Thursday, June 4, 2009

To make aliya or not to make aliya, that is the question.

When Jim and I set out for our “sabbatical”, we never once contemplated that it would lead to aliya (becoming Israeli citizens). In fact, we never planned on even thinking about it. That was not why we were coming. But, now that we are here, aliya is very much on our minds. Everyone we meet, Israeli and non-Israeli alike, asks us not if but when we are making aliya. Consequently, Jim and I have spent a lot of time talking to each other and our wonderful friends about why aliya both is and is not for us.

We absolutely love our life here. My kids are universally accepted for who they are; they have an incredible amount of independence; we are surrounded by friends all of whom are very accessible; we spend very little time in the car; I am more intellectually stimulated than I have been in years (probably since law school); money is only important in so far as paying the bills for necessities (opulence doesn’t seem to exist – at least not in the circles we have encountered); school is much more relaxed academically (in other words, no homework and no pressure); Jim is around and relaxed (yes I know that is because he is not working, but even if he were working here, I believe the pace would be more relaxed); Kabbalat Shabbat at Yakar or Shira Chadasha (I gave it another try) is wonderful and inspiring; on Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Day) and Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day – the Day of Remembrance) a siren sounds through the entire country and everyone (literally everyone) stops what they are doing and observes a minute of silence to remember those who died so that we could live; we can go to the beach for the day; and, most importantly, being Jewish is easy and fun.

Then there are the things I don’t like: many Israelis are too right wing for my taste (they think Arabs do not deserve equal treatment); Israelis (probably all middle easterners) are lacking in patience (no one knows how to stand in line and wait for his/her turn); the drivers are awful (Elliot and I had a narrow miss the other day); there is no Target or Costco (how are you supposed to get rid of lice if you can’t buy the bulk sized bottle of alcohol?!); I sometimes feel like a pariah because we are the rare breed as a non-observant family in an observant neighborhood (this of course would resolve itself if we were living outside of Jerusalem); aside from the Arbels and the Whitefields, many of our friends are leaving in June; although Elliot and Sabrina are now very settled in, Bennett still misses home terribly; although my Hebrew has improved, I continue to struggle with the language barrier; I cannot figure out the television schedule; and, of course, most of our friends and family are very far away.

Alas, regardless of whether the pro or con list is longer, we will in fact be returning to Washington in July. When we leave here, in addition to a love of the country we will also leave with a much better understanding of why the people are the way they are – that is why most Israelis are right wing and why civility is not as apparent as I would like (or as my wonderful friend Rabbi Tara Feldman says, why most Israelis have post traumatic stress disorder).

It is no secret that many Arabs hate the Jews. It is also no secret that
many Arabs resent Israel’s existence. These same people who absolutely despise Jews and the State of Israel, live within spitting distance of the country. As we saw clearly during our visits to the Golan Heights and Petra last month, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria are right next door, as of course also are Gaza, the West Bank and Egypt. To add to the security anxiety, many of the borders are in the mountains, giving these potentially enemy countries a huge strategic advantage. This means that whether you hear about it in the Disapora or not, Israelis live in constant fear for their lives and country. Bombs dropping in the Gaza and Lebanon border areas unfortunately continues to be a fact of life for many. The outside world is somewhat dismissive of these incidents because frequently people don’t die. But how would you feel if bombs were falling in your backyard? Would you say who cares as long as no one was hurt or would you say how am I supposed to live like this?

To understand the situation better, just imagine that you are living in DC and Al Quaeda is living happily in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. Then imagine that just to make sure you knew they were out there, once a week or so they would shoot bombs on DC or send a suicide bomber over the border. More times than not no one would be killed so the rest of the world wouldn’t understand if you complained that you felt unsafe. Then imagine that once every few years or so you were at war with the neighbors. Would you feel safe? Would you be able to act civilly on a daily basis? I know that some of you think that I am exaggerating to make a point. If only I were. These are the hard cold real facts. It is life here in Israel. You learn to ignore it for the most part and live your life but it permeates the mood here. After all, how could it not?
(By the way, I hope this does not feel preachy. I am not trying to do that. I am just trying to explain what life is like here.)

Regardless of the constant threat, Israelis know how to celebrate the good times and mourn the sad ones. The last two months were examples of that as we had one holiday after another. The holidays included happy celebrations – Purim, Pesach, Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day), Yom Yerushalaim (Jerusalem Day) and Shavuot – and sad commemorations - Yom Hashoa (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom Hazicaron (Memorial Day).

