Making Aliyah: What it takes, the gains and losses, and the expected unexpected

Part One: What does it take?

Here you go. You decided to take the plunge and move to the Land of Milk and Honey. The Holy Land. Sounds promising, right? Well, it definitely can be for some. But it can also be like shell shock to those who aren’t really prepared. Believe me, living in Israel is not like the Taglit trip you took when you were 19 years old. Like any country, Israel has its pros and cons. Some things are unquestionably seductive, like the beautiful people, the diverse land, and the exotic weather. But there’s also yelling in supermarkets, bus drivers that seem to have a death wish, extremely slow bureaucracy, and immigration offices that don’t have English-speaking employees. It’s not always a pretty site. I’m here to prepare you for what’s in store.

I was born in Israel but raised in Canada. I made Aliyah at the “ripe” age (yeah, right) of 27. I married an Israeli and we are now raising a child in Tel Aviv. I like to think that I have an insider/outsider perspective on life in Israel. I see things from the eyes of an Israeli as well as the Canadian foreigner. And it never ceases to give me perspective.

Everything I am going to lay out here is something that I myself have learned, and am still learning, along the way. Let it be on the record that I do not think of myself as an Aliyah guru. I am simply someone who moved here with ideas, expectations, and goals. And holy Moses, was I in for a ride. Moving to another country can be a little bit like a roller coaster. Israel will take you for a ride, no doubt. But like a roller coaster, there are thrilling moments and then there are moments that we can call, umm, nauseating. I think that we sometimes have the tendency to make things more difficult than they need to be. So I write this to ease the pain a little. And it’s also therapeutic for me. It’s a give and take sort of thing.

Do you have it in you?

Think about it. Do you think you have what it takes to live here? Because, listen, not everyone does. Or even if you do, you might not necessarily be up for the challenge. Polls from 2015 showed that about 40% of olim “consider returning to their countries of origin”. Clearly, moving to another country has its trials and tribulations. Let alone Israel, the Wild West of the Middle East. Living here is a true test of your abilities.

When I decided to make Aliyah, I honestly felt as though I had all the tools I needed in my toolbox. I was “armed” and ready to come back to the Homeland and make it on my own. It turns out, my toolbox was only half full and the tools inside were not always useful. Living here has taught me a lot about myself. There have been many challenges and I’ve gained new skills that I didn’t expect I would need.

You might be thinking, “NU, what does it take then”? I decided to ask the Aliyah-makers themselves. When I asked olim what they think it takes to live in Israel, I got many responses. Among the various answers, there were a few main themes.

Resilience, frustration tolerance and persistence

It goes without saying that living here will test your capabilities. You will be pushed, both literally and figuratively. If you came here with a goal to learn, work, create a life, and so on, your perseverance is what is going to keep you afloat. Israel is like a little pond with millions of fish. How you deal with adversity will determine whether or not you’ll sink or swim. You need thick skin. And the ability to get back up after you get pushed down.

Openness, patience and flexibility

Life here is not what you’re used to. Doesn’t matter where you came from. It’s not the same. The people here are different and the circumstances are different. The more flexible you are, the more you will adapt to your surroundings. Think of yourself as a chameleon. You’ll need to change your colors to adapt sometimes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be yourself. You be you! But it’s about the fine tuning to mesh well in a new environment.

And let’s not forget the virtue of patience. If you consider Israelis to be less than patient, you can think of it as an opportunity to set an example and take the advice of Gandhi – to be the change you wish to see in the world. Or we can start with Israel for now.

Chutzpa and a sense of humor

I think this is what’s keeping me sane, personally. I have adapted to the Israeli wilderness by refining my previously rusty use of chutzpa. I always had it somewhere inside of me but in Israel, I let it shine. When I need to, of course. And trust me, there are ample opportunities to show your chutzpa. In other words, don’t be a friar (and if you don’t know what friar means, ask a friend).

And not just chutzpa, but a sense of humor will keep you alive and well. We have to laugh – at life, at ourselves, and yes, sometimes at others. Why? Because it’s what makes life worth living! Like I always say, it’s all in the name of humor. Don’t let Israel dry you up. No one likes a grump who can’t take a joke.

Don’t worry

Look, don’t worry if you don’t think you check all the boxes. Israel has a way of toughening you up. Even if you think you’re ready and capable, this country will throw you for a loop. Take it from me! If I can do it, you can too. You’ll land on your feet. If not, you can always find another oleh/olah to complain to. Or just move back home. No one will judge you.

My point is: don’t stress out. Not yet at least. You’ll have plenty of time and opportunities for that when you live here.

