Today, July 4th, marks my aliyahversary- one year since I hopped on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv and became an Israeli citizen.
It’s a day that will always be filled with great importance for me. Making aliyah was not an experience- it was a life choice. To tie my future to the future of the Jewish people in our homeland. Fraught and fun, stressful and meaningful- that’s what it means. It’s not to immigrate- I returned to my ancestors’ home. To live amongst my people. As the norm, as the majority, in the only place like it on the planet. Not as a tolerated (or persecuted) minority- but as the people steering the ship. With all the empowerment and responsibility that entails. There’s really no other process like it in the world.
There are many ways I could have lived this year in Israel. I looked into getting a full-time job here, I looked into grad school and rabbinical school, I looked into living on a kibbutz, I looked into living up North, I even considered doing some shepherding (I think I’m still gonna make that happen 😉 ). Ultimately, I decided to continue doing my digital public relations freelancing. Which gave me the opportunity to work from home (and the challenge of building a social network without in-country colleagues).
One of the best aspects of this was that I could travel. One of the reasons I made aliyah was to see the world, and my homeland. And boy did I. I saw over 100 different Israeli cities, towns, and national parks. All via public transit or hitchhiking. While people abroad only see my country in terms of conflict, they are sorely missing out. It’s by far the most gorgeous place on the planet. Prettier than some Israelis even recognize. Naturally beautiful, accessible by public transit, filled with ancient cultures and history, and one more very important thing: deep generosity.
Traveling in Israel, the way I travel, can be challenging. I love it. You have to navigate all sorts of cultures and politics- not to mention fluid schedules (this ain’t Switzerland) and new terrain. I’ve gotten growled at by wild boars in the Galilee at midnight, I was chased around the Arab village of Tira by a crazy man only to get a ride to the bus stop from a basketball player who’s friends with a Jewish lawyer in Baltimore, I got evangelized in Spanish by a Mexican missionary who said I was going to hell for being Jewish, I tripped and fell in a forest and with a broken sandal and my knee bleeding hobbled on one shoe to a bus. Only to have an awesome bus driver and 20 year old Arab law student chatter with me in Arabic as we drove through the mountains.
For every challenge here, there are been countless blessings. When I was in the Druze village of Sajur, I visited an ancient rabbi’s tomb. There were dozens of Hasidim praying. The rabbi, a Vizhnitz Hasid, chatted with me. Then gave me two beautiful books- one siddur and one book of songs for Shabbat. The other day I was in the Christian village of Eilaboun. And on two separate occasions, when I asked for water, old men in their 70s simply handed me gigantic bottles of their own. In Tarshiha, an Arab village in the North, I stared at a house’s beautiful door. The Bedouin woman comes out, gestures to me to come in, and plies me with coffee and sweets while she folds her laundry. Her preferring to speak in Hebrew, me in Arabic.
I have been hosted- for free- countless times in Israel. Sometimes by people I had never met. Both overnight and for numerous Shabbat meals. I was once on the bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and a young woman wondered aloud what she’d do if she missed the train to Haifa. And the woman next to her said: “you’ll stay with me”. They had never met. I was heading to Haifa once for a trip and I had met a rabbi up there. Literally for 20 minutes at a Shabbat in Tel Aviv. I asked if I could crash with her- because that’s normal here- and she said: “I’m sorry I can’t host you because we made plans, would it be ok for you to stay with my parents?” Would it be ok…yes. 🙂 And I did, and got fed incredible Iraqi food and awesome stories by her mom.
This blog would be endless if I recounted every act of incredible generosity in my country. Druze who helped me hitchhike to a Christian village. Where then I knocked on someone’s door to get into a church. But the key was nowhere to be found. So they invited me in to watch Christian prayers from Lebanon on TV and eat eat eat. Or the Jewish man I met in a parking lot in Beit Jann, asked him where Rameh was, and simply told me to get in the car. And took me. I can’t even count how many times Christian Arabs have opened their village churches just for me. Or how many mosques have let me film their prayers- from Abu Ghosh to Kfar Qasem to Kababir in Haifa. And how many dozens of others I’ve visited in Tel Aviv, Yaffo, Akko, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Jisr Al-Zarqa, and more. I know now proper etiquette in a mosque- from visiting them 🙂 I enjoy the call to prayer while I eat Georgian food in Yaffo. It’s part of my life.
There are people here who look after me. My Hasidic friend Yisrael in Bnei Brak who asked for my phone number to see how I’m doing. Who always gives me a huge hug when I come to see him. My Reform rabbis- all of them women- who nudge me, love me, and gently guilt me like good surrogate Jewish mothers. And whose services (and mine- because here I lead them) fill me with song and love. My Orthodox gay friend and his secular partner whose house I invite myself to for Shabbat. Just like I do to my Iraqi neighbors. Because not only is that acceptable here- it’s the norm. Love is the norm. Personal space and boundaries- that’s not how we do things here. And you find, after some acclimating, that it’s better. It fills you with warmth. That sacrificing a little autonomy gets you a whole lot of community.
