Israel’s ‘olim cholim’ undaunted by illness

It’s so common here in Israel that there’s a name for it:  olim cholim – sick immigrants, laid low with the many ailments that are rumoured to plague us for our first couple of years here.  At first I thought it was just a rumour.  We arrived in August 2013, and months later, we’d seen no sign of nasty bugs.


Then, winter hit.  Winter in Israel changes everything:  it’s damp and cold, open season for every virus and bacterium out there.   You wouldn’t think cold would be a problem for hardy Torontonians like us, but without insulation and central heating, even a little cold can set off lung problems and other complaints.

“Olim tend to pick up everything their first year in Israel,” says Tziona, a Torontonian and mother of four who’s lived in Israel for 11 years.  “It gets better after they build up some immunity to the new bugs.”

Our new family doctor recommended flu shots, especially given our son’s history of mild asthma.  We were confident that, with this additional insurance policy, we could be even more sure that the worst of winter’s ailments would pass us by.

They didn’t.  That first year was an almost endless round of fevers, sore throats, coughs, sniffles, and tummy complaints.  Staying in school for an entire week became a novelty for our kids.  Of course, they were probably even more vulnerable because, having homeschooled back in Toronto, it was their first time in an institutional setting.  And our youngest was in gan, an Israeli kindergarten populated by over a dozen four-to-six-year-olds with very little comprehension of the benefits of soap and warm water.

Another Hebrew pun on the term olim chadashim (new immigrants) playfully refers to these bugs as “cholim chadashim” (new sick people), but for some, it’s no joke.  Mom of two Rachel, who arrived from Toronto a few weeks before we did, lists her family’s health problems over the last six months.  “Pneumonia, two tummy viruses… every two weeks a cold, and we pass it around to each other.”

According to Andy Levy, MD, PhD, a professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Medicine, “it’s very logical, when you’re moving to anyplace… With someone coming from Israel to the United States, the same thing would happen.”

In each geographic area, Levy explains, newcomers encounter brand-new viruses and bacteria, along with slight variations on “familiar” bacteria and viruses.  With those small changes, he says, “you’re no longer immune to them.” These organisms can be transmitted by healthy people, not just those who are sick.

An oleh of sixteen years, he adds that “olim in general are under stress, not sleeping right, not eating right… stress in general increases your risk of getting sick and depresses the immune system.”

Levy finds olim are particularly sensitive to airborne pathogens (through coughs and sneezes), and to pathogens in the water “that people who have lived here for years don’t seem to be bothered by.”   Many also suffer from chronic gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, bloating, food intolerances) for one or two years.

Avraham, another former Torontonian, says, “Most of us got gastrointestinal sick for as short a time as a week (the kids), and as long as 6 weeks (for me) within a few months of arrival. Then we didn’t get sick with anything for about 3 years… A rough start, but welcome relief from our usual round of ongoing seasonal ailments in Toronto.”

But the olim cholim phenomenon doesn’t hit everybody.  Michal, a Tennessee native who married a Torontonian before making aliyah, says, “I don’t think we were sick at all in our first year. Granted, it was 11 years ago, but nothing stands out.”

Levy has a few suggestions for staying healthy.  “Exercise and keep as regular a schedule as possible; often these things are disturbed when we make aliyah.  Consider getting purified water rather than tap water,” he advises, though he “can’t say there has been any rigourous study proving that really prevents illness.”  “If are over 65, have a lung condition or a heart condition get the annual pneumovax [against pneuomonia].”  Finally, “be careful of where you buy your food; this seems obvious, but there is considerably less regulation here.”

As for my family, I tell myself our adjustment period will end soon.  And I’m heartened to know that some olim even end up healthier than they were before the move.

Avraham believes that his family has actually been healthier since moving to Israel than they ever were in Toronto. Living in Maalot, a small Upper Galilee city, he says, “our use of Ventolin and inhalers for my daughter and myself dropped from several times a month to a few times a year… [I] never thought of Toronto as a big ball of allergens and pollution before.”

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught, “the Land of Israel is acquired only through suffering.”  He probably meant war, famine and other persecution more than the common cold… in which case, we should pass the tissues and count ourselves lucky.

About the Author
A journalist, editor, translator and children's writer, Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod made aliyah with her family to the krayot, north of Haifa, in 2013. She's the author of dozens of books for Jewish children and families - click to find out more.
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