ארץ ישראל אינה נקנית אלא בייסורים, וכל שחביבה ארץ ישראל עליו ומקבל עליה ייסורים באהבה זוכה ורואה בבניינה-שי אגנון.
The land of Israel cannot be acquired except through suffering. But all who love the Land of Israel, and accept the suffering upon themselves, will merit to see her built up. — Shai Agnon.
Three years ago, we landed in Israel to begin new lives in Israel. To do so, we ended our prior lives in America; I resigned from the firm where I had worked for nine years, my wife similarly left her long-time position as a nurse in a prominent hospital. Our children left their schools and their friends, literally everything they knew. And we arrived wide eyed, optimistic, apprehensive and clueless about what awaited us. Little did I know that what awaited me would bring me to the brink of total despair, a personal crisis more painful than I could ever imagine. Little did I know that what awaited me would bring me to unimaginable joy and a level of self-confidence greater than I could ever imagine.
ALIYAH IN MID LIFE IS HARD, NO NO REALLY HARD
I made aliyah when I was 46 years old. Forty-six-year-old lawyers are usually in their professional stride. If they haven’t made partner at a firm, they’ve acquired the connections and know how to strike out successfully on their own. Their senior colleagues are hitting retirement age, and they are looking forward to filling the upper echelons of their fields of practice.
By contrast, I was subjected to a year and a half long ordeal of tests and a clerkship in order to re certify as a lawyer in Israel. While Olim doctors and other professionals merely have to file paperwork to get their licenses in Israel, the Israeli Bar Association is not as welcoming. And upon getting my license I quickly came to learn that all my professional gravitas, the product of two plus decades of distinguished practice in America, was worthless here. Employers saw me as a past his prime starting lawyer who speaks a middling to decent Hebrew; nothing to look at twice. The ego eroding and soul grinding process of sending out resumes and job applications, waiting for responses, getting the rare interview to be told that I’m either too old or not quite the fit they are seeking, brought me to the brink of despair. Frustration turned to anger, which turned into rage admixed with desperation. The boredom from having nothing productive to do morphed into self-loathing. My family dreaded my presence and in truth, I too hated what I had become. I didn’t recognize the angry and beaten down person staring me back in the mirror each morning. And those feelings of desperation were compounded a million-fold every time I saw my family experiencing any level frustration or difficulty in Israel. I came to both second guess and at times regret our decision to make Aliyah. My life stood on the brink of unraveling in the most basic and profound ways.
Worse yet, there was a point where I actually hated living here. Even before making Aliyah, Eretz Yisrael, and more significantly Medinat Yisrael were major factors of my religious persona. I had always believed that every Jew has his right to “Daled Amot,” four cubits of land in Israel; i.e. that Israel is every Jew’s home if he wants it. Aliyah was supposed to be challenging, but ultimately rewarding. But instead Israel visited upon me her full measure of suffering and called all my beliefs about her into question. My very identify and sense of self-worth were in perilous straits. And I felt too weak and clueless to fight back.
And when I thought I had hit rock bottom, when the one single job offer I had received, after applying for literally hundreds of positions, was revoked, opportunity came knocking. An old friend from college who had made Aliyah soon after we graduated and who went to law school here, called me and asked me to join his newly formed practice. So here I am on the cusp of 50 starting over in a new profession, in a new practice and in a new country. And I couldn’t be more grateful. When one feels truly desperate, an opportunity such as I’ve been given is a lifeline. And while that practice is still in its infancy, we’ve already begun to score a few small wins in court and are on the long path to establishing ourselves as a reputable firm in Jerusalem.
I don’t know if there is a grand moral lesson to be derived from my experience. I don’t really think it’s a testament to any inner strength. Nor do I believe that it’s in the nature of Aliyah, of acquiring a portion in the Land of Israel, that it has to be so difficult. I think Agnon’s observation, one based on a passage in the Talmud, is a function of how Israel relates to her Olim. That can change. More on saying that follows.
ZIONISM CHANGES WITH ALIYAH
I was raised in a Modern Orthodox and Zionist home and community. As a practical matter that meant that Israel can do no wrong- nekuda. Unconditional, unwavering and unquestioning support of Israel, even if in one’s heart of hearts he disagreed with her, was the red heifer which cleansed us of the impurity of not living there. And I religiously cleaved to that ethos my whole life; often to the point of driving friends to distraction.
And then I made Aliyah. I became an Israeli citizen. My civic duty to participate in the political and social dialogue manifested itself in a whole new way. Israel was no longer a theoretical gem to be treasured. It’s where I live. Her politics and policies now directly affect my life. More than mere self interest, Zionism itself confers upon me the right to protest and speak out against what I feel is wrong about Israel, and even demands that I do so as part of my contribution towards building a better state for me, my progeny and ultimately the entire Jewish people. While in the diaspora I dared not ever weaken Israel by appearing disloyal, here I dare not be disloyal by remaining silently sycophantic and fanatically utopic.
