my own path.
Detail of poster showing Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in the 1960 movie Exodus
Detail of poster showing Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan in the 1960 movie Exodus

“He was large and husky…his face was handsome, but there was a hardness in his eyes….He was Ari Ben Canaan”

My teenage cheeks turned red and I felt tingly all over as I read of the strong, emotionally intense hero of Exodus. Did Jewish men like Ari Ben Canaan really exist? So tough. So brave. So driven by conviction.

The suburban Jewish guys I went to school with didn’t measure up to the 6-foot tall freedom fighter, who risked his life to bring Jews from all over the world to Palestine. The only thing the guys in my class had to risk was getting caught smoking weed on the roof by their parents. But I didn’t waste time on drawing realistic comparisons. 

I dove deeper into books about Israel’s early years. I met the strong,  shirtless kibbutznik who worked the land with his bare hands, and young pioneer couples who “bore fruit from the orchards” and made passionate love on haystacks. I concluded that Israel was a place where people fell in love with the land and with each other. And I wanted all of that love.

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So I came to Israel as a naive 22-year old, and I did fall in love with the land. With the brightness, the open windows, the soft air, the snug personal space. The old, scratched surfaces which are a testament to our beginning, and the new metropolitan skyline that is proof of our survival. That we’ll keep re-inventing ourselves. We’ll keep rising.

I also fell in love with a man. Well, several men. But there was one in particular who felt like home. We got married and had three “Sabra” boys, all of whom are more Israeli than I’ll ever be.

Now, I can look back and say that it wasn’t Zionism in its purest form that brought me here 18 years ago. It was romantic Zionism. Maybe sexual Zionism is a better term. Only a force as powerful as sexual attraction could pull you halfway across the world, away from your friends, family and comfortable life.

But there were no romantic novels about what happens when love goes wrong in modern Zion. I had no page to turn to the night my 8-year marriage collapsed. I stood alone in my living room, the kids asleep upstairs. Immobilized by the fear, I just stared at the wall, wondering how I was going to get through the next stage of my life, alone. 

The climb back up from rock bottom was hard, and solitary.  I felt ashamed that I didn’t realize the risk I put myself in by getting married in a foreign country. In a country where the husband needs to approve the dissolution of the marriage for it to happen. I was forced to reinvent my whole identity as a newly single, divorced mother of three. That’s tough enough when there’s a sister around to hug, a mother who offers wisdom, a childhood friend to cry with. People who don’t need a synopsis of your life story to understand you. They just do. 

Israel’s Anglo community has grown tremendously. Unlike my first years in Israel, you hear English spoken everywhere you go. Not just in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. I meet young, single North American olim who are chasing the same love I was. They’re dating or living with Israeli partners. I listen as they tell me about their plans to move in together, to get married, to have their first baby. I can’t help but feel a pang of sadness and think “You may be hopeful now, but it’s going to get hard. And while others around you will have people to get them through those hard days, you will not. When you’re exhausted from being up all night with your teething baby. When you’re too sick with the stomach flu to take care of the kids, you won’t have a sister to lean on, a mother to roll up her sleeves and take over. You are going to have to be stronger than you think, so be ready.” 

In Facebook groups for English-speaking women in Israel, I found a community of more experienced, veteran immigrants. As a hopeless lurker, it amazed me just how many women in those groups post about their lives as divorced, single moms of 3,4 even 5 children.

I wonder if their longing for love and passion brought them here like me. If everything they wanted in life was also embodied in the heroic character of Ari Ben Canaan. And if they also learned, years later, that Aliyah isn’t just about falling in love with the land and a brave hero. It’s about discovering that it was you who was brave, tough and driven by conviction all along. 

About the Author
Leigh made aliyah from Toronto, Canada in 2001. She bumps and rolls through life as a divorced mom of three boys. When she's not busy trying to clean up the messes she gets herself into, Leigh spends most of her time at Google writing about how to use Waze. She loves chocolate and hates cats.
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