Making Aliyah

So we’ve made Aliyah.

Aliyah is such a loaded word. Literally ‘aliyah’ means to ‘go up’. There’s only one country we ‘go up’ to and that’s Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. We traverse the world upwards physically in search of something ‘spiritual’. Something that can’t be defined. Something that’s completely irrational. And we’re not alone. Last year 26,427 people made aliyah worldwide. Around 180 of them were from South Africa and an equal number to that were from Australia. Jews from all over the world are emigrating upwards.

How do you make the decision to make aliyah?

People ask if we’ve been planning our aliyah for a long time. The truth is that it was both a spontaneous, quick decision and yet something we’ve been planning all our lives. We’ve often caught the Israel bug, and this time it stayed in our system.

What is the Israel bug? It’s quite a dangerous virus, so everyone should be warned. It takes place on an innocent holiday to Israel and manifests as a deep gut feeling that takes over ones heart and mind to miss the return EL AL flight to your home country. This viral incursion is only cured if you catch your plane and return home. After a few weeks it eventually dissipates into a vague memory of ‘it would have been nice’ as you relax into your beloved, familiar comfort zone.

We’ve been bitten by the Israel bug a few times, to the extent that we’ve investigated possible cities that we’d like to live in (Zichron Yaakov, Jerusalem), we’ve interviewed schools, reviewed houses. We’ve explored going but we never made that final decision, until now.

What’s changed? We’re older, which doesn’t mean that we’re wiser, but it does mean that our children are older. We knew that ideally we didn’t want to move teenage children. Last year my husband visited Israel and came back saying, ‘It’s doable. We should go have a look, we should move to Jerusalem.’ I asked him what was he smoking? I had finally settled down in Johannesburg after thirteen years. To move again and leave everything I’d built felt devastating. ‘Let’s go for our summer holidays,’ he said. So we went, and we were smitten with the Israel bug once again. We realized that our eldest was eleven, so it was now or never (or at least until our youngest child finished high school).

I realised if we didn’t give it a go, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. How many opportunities have I missed because of pussy footing through life and going with the flow, rather than following my heart and dreams? Of course aliyah is a utopian dream, which often pans out very differently in reality.

Having emigrated once before I knew it wouldn’t be simple. We came back to Johannesburg in January, to our flourishing, mint green garden which is bigger than most Jerusalem parks. And we mourned what we were leaving behind. ‘We live like kings,’ I announced to any Joburger who would listen. ‘Do you realise that we live like kings.’ I couldn’t stop repeating this, as I thought of the cramped Jerusalem apartments, the symphony of Jerusalem streets which is a beeping, honking cacophony of assertive (read frustrated, sleep deprived) drivers. The children who run wild in the corridors of Israeli schools, the dog poop that is never picked up until you step in it. The shopkeeper’s cries in very fast Hebrew at the Shuk, that makes it impossible to understand so you buy whatever he gives you, even if you don’t need half a kilo of Indian tea.

Who said moving is easy? A new, very different culture. A new language. A new side of the road to drive on. As my Australian friend who lives in Jerusalem told me, ‘You have to remember that this is the Middle East.’

Yet, I’ve always felt that Israel is my home. Whether we consciously know it or not, we as Jews all have a relationship with Israel. Israel is in my blood. Literally. I’m not the first one in my family to make Aliyah. Both sets of my grandparents made Aliyah from Baghdad, with Operation Ezra Nehemiah in 1951. My father lived in Israel from the age of three, my mother was born there. They landed in harsh, post war conditions and twenty years later my father with the rest of his family moved to the other ‘promised land’, Sydney Australia; where they built their lives, in the fair dinkum land of man-size beer; where nobody hoots on the roads and baklava was as foreign as a beep bopping Louis Botha taxi. They learnt English, how to eat scones with jam and cream, and the joys of frothy flat white coffee. They chose to be diaspora Jews again and brought with them their Judeo Arabic songs and prayers of 2500 years. They cried for the rivers of Babylon that they had to leave, they cried for the shores of Israel that they left, but mainly in true Australian style, they got on with it.

I was born in Australia, after my father wedded my Israeli mother in Tel Aviv and brought her back to Sydney. I was the second of six children. Looking back I wondered why my parents didn’t speak to me in Hebrew, let alone Arabic. I realise now that they were immigrants, and in those days especially in white Australia, they didn’t want to be different. It’s the typical diaspora story. The story of survival, of establishing a new identity and thriving in the newly adopted country of gold.

In many ways I grew up very Australian; piping hot fish and chips wrapped in newspaper at Bondi Beach, a hearty addiction to Cadbury chocolate, smoking barbecues at Centennial Park. Yet in other ways as the child of Jewish immigrants I grew up in an alternate world. I went to a Chabad school where there were only two girls with Australian born parents. The rest of us were first generation Australians, with our parents hailing from all over the world, America, Israel, Russia. My generation were the promising new, who didn’t struggle with English. We had a bright future ahead of us on the safe, sparkling shores of the melting pot of multicultural Australia.

