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She was better than America

A dilemma for an Israeli by choice: Should she take that job back in the States to be near her aging father?

She was better than America, that’s what I heard you say… (Leonard Cohen)

The decision to live the rest of my life either in Israel or America is paralyzing me. After years of college, graduate school and postdocs, an opportunity for an academic job either in the US or in Israel has presented itself to us and suddenly our peaceful temporary life in Jerusalem is shaken with possibilities.

Thoughtful lists are being drawn up for the pros and cons of each side. They have categories such as: health, meaning, spiritual growth, kids’ education. The big elephant in the room is when I scrawl, in my sloppy handwriting, “Grampa”. I put it first. My husband, Yoni, is surprised. “Grampa before health?” I suppose, practically he has a point. I see his logic and move my dad to seventh.

Each day I am becoming more aware of a dark pool of feelings deep in my solar plexus. Like perching on the edge of the black water of the far hole that, as a child, I sometimes swam in, though not often enough given its proximity. It scared me that no one really knew just how deep it was. I sense if I were to throw my consciousness down into my troubled gut, I would find layers upon layers of feelings.

Putting my dad as number one on the priorities of life list comes with the following fantasy. My whole family, 3 kids, the dog and Yoni, move back to Vermont. We run in the woods, we are outside most of the time. We come home, stamping our boots, to read, cozy in our fire-lit house while snow falls gently and endlessly outside the glass deck-door. Our faces are red and healthy, we laugh a lot and pop M&M’s on our cross-country ski trips.

“What are you thinking of?” I ask myself. I guess I am trying to replicate some version of the good parts of my childhood. “Is that practical?” Does practical even come into being when you are a child?

But practical hits hard when you are grown up. The property I grew up on, is sold. My dad, 80 years old, lives in Burlington now, a mini city. He works valiantly with Parkinson’s, naps a lot, and doesn’t have all the energy he used to. Still, I want to be with him and is that so odd given that when I was young, all I had, really, was my dad and the vast wild land of Northern Vermont.

As I hold on to this fantasy, my grip on making practical decisions about where my family is going to live for the next 20 years weakens.

It weakens but it does not die. Israel, her curly hair blowing into frizz, is waving to me from the open road. I look back to Vermont and feel myself turning into Alice, as she valiantly tries to stuff her gigantic body into the tiny house previously inhabited by the elusive white rabbit. My kids are free here in Jerusalem. True, screen doors are not banging as they head out to investigate the cow pasture. But our front door opens and shuts multiple times during a Shabbat afternoon as neighborhood friends of all ages tromp through.

And how about this: Work is not all there is in Israel. Work is important, but it is not put high on a pedestal, like in America, forcing a parent to consider not just after-school but morning care for her kids, so she can get to work early and be more productive. No, in Israel it feels, to the exhausted American like me, that there is more of a holistic master story that values family above productivity and encourages a non-linear path for a life fully lived. The pursuit of happiness does not show up as a declared value. And so more time can be spent being, and watching my children thrive and my neighborhood switch gears on Friday, shutting down production so that friends can be hosted and family enjoyed.

Don’t get me wrong. I love America. Hence the paralysis. America has space. Space to run around in, space to park your car easily when you grocery shop, space to fantasize about what will be, but that is just it. The space that America offers might just keep me in my childhood. In a place like America, where “the pursuit of happiness” is a constant quest without an end, the traveler gets tired. The mantra “if you just (buy this, study this, work on yourself) then amazing things will happen to you” is like a drug. It takes you away from who you really are now, warts and all. In my case, who I am now is an adult with a strong child-side and half of my life already lived dreaming about what I want to become.

At the end of the day, my husband and I will sit down and make a decision. The lists of values will get gradually covered over by other pages in the special notebooks, pages of grocery lists, things to remember to do, my scribbled “Grampa…#1” might get lost too unless I vow to make a special point of keeping him in mind. That may mean more visits, more time set aside to Skype, more letters and emails written. But there are ways to keep connected, even if we choose to stay.

Saskia and her dad
Saskia and Dad
About the Author
Saskia Swenson Moss works for the Harold Grinspoon Foundation on PJ Our Way, a program that is changing the paradigm of Jewish education and engagement for American tweens. Saskia lives in the never boring city of Jerusalem with her husband, Yoni and her three children, Akiva, Yovel and Heleni.
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