I entered fourth grade in Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, the Jewish day school where I’d been spending my days since age three. The school stood at the center of a close-knit and supportive community where my parents were well-loved and respected members. I was the top of my class, appreciated by classmates and teachers alike.
Then, in December of that year, my family made aliyah.
I entered kitah daled in Beit Sefer Takhkemoni of Rehovot just four days after landing in Israel. My parents were told it would be best to get us started in school as soon as possible. No ulpan for fourth-graders; we were thrown in the water and expected to swim.
I did not swim very well.
I was just shy of 10 years old at the time… shy being the operative word. Introverts are, to quote author Yael Unterman, a persecuted minority in Israel, and my classmates did not know what to do with me. I was afraid to talk to them, and they interpreted my shyness as snobbishness. One new classmate made me a welcome package with some small gifts and a sweet letter. We lost touch after graduating elementary school, but I hope she knows how much her kindness meant to me in those days.
I have a memory of breaking down in tears during morning prayers in my first week or so. My classmates asked me what was wrong and I didn’t know how to tell them — and not just because of the language barrier. I was homesick and scared and felt so utterly lonely and lost. I had gone from being a bright, well-loved student to the strange new girl no one knew how to talk to, who sat in class reading novels in English instead of trying and failing to understand the teacher. (In retrospect, reading novels may have been better training for my eventual career anyway, but that’s another story.)
That first year, a blessed reprieve from the shambles of my social and academic life came in the form of a trip to the USA: my uncle was getting married, and we would spend a few weeks in Florida with my grandparents. I remember the sense of profound relief, walking out of the plane at JFK Airport, of suddenly being surrounded by English again. I hadn’t even realized how much mental strain I’d been under in a Hebrew-speaking environment even when I wasn’t trying to understand the conversations around me. Suddenly I was back in my Bubbie and Zadie’s house in New York, the place we’d had many of our Passover seders, and then I was back at Grandma and Grandpa’s house near Tampa, in the wicker-frame bed they’d had for me since before I could remember, snuggled under the soothing weight of the down blanket that was always waiting for me there. I was immersed in the comfort and familiarity I’d been craving so desperately for the preceding months. It was like stepping into a warm bath after many hours of trudging through a blizzard.
I had occasion in the past week to try to remember how I felt when it was time to leave and head back out into the storm.
My eldest son, aged 9, spent most of August in Denver with my in-laws. It was a magical summer for him, the first time he’d spent any significant time away from home without his parents and brothers, and his grandparents spoiled him rotten. He had many adventures, but more than anything, he was totally immersed in the endless love of my husband’s family. We knew that coming home would be rough for him; he’d had a difficult time readjusting last time we returned from a trip to the States.
I found myself sitting up with him at 2 a.m. on Tuesday night, stroking his hair, as he cried that he missed Grandma and Grandpa and they are a part of him and he feels like a part of him is missing. In his delirious, exhausted, jet-lagged state of grief, he rambled about what will happen when they die, about his fears about starting school, about his worry that he’d never fall asleep because he was so upset, but so very tired. “I know that if I stayed there we wouldn’t be able to do fun things every day,” he sobbed, “but I don’t care about that, what I really want is the love… I would have their love.”
I gently talked him through it, telling him that he was in pain now and he had to feel the pain before it would get better; reminding him that the people he loves will always be with him even when they’re not around. Saying that the love his grandparents have for him, and the happy memories he’d made that summer, were a part of him, and no one would ever be able to take them away from him. And yes, it hurts, it hurts so much, but isn’t it wonderful that we have people who love us that much, and who we love that much, that leaving them is so very difficult? Isn’t it wonderful that he had the opportunity to have all those amazing experiences and create those memories?
After about two hours, he finally calmed and was able to drift off to sleep. I stood there and watched his breath become shallow and rhythmic, drifting into my own memories. The sound of my grandma’s laugh and the scent of her perfume. The twinkle in my zadie’s eye and the feeling of his hand on my cheek. I, too, had to grow up across the world from them, and now they are gone.
As my husband drove my son home from the airport earlier that night, he told him that he had made the incredibly difficult choice to make aliyah on his own and live far away from his family, so that my son wouldn’t have to. So that when our children start families of their own, they will have their parents and brothers here, and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to live in the land where we belong without needing to fly halfway across the world to be with all the people who love them.
And as I watch my Israeli-born son enter kitah daled this year — confident, fluent in Hebrew, with pieces of his heart in America, but roots firmly planted in the soil that belonged to our ancestors — I am grateful, so very grateful, to my parents that they made that choice, too.