Part Two: The good, the bad, and the unexpected

When you move to another country, it is obvious that things are going to be different. Some of the changes will be positive, and some not so great. I see it as life’s continuous search for balance. There always seems to be an equilibrium. There are countless cheesy sayings about the good and bad in life. But cheesy or not, the thing is they’re true. My favorite quote about this sort of thing is from an Alt-J song, Ripe and Ruin: “Like all good fruit, the balance of life is in the ripe and ruin”. I think that sums it up. Okay, let’s move on to the real stuff.

You’ll win some…

I asked olim what they believe they gained and lost from making Aliyah. The answers were diverse, individual, and insightful. The major gains were:

  • Making new friends.
  • Finding a partner and having children.
  • Finding perspective and meaning of life.
  • Being part of the Jewish community. (Someone once told me that the thing they love about going to Israel is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. So that’s one way of putting it).
  • Enjoying the great weather. And forgetting what winter actually is.
  • Learning a new language, a new culture, and growing as a person.

And there’s so much more. These are priceless rewards, and things that no one can take away from you. They are what will keep you in this country. And reading those responses helped remind me of what I am grateful for by living here. But like always, there are two sides to every coin.

You’ll lose some…

Let the whining begin! Now is when I give myself liberty to name all the crappy stuff. And it’s not just me! These are only some of the things that olim said they lost when making Aliyah. Here are the major ones:

  • Not being at close proximity to your friends and family.
  • Going back a few (or many) steps in your career and earning less money.
  • Missing the easiness and convenience of EVERYTHING.
  • There’s no Walmart or Target. No drive-thrus. No Starbucks or Tim Hortons.
  • No smiling faces when you walk in to a restaurant, store or office.
  • The waiters in Israel make you feel like they’re doing you a favor by serving you. The service here sucks. Period.
  • Oh, and you might gain weight.

I’ll stop here. If you really want to get a list of all the bad stuff, you don’t have to go too far. A simple search online or on Facebook will enlighten you.

And I’m sure none of this comes as a surprise. But those rose-colored glasses that you have on before making Aliyah will eventually clear up and you’ll notice what’s right in front of you. Or rather, what’s not there. You’re likely going to miss things and it might take a toll on you. Like it did, and still does, for me. Or maybe it won’t! Maybe where you came from was so bad that you’ll take the whole package, rain and shine. Or maybe you’re just a really positive person who smiles while jumping every hurdle.

Regardless of your mindset, there’s a reality. And the reality is that many olim move back home. Or they end up staying, only to complain for 97% of their day.

You might be surprised…

Whether you’re aware or not of the ups and downs of life in Israel, there are things that may come as a surprise for even the most primed and prepared. We can all expect the unexpected to a certain degree. But some things will throw us for a loop regardless of what we imagined.

I, for one, was not aware of all the cats. Tel Aviv is basically the unofficial home of homeless cats. And it seems like they have adjusted well, because they don’t take shit from anyone. Not to mention the relentless smell of pee that envelops Tel Aviv. But that’s more so from all the dogs.

An entertaining thread that I started on Facebook brought to my attention all of the surprising things about Israel that olim were not prepared for. Let’s name a few:

  • Extremely slow bureaucracy and outdated technology, including fax machines…in 2018
  • No English-speaking representatives at the immigration office… No comment.
  • The cockroaches. Three words: huge, flying, and immortal.
  • Bus drivers might alarm you because it appears that they have no fear of death.
  • Israelis can actually be very friendly. Who knew?
  • Oh, and if you’re birthday falls on a weekday at the office, guess who’s bringing the birthday cake? You are!

The take away

Sometimes life in Israel is like living in Bizarro World. It can be thrilling, annoying, challenging, and also rewarding. But one thing I know for sure about life in Israel is that it’s never boring. There is rarely a dull moment. Life moves fast and if you’re too busy looking down at your feet, or on your phone (a major pet peeve), you’ll miss it.

Israelis always ask me, “You moved here from Canada?! Are you crazy?” And maybe they have a point. Maybe it takes a little bit of crazy to move here. But hey, I’d rather take the red pill and make my luck rather than cruising on the plateau that was my life back in Toronto. I believe that taking risks and challenging yourself is what makes it all meaningful. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

So… Thinking of making Aliyah? Go for it! Just be prepared. But then again, what do I know. I’m just a somewhat crazy Canadian girl in Tel Aviv.


About the Author
Alva Yaffe was born in Israel but raised in Canada. She now lives in Tel Aviv. She made Aliyah in 2013, when she was 27 years old. Since then, she has married an Israeli, lived in over five places across the country, worked, studied, graduated with an MA in Art Therapy, and recently became a mother.
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