When I first arrived in Israel a year ago, friends and family back home would ask me how it was. For the first few months, I had a consistent, somewhat smug one-word answer, delivered with a romantic lilt: Magical. By Rosh Hashana, I had a couple of Misrad Hapnim visits behind me, local ‘bank’ appointments that felt like I had died and woken up as a carny mid-performance, and supermarket cashiers addressing me in the same tone a prison warden might to a repeat offender felon being booked on new charges. I was also knee-deep in a 4-month epic battle to reverse my daughter’s פְּטוֹר (army exemption) denial so that she could start Sheirut Leumi as she had planned. Not surprisingly, the magic was being trampled by bouts of white-knuckling incredulity and frustration. I couldn’t wrap my head around how a country so advanced technologically and with what I considered to be a high-caliber human workforce could be so oblivious to the processing nightmares and myriad of inefficiencies for new Olim and native Israelis alike and have no apparent aspirations for improvement.
Indeed, over the last couple of decades, I had read a wide variety of articles and books written by Anglos who had made Aliyah and calmly digested their high-pitch laments surrounding what they called ‘bureaucracy’, and warnings that one could only accomplish one thing per day—either a visit to the bank or picking your kids up from school. Both were not possible in the same 24-hour period. It was so repetitive that I almost tuned it out. What did they mean by bureaucracy anyway? What were they making such a fuss about?
The way I am learning to deal with my own setbacks is to fully embody one facet of widespread Israeli mentality, namely, batting away everyday problems with the mantra הכל יהיה בסדר (All will be well). It actually works, and perhaps not strangely, it dovetails with my full-on expectation of rapid spiritual growth living in this holy city of Jerusalem. The less I care about the outcome of situations and the need to control them, and the more I trust that G-d runs the world, the less frustrated I become, and those magical moments are once again popping up everywhere.
What stands out for me, however, is that it is not attitudes, efficiency standards, or even language that set Israelis and new Olim apart, particularly those Olim like me from cities and countries around the world where the Jewish presence is small and observant Jews represent an even tinier minority. It is the lack of intersection and understanding of our respective experiences living as a דָּתִי (observant) Jewish person against the backdrop of our native country, society, and culture.
This divergence dawned on me for the very first time on one of my vacations to Israel a few years ago. I and my daughters were eating Shabbat lunch at a close friend’s apartment with just one other guest, a young Israeli yeshiva student who spoke little to no English. It was apparent to him that our Hebrew language skills were poor, as we could not participate in the conversation he was having with our hosts. And yet, an hour later, he saw us singing ברכת המזון (grace after meals) in full Hebrew, which for him seemed confusing and absurd. He could not understand how or why we prayed in Hebrew while not really or fully understanding what we were saying. To him, it didn’t make any sense at all. And this is just one example. Diaspora Jews have for centuries prayed in Hebrew, and that is one of the many factors that have kept us tethered to Judaism. I recently met a lovely man—a new Oleh from Argentina—who likened it to the integrity of reading poetry or singing a song in its original language, though one may not be fluent in that language. It goes beyond the idea of לְשׁוֹן הַקֹּדֶשׁ (holy language). To people like me and many other Jews around the world, davening (praying) in Hebrew rather than in our native languages is almost like an act of defiance, a desire to set ourselves apart—as Jews—from the wider community and culture.
And, conversely, but at the very same time, living successfully in a predominantly non-Jewish society requires us to pretty regularly downplay and subvert our Judaism, whether it be in social, academic, or professional settings. I worked in sales for most of my Wall Street career, with large global money manager clients across the US and Canada, whom I traveled to see several times a year. I never once veered from my ‘I’m a vegetarian’ (rather than kosher) explanation for eating salad and bread at the restaurant for dinner. In many places like Fort Wayne, Indiana, Austin, Texas, and Nova Scotia—and often even in New York—my intuition was to keep my Judaism hidden, and that instinct served me well professionally. In addition, I have always lacked a deep connection to American culture. While I had familiarity with and awareness of it, for sure, it never fully integrated into who I was as a person. Throughout my life, I often felt like I was on the sidelines, looking into the arena where everyone else was busy living their lives openly.
And it is in these spaces that the vast majority of my magical Israel experiences exist. Allow me to share some with you:
Music: Jewish music has been a part of me since early childhood, with tunes from the likes of Chava Alberstein, Naomi Shemer, and Yehoram Gaon etched in my deepest consciousness. And, for the last 15 years or so, I have listened predominantly to Israeli and Jewish music.
Since living in Israel, I hear ‘my’ music everywhere I go, in the makolet (supermarket), clothing stores, and even wafting through the windows of my apartment when concerts are happening nearly every night during the summer. Sometimes the songs hearken me back to very early childhood, and other times they’re by emerging Israeli artists that I’ve recently started following with interest. With either, however, the music is deeply familiar and resonant. I struggle to describe how significant that shift feels. The only explanation that emerges is that before, the music lit me up from a flame that originated far away. And now, I feel like I am literally sitting in the seat of the fire. Some Israelis, new and old, reject the idea of living in Jerusalem because they feel it is too intense and fiery. I can’t relate, because for me, the heat is what I was seeking in moving here, and the temperature is set just right!
Above all, for the first time in my life, my insides (who I am at the deepest level) match my outside (the culture and society in which I live). My religious holidays are national holidays. Shabbat is a day of rest for everyone. My (Jewish) calendar is the official calendar. And my music is the music everyone else is listening to. I can’t tell you how novel and deeply powerful this feeling is for me. I am living more authentically than I ever have before, and that’s one of the reasons I am here. I wonder whether some of my fellow newbie Israelis feel the same way I do.
Food: I grew up in a small town in California with no kosher restaurants. My family had to drive 5 hours round trip to Los Angeles to buy kosher meat. At the tender age of 8 or 9, I started navigating the discomfort of sitting in a non-kosher pizza restaurant for the birthday party of one of my public-school classmates, watching while all the other kids ate pepperoni pizza and engaged in… well, let’s call it ‘living’.
The idea that I am now able to peruse a nearly obscene abundance and variety of food in Jerusalem and have the capacity to choose and eat (!) any of it feels nothing short of revolutionary. In hindsight, living in the diaspora was, in some ways, one long lesson in curbing appetites.
So, in summary, with food (taste), music (hearing), beautiful flowers everywhere (sight and smell), and the heavenly breezes of the Jerusalem night grazing my shoulders (touch), all my senses are on full alert and amplified here. It’s like someone walked over to me and turned up the frequency of my consciousness. And that’s truly magical!