I already covered Purim and Pesach in previous entries so I will skip those here. April 21 was Yom Hashoa. – the day we remember the millions of people slaughtered in the Holocaust. Interestingly, my children had never heard much about the Holocaust. (Bennett would have learned about it this year at JPDS had he been there.) Because Yom Hashoa is freely talked about here, Jim and I were obligated to educate the children on the atrocities of World War II. As all of you parents can appreciate, it is not an easy topic to discuss. At ten years old, Bennett listened and internalized, while at seven years old Sabrina was full of questions. Interestingly, she wanted to know what the U.S. did in the war. I told her that the U.S. fought the bad guys to free the people in the concentration camps. Sabrina listened and then asked me why it was ok for the Americans to kill people (which she assumed they did to end the war even though she doesn’t know the half of it) but it was not ok for the Germans. In other words, she was struggling to understand when killing someone is ok and when it is not – wow! Now that is one hard concept to teach a 7 year old. Actually, it is a hard concept to teach a 41 year old as well. I struggled with it during my visit to Yad Vashem. (Both Jim and I went to Yad Vashem this past month.)

Just one week after Yom Hashoa, we observed Yom Hazicaron. During both Yom Hazicaron and Yom Hashoa, a siren sounded and the entire country observed a minute of silence. Jim, Bennett and I went out to a busy street so we could feel like part of the community during the silence period. We were heading to Emek Refaim, but made it only as far as Rahel Imeinu. It was far enough because there was plenty of traffic on the street and pedestrians on the sidewalks. When the siren sounded, the pedestrians stopped in their tracks and all cars came to a halt with the drivers literally exiting their cars. It was the one of the most powerful moments I have had thus far. Just like when I took Bennett to the Kotel, I felt tears involuntarily streaming down my face. I was simply overwhelmed by the sadness of the moment. Just as Sabrina struggled with Yom Hashoa, she also struggled with Yom Hazicaron. She finds it sad that Israelis must go to the army and fight in wars because it means certain death for some. Again, a hard concept for a seven year old – and a forty-one year old.

The next day was Yom Haatzmaut – Independence Day. There were Israeli flags flying everywhere, barbeques (we went to the Whitefields, of course) and a city-sponsored celebration at night which included fireworks. We had a great time.
Interestingly, as I was reminded today during a tiyul to the West Bank with my friend Tara and a Bezelem worker (Bezelem is a human rights organization), while Yom Haatzmaut is a day of celebration for Jewish Israelis, it is a day of mourning for Palestinians as it is the day they lost their homeland. Yoav, the Bezelem worker, gave us the reader’s digest version of the Palestinian dilemma mostly created by the building of the border wall. In building the wall, the Israelis have accomplished the goal of reducing terror attacks but they have managed to worsen the lives of the already second class citizens. The West Bank now has a 60% poverty level, as compared to 30% in West Jerusalem (which incidentally is mostly attributable to the enormous population of Haredi/religious Jews). The wall was put up without much regard for land rights or transportation needs. Yoav does believe that the wall was necessary. What he takes issue with is the way it was put up.

During our discussions we talked about the fact that the Israel of today is not the Israel originally envisioned by Theodore Herzl. Herzl wanted Israel to be the example for the world - a country on a moral high ground. Israel was supposed to be a nation united in favor of life, not in fear of death. So I ask, should we be held to a higher moral standard just because we are Jewish?

The most recent holiday was Shavuot. As is tradition, Jim spent the night learning. He came home at 3:30 a.m. As soon as he came home, I left to walk with my friend Aya and her son Sam to the Kotel for shacharit. This is also tradition. While it was not as spiritual as I had expected (Aya had promised lots of singing and dancing), it was very moving to be part of the sea of people walking the streets of Jerusalem in the wee hours of the morning. When we arrived at the Kotel we could hardly believe our eyes – every inch of the Western Wall plaza and all steps leading to and from it were filled. It was a virtual sea of black and white. Estimates put the crowd at at least 100,000 people. My friend Meir, a rabbi, pondered whether this might have been the largest single gathering of Jews for prayer since Har Sinai. Hmmmm……

Since, at the end of the day, we are here as tourists, we have continued to explore the country. During the last month we have spent quite a bit of time in and around Jerusalem. We have gone to the Israel Museum (again), the Herzl Museum, Yad Vashem, the City of David, the Ayalon bullet factory, the Davidson Center (the Southern Wall excavations), the Temple Mount and Hezekiah’s tunnels. Everything was interesting and informative.

The trip the Temple Mount is worth noting. I really wanted to go so I dragged Bennett with me. Interestingly, before Bennett could bring himself to walk up the ramp to the Mount, he insisted that we kiss the Kotel first. Then, while on the Temple Mount Bennett asked me why Judaism isn’t one of the biggest religions since three of the major world religions emanate from Judaism – after all, Jesus was Jewish and Mohamed claimed to be a Jewish prophet. It was an insightful, thoughtful question and one which led to much discussion.

The first of our friends left this week. The end of our journey is approaching fast. We have a lot to do in the next six weeks. As I predicted, we will leave here with very heavy hearts and, as many of you predicted, with hopes that one day we may be lucky enough to return perhaps for good.

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