There are incredibly difficult moments in Israel. Whoever wants to be Israeli- to choose to become Israeli- should think hard before doing so. This year, I heard an air raid siren on my first day in my new apartment. I stood in the stairwell and googled: “what to do in an air raid?” On two separate occasions I had to deal with suspicious objects. In one case, I was locked inside the library while it was diffused. In another, the street was closed off. And in both cases, the police, God bless them, were extraordinarily calm and professional. Thank you for your service.
I’ve been racially profiled as Arab (which was awful- and I also understand why it’s not such a simple question). I once took the bus to Jerusalem, heard about a terrorist attack along the way, and looked out the window to the see the name of the town it had just happened in. I’ve witnessed the burnt fields of Sderot- crisped to blackness by Hamas terrorist fires. And then got sushi with a friend who lives even closer to Gaza. On Kibbutz Nahal Oz which has seen dozens of Hamas attacks recently. And where she’s studying for final exams that will determine her professional future.
If you add to this the personal, bureaucratic, and cultural transition of building a life in a new country as a new citizen- boy it can be hard. Especially arriving alone with no family. If you’ve made aliyah and never cried, I don’t think you really did it.
But what you need to understand is that there’s a reason I live here. And that, for the wild prejudice (in all directions), the terrorism, the predatory real estate market, the ideologies which sometimes spin out of control, and the very real tensions in my own neighborhood between refugees and veteran residents- the fact is Israel is where I feel at home. People here exhibit an incredible generosity I have never seen anywhere else. A sense of caring, responsibility, and even cohesion. Much greater than you might expect from reading CNN. People here- we- have a certain toughness to be able to get through the challenges of living in the most difficult neighborhood in the world.
And we also have an incredible ability to take those hardships and turn them into sweet sweet baklava. This country is a country of survivors- of the Holocaust, of Arab expulsions of Jews, of the Soviet Union. Arabs and Jews who’ve lived through many wars, cultural and familial separations, terror, and economic recessions.
What you find- and what I identify with as an abuse survivor healing from PTSD- is that people here know better than anywhere else how to move forward. How to not only survive, but to take that pain endured and manage to build something. To become sweet in spite of it all. So that unlike in America where every tweet becomes a news story for a week, in Israel, we just don’t have the time or care. We’re too busy living our lives and being in the moment to stew in it.
And living in such a generous and warm culture has fostered my own compassion. So that when I see a woman eating grapes off the ground, I give her thirty shekels and tell her to get a real meal. When I see a 15 year old Filipina girl working day and night, I tell her I’m going to take her on an excursion to relax. And she lights up with excitement. When I meet a lone soldier on a bus who was celebrating his birthday alone, I take him out to baklava and invite him to spend the night. When I meet an American Christian in Jerusalem who’s coming to visit Tel Aviv, I invited him to do likewise. The same day. And last night, when I saw a homeless man in my neighborhood sleeping on a bench, I bought him rugelach and sat it next to him.
Because living in Israel is not always sweet- but you can choose to be. And I find most Israelis do. Once you peel back the tough exterior- the gentleness, kindness, and warmth beneath far exceeds anything I had ever experienced before. Becoming Israeli has given me a place to be more generous, has taught me to appreciate people from all walks of life and ways of thinking, and has helped me grow into a stronger and balanced person.
I’d like to thank everyone who has helped me make this transition and grow. My friends I made on the plane while making aliyah- who I’m still friends with. My Reform community. My neighbors. My friends at my local Kosher sushi restaurant, who have become like family. The people of every background who have supported me, fed me, and encouraged me. Who’ve given me countless opportunities to speak the beautiful languages of this land. My American friends who from many times zones away made an effort to keep in touch and showed they cared. Nefesh B’Nefesh, which facilitates American aliyah, for making the process as smooth as possible. For answering dozens of questions. For being there both before and after my landing. For helping me feel like I had a place to call on when I needed help. Like when my AirBnB fell through, I got food poisoning, and you showed up on my doorstep with food 🙂 . Ein aleychem- you rock. Misrad Haklitah and the Israelis whose tax dollars funded my transition- thank you. I’m absorbed- by your kindness and by our country. Especially my fabulous aliyah counselor Lauren who talks with me about everything from bureaucracy to cute guys- and always puts a smile on my face.
Aliyah, for those who don’t know, is the Hebrew word that describes when a Jew like me returns to Israel and becomes a citizen. It literally means “rising up”. The idea being that moving back to Israel elevates your spirit and is a process by which you grow.
Nothing could be more true. While I feel I’m quite thoroughly absorbed into Israeli society, I will always keep rising. There are new places to go, people to meet, experiences to have. You can never finish exploring this country- or loving it.
What I can say is I arrived as an oleh, and now I’m Israeli. Because today when I met a young American and helped him find the right bus, he said: “you have really good English”.
I made it.