The other day I was explaining to my 27-year-old daughter why I made aliyah when I was 21. She looked at me and asked, “What’s aliyah?” Which is when I realized that my aliyah was a failure, and not just because she didn’t know what aliyah means.
We also haven’t lived in Israel since 2000.
At that time, my family (my then-husband, our two daughters, all three born in Israel, and I) temporarily moved to Northern Virginia for my job at a high-tech company. Not unusually, the move morphed into permanence.
I’m long-divorced and live in southern Florida, while my ex is somewhere in California. We attended a Reform synagogue and both of our daughters were Bat Mitzvahed; one daughter continued onto Confirmation and taught Hebrew on Sundays with a friend. They graduated from high school and then college, with nary a Hillel or Birthright trip in sight. Neither of them remembers much Hebrew, nor are they involved in anything related to Israel or Judaism. At Rosh Hashanah, Hannukah, and Pesach I send holiday-themed gifts, which are often food items, trying for relevance, piquing childhood memories, and forging tasty associations.
They are happy in their lives, both in different cities out west, and in serious relationships with men who are not—shocker—Jewish.
The regrets that I’m supposed to be over now that I’m semi-retired and in my comfortable 60s have found this an apt time to flourish. I try to convince myself that my aliyah had elements of success. Afterall, I lived in Israel for almost 17 years, became fluent in Hebrew, had good jobs, made friends, fell in love, married, and established a family, even giving birth to my daughters in Tel Aviv.
My failure is that I took my daughters and myself, from Israel and, because of life’s complications, which included the degradation of my marriage (the Israeli man who had seemed so confident and supportive became, in my newly perceptive back-in-America eyes, aggressive and controlling). Within a year the company that had relocated us laid off me and much of its staff. So, there were economic concerns, and my desire to establish a new career, one that I wanted and not just one that an English-speaker could get in Israel.
As the marriage weakened, so too, did my daughters’ connection with their grandparents in Israel. Besides financial concerns, I didn’t encourage visits to Israel with their father, fearful that he would keep them there and that I would lose custody of them, since he was a lawyer who could confidently navigate the Israeli legal system.
I will never know if I did the right thing for them by staying in the States. All I can do is be a supportive mother and accept how things turned out. But I still talk about Judaism and Israel, which too often seems like an imposition of my priorities rather than something that they want to hear about or experience. Israel is where they were born and Judaism is the religion that they were born into. They are both topics that, to them, their mother obsesses over, while they are just a small part of their lives.
In October 2022, I went back for my first visit since we left in August 2000 (right before the second Intifada broke out and when it seemed that there would be peace, and that finally the secular-religious divide would be confronted. Alas.)
I was alone on this return trip, as I was when I first traveled to Israel in February 1982, right after graduating from college at 20, not knowing what to do with myself (seems like a theme). My vague thoughts of being a writer combined with an ego that was too big to start at the bottom rung of office work, and the $3,000 that my grandmother left me in her will, meant that I didn’t need to settle right away.
So, I went on a kibbutz ulpan, living on Kibbutz Degania Bet for six months. My newfound dream of being a pioneer, being part of creating the Jewish nation, grew at that time, making me realize that it was important to me that I live someplace where my very living had meaning. This higher purpose in life itself has been lost living in the States, where life is more about success than contribution, performance than connection. I miss that.
Clearly, as evidenced in the trains that I took that didn’t exist when I lived there, much has changed in those 23 years. It turned out that there weren’t as many career choices as I thought, so I became a teacher. I found purpose in teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night and about the Holocaust for 16 years to high school students, many of whom claimed that I was the first Jewish person that they ever met. So, there was some good done living outside of Israel.
Now, as I contemplate what to do with my next theoretical/hopeful 30 years, I’m stripping back to that woman at 20 who discovered that Israel and Judaism were important to her—that they defined her. Part of me wonders, who I would be without that? But then I ask, why seek isolation when there is history and tradition to continue to grow within?
Making aliyah and living in Israel in my 20s and 30s were what defined me. At first, because that was my daily life—especially on those treasured Shabbats and holidays, which could never be replicated in the States, especially as a secular woman. Later, it was what let me see that I had a unique experience and that I had created the life I believed in. Now, I need to see how I can better merge the past into the present, using those years of living in Israel to propel myself forward, so that my life is not compartmentalized. My life should speak of purpose and meaning and commitment, with some satisfaction thrown in, and be one that I—and my daughters—are proud, wherever it is lived.