Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why did you move to Israel?

There is a unique phenomena that many Jewish American tourists experience when they visit Israel. Inevitably, some Israeli, either the tour guide, a family member or a complete stranger will spring upon you “the” question. “Why don’t you come and live in Israel?”
On the surface, the question seems to be innocent enough, even endearing. After all, isn’t living in Israel the fulfillment of a dream the Jewish Nation has dreamt about for thousands of years? But considering all the security and economic hardships Israelis endure, the question could be rephrased, “Why don’t you come and suffer along with us?” It’s no secret that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have left Israel due to its hardships, and more would surely follow if only they could.
What makes “the” question even more interesting is its uniqueness to Israel. I resided in the United States for 45 years. I was born there, my children were born there, my parents, my wife, my grandmother. It’s a wonderful, wonderful country. In America I enjoyed unbridled religious freedom and great opportunities for employment. And yet, not ever did it dawn on me to encourage a visitor to my country to immigrate.
If America is the melting pot then Israel is the family pot. Which other country in the world can claim that practically all of its citizens are blood relatives. The Jewish People are all the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. That alone entitles you to citizenship in Israel. Even our enemies are cousins.
And so when an Israeli asks “the” question, it’s similar to when your mother asks you to live close by together with the rest of the family. Sure it may be more difficult with special challenges to face, with more intra-family disputes to contend with, but at least you’ll be with the family!
If there is one thing that I can claim some expertise in it’s family dynamics. Being the oldest of 15 children and having 12 myself is lots of family experience. Coming up to half a century, I am son, father, husband, grandfather, uncle, nephew, cousin, son-in-law, father-in-law and more, besides having been a first grandson as well. I’ve observed from up close marriage, divorce, re-marriage, birth, death, sibling rivalry, celebrations, tragedies, rifts, relocations, mother-daughter relationship and much more.
Life in Israel is all about getting along with your extended family. I live in Mitzpeh Yericho, a lovely community of about 300 families. We enjoy spectacular vistas of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. One of the number of reasons we decided to call this place home is its close proximity to Jerusalem and the affordability of real estate. It was while vacationing here a number of years ago that my wife and I, as we observed the ancient Bedouin shepherd ritual of tending to their flocks of goat and sheep, that we commented that if we were ever to move to Israel, this would be the place where we would live. In our eyes, this was Israel.
On the occasion of our first anniversary here, I emailed the following to my friends: My wife and I can still recall vividly our very first day of living in Israel. After the exhilarating group flight of Olim with Nefesh B’Nefesh and our reception at Ben Gurion airport, all 11 of us with our 40 pieces of luggage herded into two awaiting vans to transport us to our new home in Mitzpeh Yericho.
It was a blazing hot summer day. Mitzpeh Yericho has two seasons, summer and Hell. The mid-day desert sun was blasting at full force. We were all totally wasted from our very long journey. As we alighted from the vans in front of our still under construction new home, all we could see was sand, sun and sky. It was like entering the twilight zone. Goodbye civilization (Teaneck, New Jersey), hello Mitzpeh.
No sooner had we crossed the threshold that our new neighbor Akiva arrived with a cluster of grapes he had grown in his backyard. On his footsteps were the rest of the curious neighbors with food in tow, coming to meet the American family who had decided to join them in the midst of the Intifada. By the next day, our younger children had already made a bunch of friends. From early morn’ till after dusk, we hardly saw them as they quickly acclimated to our new lifestyle. So is life on a Yishuv. It was a lot easier for our younger children than it was for our teenagers. Summer was fun, even before the swimming pool was completed, but school would soon begin.
For the first few weeks we did without sinks, closets and appliances. It was all part of the adventure. We loved both the big and the little things you experience in Israel, such as Mezuzahs on the doorposts of the stores in the mall and giving birth in a Jewish hospital or the extra half-liter of soda you receive free in honor of the holidays. Nothing can compare to celebrating the holidays in Israel.
Our first year involved great adjustment. It was a year of great joy, with the birth of our second grandchild and subsequent birth of a daughter three days later. It was a year of sorrow, following the death of my wife’s mother, of blessed memory. At times it was fearful, especially following terrorist attacks in neighborhoods frequented by our children.
But we are finally home. We love our community and have been welcomed with open arms. My wife is finally able to force the words “I live in Israel” out of her mouth. In our neighbors’ eyes, we will always be “the Americans”. At least we now have a child who will not have to take Ulpan.
You come to Israel for one reason, but stay for another.

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