Sunday, January 2, 2011

Becoming an Israeli

I have an anniversary this week.

Not my wedding anniversary – that’s in May. But a different one, also very special, and this year in particular is even more special.

It was 23 years ago this week – on January 4, 1988, that I officially became an Israeli. My plane landed at about 4:30am in the pouring rain, and as cliché as it is, I knelt down and kissed the (very wet) ground when I got off the plane.

What makes this anniversary even more special than usual this year is that I recently celebrated my 46th birthday, so 23 years of living in Israel marks the point where I have now officially lived half of my life here.

The truth is that I made Aliyah (literally “going up” – the Hebrew term used for immigrating to Israel) in a very foolish manner – and years later when I worked as an the coordinator of an Aliyah information center in Jerusalem, I would always advise against people against doing the same.

While I do believe that Israel is the Jewish homeland and a good place for Jews to Live (hence my decision to make Aliyah) I am also a firm believer that life in Israel isn’t right for every Jew. Life here is not easy – on any of several different levels, and even with all the ideology and the best of intentions, not everybody that wants to live in Israel is really cut out for it.

That being said, I don’t think that Aliyah is a decision that should be jumped into until a person truly understands what they are getting themselves into. This means more than a week long synagogue or family trip, more than a 10-day Birthright trip. Even some of the longer programs are no longer as good a measuring stick as they once were.

To really have an idea of what it takes to make it on a day-to-day basis in Israel, one needs to experience it – not on a tour bus, not in hotels or youth hostels, not through the eyes of even the best Israeli tour guides who will show you the positive (and very real) side of Israel. To really experience Israeli life and Israeli culture, a person needs to deal with the lines (or lack thereof) in riding public transportation, shopping at the local supermarkets and mini-markets scattered throughout the neighborhoods, to deal with rent, landlords, salary, and so on and so forth.

To really have an idea of what you're getting yourself into before you make Aliyah, you should live here for some extended period of time – a summer, a semester, a year, or whatever.

Of course, I never did that. I spent three weeks here in the summer of 1986, staying in youth hostels, sleeping on the beach in Eilat, and crashing in the dorms of friends that were on the one-year program from my youth movement in the States. In short - not real life – not by a long shot.

But my Aliyah was a very theoretical one – and one that by all rights should have failed within a couple of years. I moved to Israel with a very stereotypical starry-eyed vision of living in the Jewish State which turned out to be barely recognizable from the reality of living here. But for whatever reason, or combination of reasons that I cannot comprehend, the reality worked for me – and it still does.

Perhaps the strangest part of it is this: all of the ideology, the optimism and the burning-in-my–heart Zionism that I had when I stepped off of that plane on the cold rainy morning 23 years ago – I still feel today – in its entirety.

Who knows? Perhaps this is simply a sign that I have absolutely no clue what the hell is going on around me and that I have now spent officially half of my life living in a stat of ignorant bliss.

Or maybe it means that in spite of all of the problems and difficulties involved in living here – and believe me, I know those problems and difficulties first-hand, that this is still the life for me. This is where I feel as though I a in my "element". While there are many people and many aspects of America that I do miss dearly, whenever I am in the States, even in Chapel Hill, NC where I grew up and where my family has now been for 35 years, I don't feel as "at home" as I do almost anywhere in Israel.

It doesn't make sense logically, but then, it doesn't really need to. It simply is, and I have come to understand and embrace it as my reality.

In my first year of marriage, my wife Sharon threw a surprise party for me (the only one I have ever had) commemorating the 10th anniversary of my Aliyah. She invited a handful of friends with whom we had gotten to be very close, some of whom I had been close with before we were married and others we got to know after. And while it was not by design, as it turned out, except for Sharon (who made Aliyah a month after we were married) I was the "newest" immigrant at the party. It was almost like a "welcome to the club" party for people in Israel 10 years and more, and there was something very special and very re-affirming about that. It was seeing the examples around me of people who had been where I was at the moment, and had continued.

Even more beautiful is that now, looking back, most of the people at the party that night are still in Israel today – so my 23 years of living here isn't so out-of-the-ordinary or unheard of. It is possible to buck the odds, and truly finally find one's way here – despite, or perhaps even because of the difficulties, the hardships, and the oh-so-incredibly-ridiculous things going on around us.

As Theodore Herzl is quoted as saying "If you wish it, it is no dream".

Or maybe it is a dream, but a dream which one can live.

So here's to yet another year of living in my dream.


  1. this made me tear up. I made aliya 15 years ago, fresh out of high school, and went to college here. In a way, it's the best aliya - I didn't have to do the bagrut and I got to Israel early enough to really adjust to life here.
    Whenever people say that Israeli life is so difficult, I have just one phrase... day school tuition...

  2. Happy 23rd tomorrow! Today's my 10-year "aliversary". Here's to much MORE than another year!

  3. Adina Sacks04 January, 2011

    "Who knows? Perhaps this is simply a sign that I have absolutely no clue what the hell is going on around me and that I have now spent officially half of my life living in a stat of ignorant bliss."

    LOL Asher ;-))