I moved to Israel 16 years ago. I’m still an olah – an immigrant – but I’m proud of it.
About six years ago, I attended a Yom HaZikaron ceremony in my community and found myself acutely aware of how disconnected I felt. While my Hebrew was good enough to understand what was said and sung, not having grown up in Israel meant that the nuance was lost on me. The songs were just songs. They did not trigger a particular memory. They did not bring me back to nights in the army or force me to recall comrades who had fallen. I have no brothers in arms. Even gazing upon my son, I did not feel the pang of knowing that he would one day don the uniform and risk it all for our people and our homeland. How could I fear? He was barely out of diapers.
The following year I attended a Yom HaZikaron ceremony conducted in English which highlighted the stories of six fallen soldiers all of whom were young people who had made aliya. As I sat in the amphitheater, surrounded by thousands of young adults who were spending a year in Israel just as I had two decades before, I felt a strong sense of belonging and community. Listening to the stories of OUR fallen, drove the message home, straight to the depths of my heart and soul.
Every year since, I’ve attended a ceremony in English. This year I went to the ceremony organized by the Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin which was held at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. I didn’t know Michael, but had we been a little closer in age, I would have. We grew up exactly the same – involved in the same youth movement, attended Camp Ramah, and we each spent a year in Israel on the Nativ program. Sitting at the ceremony, at the site of such a significant battle for Jerusalem where many lost their lives, and paying honor to the memories of so many others who paid the ultimate sacrifice, including Michael Levin, I felt such awesome pride. My 10 year old daughter sat next to me and this made me unbelievably aware of the truth to something I had read just before the ceremony while scrolling on Facebook, “I live my dream on the shoulders of their sacrifice.” I can not imagine myself anywhere else in the world raising my children. The people they are and the values they hold dear are uniquely Israeli.
The first member of my family to serve in the IDF is my niece. She was drafted two months ago after having spent last year in Israel on Aardvark Israel, the gap year program I direct, and then she decided to make aliya. I was beaming with pride when I, along with two of my kids, accompanied her on her induction day also at Ammunition Hill. She’s a bad-ass to be honest. She’s not quite five feet tall, yet she’s stronger than many guys her age. She is serving in a coed combat unit along the Egyptian border. She had Yom HaZikaron off from the army, so I took her out to lunch and as I listen to her talk about her training thus far, I was blown away. This 19 year old young woman is in the midst of weapons training, has run more in two months than I have in my entire life, and is still smiling despite the persistent lack of toilet paper on base (something I cannot comprehend – the army does a damn good job at protecting us but they can’t figure out the TP situation??) She could be in college, chilling with her friends, and worrying only about grades not about terrorists, but here she is.
In the evening, as Yom HaZikaron concluded and Yom HaAtzmaut began, I attended tefillot with hundreds of my neighbors in a celebration of our homeland, our people, our faith, and our freedom. The synagogue was draped in Israeli flags. The long vibrant flags hanging on either side of the aron hakodesh with the torahs inside, reminded me of two guards standing at attention protecting the royalty which lay beyond their post. The prayers were uplifting and joyous, with everyone dressed in white shirts, and the energy in the room was pure and powerful. But the most meaningful moment for me was singing Shir HaMaalot (Psalm 126) to the melody of our national anthem, Hatikva:
“When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, we were like people in a dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with exultation: then said they among the nations, The Lord has done great things for them.”
After the service concluded we all descended down to the basketball courts for the annual ceremony to mark the start of Yom HaAtzmaut. The beauty of our community shone through as the little kids danced and waved their flags, a teenager and an adult together MC’ed the show, and a great-grandmother shared her story of having survived the Holocaust and then immigrating to Israel to build her home in Jerusalem. And then we danced the night away. From Israeli folk dance to the Israeli songs of today, children and adults, religious and secular, danced together filled with happiness.
Finally, after all the kids were tucked into bed, way past their bedtimes, a bunch of my neighbors joined together for an erev shira (evening of song.) As I looked around the room, trying to at least hum along to songs I really didn’t know, I was empowered by the spirit and unique character of this country – a place that is my home like no other place could be – but I also felt a twang of sadness knowing that I was a step behind. My Hebrew is great, I know a lot of songs, and I am truly comfortable in Israel, but there will always be a piece missing having not grown up here. Just as with the memorial ceremony, the nuance is simply different for me. The songs I grew up with singing around the campfire were not written by Arik Einshtein and Naomi Shemer, but rather Cat Stevens and Peter, Paul and Mary.
While I was trying to sing along, my 14 year old was at a BBQ campfire with her friends. She came home around midnight and although I didn’t ask, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole event was organized only by her classmates including building, lighting, and managing the fire. Our kids in Israel learn responsibility and independence in a way that seems different to me than what I grew up with. Perhaps part of it is living in a small community, but I don’t think it’s necessarily unique to places like Alon. Our kids are less sheltered in some ways and they’re given opportunities which I don’t think that I had. Perhaps it’s out of necessity – after all, these 14 year olds are going to be entrusted with the security of our nation in just four short years. Whatever the reason, I have a lot of respect for it and I believe my children are growing up to be stronger and more resilient as a result of it.
As daylight dawned, the celebrations continued as the entire country headed outdoors and lit the BBQs. I went first to hike through an archaeological site within a nature reserve called the Madras Ruins. The village which once existed here dates back three thousand years and the area was also used by the fighters during the Bar Kochba Revolt in 132-135 CE. Together with my kids, we crawled through caves and tunnels, visited an ancient synagogue, a burial cave, and a columbarium cave once used to raise doves.
As we explored our nature and our history, I was proud of myself to be quite honest – proud of my choice to move to Israel. Being here and raising my children here, I am preserving a link in the chain. We are a living symbol of our history and our future as a Jewish People. We are doing our small part in ensuring the future of the State of Israel.
Our last stop of the day was Kibbutz Sa’ad and a visit with my adopted family with whom I was connected in 1994 when I was a volunteer at the kibbutz while on my gap year in Israel. The Friedman’s are truly family to me and spending the afternoon with them was the perfect way to cap off the day. With everyone in the family gathered, children, grandchildren, cousins and even another “adopted daughter,” I felt blessed that my children, far away from their own cousins, are also a part of this beautiful Israeli family.
Driving home, we listened to Israeli music on the radio and at 8pm when the holiday officially came to a close the music broadcast shifted and English songs returned to the airwaves. In that moment, I again was aware of the duality of my identity, but I felt a sense of comfort as an Israeli and an American. Although there were times over the last few days that highlighted my reality as an immigrant, I realize it doesn’t matter… Although there are pieces missing, there is an extra piece as well: I wasn’t just born into this as a coincidence of fate. I made a choice to be here. To be this. And that is the lesson I am teaching my children. I am proud to be Israeli – particularly on days like these.