But there was the other side. When you pray in Hebrew every day of returning to Zion, of Jerusalem being reestablished and the ingathering of the exiles, being Down Under, a good twenty four hour flight from the Promised Land, you feel very, very far away. From the Jewish dream, from the world, from any sort of Jewish destiny.

We made that jet lagged, never-ending trip to Tel Aviv almost every year. Via Bangkok and Rome or Greece. When we landed in Israel as children, we were gobsmacked by the ready availability of kosher fast food (which is all that matters when you’re a kid), the shops remaining closed on Shabbat just like they were closed in Sydney on a Sunday. The amount of Jews we were surrounded by. The Jewish soldiers who were ours, and we didn’t have to be told to ‘be careful of them.’

My young eyes couldn’t ignore the obvious difference between Sydney and Kiryat Ono, which is where my mother’s family lived. Everyone lived in apartments, to have a house was for Savion, an expensive suburb that my aunt loved driving through in a taxi (of course she didn’t own the ultimate luxury of a car in those days.) There was one cafe in the area, Kapulskis that she used to love going to. There was a makolet in a rusty, sardine grey tin shed, where an old blind man would sell us sweets, relying on the honesty of us children as we placed our carefully counted coins in his hardened, wrinkled hands. Israel in the eighties was a far cry from the trendy, cutting edge technology hub and coffee culture it’s become today.

One of my most surreal childhood memories was a July day when there was a Chamsin, an extraordinarily hot heat wave, where we lived on cordial ice lollies that we made in glass cups. There was water rationing. All the water was turned off and a water truck drove down the main road to distribute water. I went with my aunt feeling like Alice in Wonderland with our clanging pots and pans to fill them with the precious, transparent liquid. It felt festive and important to be there. To learn not to waste, water could run out. I loved those days of waking up with the rooster crows from the unpaved back streets of Kiryat Ono.

On a plane trip back from Tel Aviv home, I remember discussing with my brothers what rating Israel would get as a country. We decided it wasn’t a first world country, nor was it a third world country (after all how could the country of kosher bazooka chewing gum be third world?). We concluded that it was a second world country. In many ways it’s still a second world country with many people living below the poverty line

Who would go live in a second world country? The call to Israel defies explanation. Having emigrated once, I understand that one can’t take emigration lightly. To move countries is to lose your whole identity. Nobody knows who you are. It’s almost like dying and being reborn. The key to a successful emigration is what you choose to focus on – the dying and all you’ve left behind, or the rebirth with its new opportunities.

Emigration is up there with all the great stressful traumas that we face in human life. But I’ve learnt a lot from having done it once before. It helps to come from a migrant family. It helps to have the legacy of being a wandering Jew.

So here’s what I’ve uncovered about emigration. When you move to a new place it’s a new chance to start again. You can be whoever you want to be, and hopefully it’s your best self. However, you can’t run away from any issues or problems. Be it financial, emotional or just those irritating people who drive you crazy. It will all manifest in your new abode. My husband reminds me of this continually. He says, ‘You don’t leave a place, you need to go to a place.’ You need to want to be there. To invest yourself in the environs, invite people you’d like to meet to you for meals and for impromptu coffees, rather than passively waiting for people to welcome you into their busy lives. You create the space that you live in. You create who you are. You create the life you lead.

Of course I’ve discovered all this the hard way from my first emigration. That there’s no space for victimhood or complaining. You make your choices and live in the present of what you’ve chosen because no amount of whinging or whining is going to make things better. I’ve learnt that you must create your home in your heart, so that wherever you are, you are at home. And as I think about this I realise that I’ve learnt this from my grandmother, Nana Aziza, who left Israel with a heavy chest, always wanting to return. She spent the last healthy years of her life travelling between her children in Sydney and Los Angeles, and her family in Israel. She took her home with her wherever she went, and she finally rested where her heart truly was, which is in Jerusalem today.

When I say, ‘We are making Aliyah,’ I realise that I’m talking about more than my family’s future. I am holding the prayers, hopes and dreams of many generations. That is my diaspora luggage that I carry with me, our songs of ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’, of travelling in the desert for forty years in order to see the Promised Land. Leaving Johannesburg after thirteen years is to say goodbye to a part of myself which was a special time. A vibrant, close Jewish community, loving family and friends. As I pack my home up, I find myself realising that my life isn’t in my accumulated stuff, it’s in my relationships that I carry in my heart. So I take Sydney and Johannesburg with me to Jerusalem, following in the sandy footsteps of my forefathers and mothers. And when I’m overwhelmed I remember what our good friend, Johnnie Walker says, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’

About the Author
Sarah Sassoon is a freelance writer, Jewish thinker and wandering Jew. Emigrating from Sydney Australia to Johannesburg, South Africa and finally making Aliyah to Jerusalem with her family this summer of 2015.
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