It’s a tough adjustment. Every time I venture an opinion about politics, public policy or Israeli society, I’m seized with self-doubt. Is it really appropriate for me, a relatively new immigrant, one who’s not been here during the bad and scary times, who’s not been and never will be called upon to possibly make the “ultimate sacrifice” of life or limb for the country, to dare criticize or castigate Israel? Isn’t that a complete lack of gratitude? Moreover, am I really possessed of sufficient knowledge and insight to have a valid opinion about anything that goes on here? While in America I was outspoken, sometimes even offensively loud, in my support for Israel, here I find myself staying silent more often; thinking twice or three times before opening my mouth or typing a comment. I don’t much like it.
The best resolution to the conflict has come from Israel itself. Never once has someone here ever tried to silence me by reminding me that I’m here for too short a time, and that my opinion is therefore irrelevant or unworthy. There have been instances when I’ve been told that with time, my understanding will deepen and that my opinion is premature or uninformed or lacking insight. But never has anyone negated my feelings or observations simply because I’m an Oleh Chadash. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that the society which I’ve joined, at the very least, listens to newcomers. I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more welcome, more part of Israeli society.
At the same time, Israel is not very inclusionary when it comes to professions or work. Age discrimination is rampant here, and Olim suffer other forms of systemic disadvantage. We, especially those of us who made Aliyah in midlife, often lack the personal and professional connections, the protekzia, via which people find and obtain professional positions and jobs. I’ve written about it here and here. I’ve often said, sometimes to the consternation of native-born Israelis, that anyone who gets a professional license in Israel wants to be the last person to get that license. Israelis are, by nature, very charitable. They will give a needy person the shirt off their back. But strangely, they aren’t eager and not at all quick to assist a new colleague get established. It’s a problem. It’s a cause of frustration.
Coming to live and work in Israel has altered my feelings for her in profound ways. I once looked at Israel as a Jewish utopia who is unfairly misunderstood and scapegoated by the world. She needed to be defended against all who would ever look at her askance. But as a citizen, I see that Israel is a living, breathing, developing organism. She’s beautiful and to be cherished; and that’s because of her “bumps and warts” and how we deal with the problems and issues that abide. I’m coming to see that in my infinitesimally small way, I too am part of building her up and making her a better place. For and because of all the challenges I’ve faced, my faith in Israel, in G-d and the Jewish people has been reinvigorated.
We were fortunate to settle in Rehovot and join the popular Anglo synagogue there. Aside from the high level of empathy and support we get from the community (and that is crucial to making it here), for the first time in my adult life I feel welcome and religiously accepted in schul. In America, I was either to “frum” or not “frum” enough; too fundamentalist or too heretical in the communities to which I belonged. I felt unable to express my religious views freely. In Israel, I’ve experienced a far greater level of tolerance and acceptance of those of my religious views that border on un-Orthodoxy. And that acceptance has enabled me to learn more and more from some highly educated people. I haven’t been this involved in high level Torah learning in a very long time. And it’s wonderful.
But it’s not the intellectual life I enjoy so much that nourishes my soul. Over the past three years I’ve found myself experiencing fleeting moments of ecstatic joy (transcendence?) in the most mundane situations. Walking home from work and encountering a large-scale building project fills me deep appreciation for what this nation has and will accomplish. Walking down Herzl street in Rehovot on a Friday morning, I’m sometimes overpowered by an awesome sense of Jewish history being created by the storekeepers peddling their wares before Shabbat. Ben Gurion was perhaps more profound than he intended when he quipped that Israel will be a real country when a Jewish policeman jails a Jewish criminal. Sure, the historic and holy sites are packed with meaning. They are the base upon which we stake our claim to this bit of mid-east real estate. But the Divine gift we have is to be found the mundanities of day to day life. And the bliss of experiencing it is overwhelming. That’s a good thing.
When we first arrived in Israel, I took to saying that “Aliyah is like Rome. It doesn’t get built in a day.” For a long while I forgot that, and the challenges overtook me. I ignored the huge strides we made, as people and as a family, and become entirely focused on the adversity and important milestones not yet reached. That was a mistake. Because my children have come to experience a way of life they would have never had in America. They have joined the mainstream; they are part and parcel of Israeli life. They will never know what it means to be outside the mainstream. I have no complaints about my past life in America. I’m ever grateful and proud to be an American. But I also had an ever-present sense that I’m not entirely integrated in American society and culture; I was part of what is at best an honored and respected sub-culture. We wanted more for our children and my wife and I succeeded in bringing them into the mainstream. They thrive here. The Aliyah worked. That success makes it all worthwhile. It’s what gives me the strength and confidence to carry on and hopefully join my kids and assume my rightful place in Israel. אין לי ארץ אחרת