By the end of June, it will be one year since I upended my life in the US and moved to Jerusalem, fulfilling a decade-long dream.
Sure, I was brought up with a strong feeling of Zionism. My mom (ע״ה), a hidden child during the Shoah, was recruited in Switzerland after the war by Bnei Akiva to teach 100s of younger orphans about Yiddishkeit, those that had been ripped from their families too young to remember anything. Though she herself was very young, her ability to speak several languages was in high demand. She later was asked to prepare convoys of ships sailing to Israel, and she loved to recount how one time she prepared a ship of 150 pregnant refugees from disparate countries across Europe on their way to Eretz Yisrael. Still later, she herself traveled to Israel and joined the Haganah.
One of the few photos we have of my mom during that time is her sitting on a stone ledge with a fellow female ‘survivor’, while the famed ship, the Altalena, burns in the background. Now that I meander the streets of Jerusalem every day, I sometimes consider ‘what if’ my mom had stayed in Israel, married, and raised a family here. Sadly, however, after a nearly fatal car accident, for which she was hospitalized for over 3 months (alone, with no family), followed by stomach issues due to a parasite, she left Israel for Belgium, where her mom—my grandmother—had returned after the war, and later to America. From her nuclear family of 11, only half survived Nazi terror. The rest, along with countless extended family members, were brutally murdered.
Though our family never traveled to Israel when I was a kid (we could not afford international travel), Israel was definitely in my blood. Having two European parents, my childhood was anything but the classic American one. We lived in a small town on the West Coast, and our lifestyle was simple and somewhat sheltered culturally. In grade school, I sang every word—in Russian, Hebrew, and English—of songs from the 3 casettes we owned, Theodore Bikel, Yehoram Gaon, and The Jackson 5 (I know, a weird eclectic mix!). I was hyper-aware that every time there was news on Israel, triumph or tragedy (like a war or terror), my mom felt it personally and with all her heart. She understood better than most Americans at that time the unequivocal need for a strong Jewish state.
I first traveled to Israel when I was in my mid-20s on an American Jewish Congress trip, and then a few years later with Esther Jungreis. However, it wasn’t till the wee hours of the morning some time in 2012, when sleep pitifully evaded me due to a traumatic divorce pending, that it came to me as a נבואה (prophecy). Its message was simple and sophisticated at the same time. I would make Aliyah, and I would need to negotiate it with… no one! Yes, I was losing the framework of an intact family, which was deeply important to me, but I saw an opening to chart my own destiny and contribute to the Jewish people in a way that is hard to match in חוץ לארץ (the diaspora). And, from that time on, moving to Israel was that beacon in the distance towards which many of my energies flowed and informed important decisions I made. Though I was prevented, for custody reasons, from moving before my daughters graduated from high school, starting at the ages of 9 and 12, our only family vacation each year was to Israel. My goal was to nurture in my kids a love for and familiarity with the land. We often came during Pesach and would marvel at how amazingly tasty the pizza was! It took a few years for us to notice the little signs in the restaurant windows designating קִטְנִיּוֹת or ללא קִטְנִיּוֹת . Oops!
Fast forward to the present time, when the saying “Man plans, G-d laughs” is a frequent companion, seemingly hovering over my right shoulder like a speech balloon in my favorite cartoon. Alas, my younger daughter is here and is doing Sheirut Leumi (Israel national service), but she hates living in Israel and fantasizes daily about returning to NY and attending college in Manhattan. And the older one made Aliyah before me, served in Sheirut Leumi, but in the last minute decided to go back to the U.S. for college, where she just finished her sophomore year.
Indeed, I have been to countless shabbat meals here in Jerusalem where we go around the table to introduce ourselves, and inevitably, several of my fellow guests talk about their children. I am already familiar with the sudden shift to a crestfallen face and emotion-tinged voice as they detail the kids living far away. Therefore, I know many of you can relate. One cannot predict or dictate what adult children do. With pursed lips and a credit card handover, our and our children’s divergent lives blossom!
More on my Israel experiences and reflections will appear in subsequent blogs.