Things are never quite how you expect them to be. That goes for aliya too. No doubt people have different expectations, and I can only speak for myself, but after seven years of being here how does the reality compare to the dream?
I lived and breathed Israel, when I was growing up. I decided I would make aliya when I was 13 years old, on holiday with my family, entranced and enchanted by the wonderful place I was in; hot, sunny, busy, beautiful…we spent almost every day at the beach, met relations in all areas and from all backgrounds... and all around me there were people like me, the shop signs were in Hebrew, I had relations all over the country and I felt that indefinable and unforgettable sense of belonging and identification that told me I wanted to stay, that this was different from England, innately. Of course it helped that I belonged to a youth movement that emphasized aliya as the end goal of any young Jewish person’s life, and had been taught that Israel was the center, the focal point of any committed Jewish life in our times. Still, it was the actual experience of being here that crystallized the dream for me.
At every opportunity, I was back in Israel. Holidays with family and with friends, tours with youth groups, gap year, leader for student trips during university… and each time I was here life seemed sweeter, more to be savoured. I can describe it as nothing less than living on a different level of reality and intensity, that fell flat as soon as I got back on the plane to leave. Was that a function of being on holiday, or was it something about Israel itself? Is living here truly something special, something even (dare I say it) holy, as it is supposed to be, and is that something that can be felt?
As soon as I was finished university, I was here. No trial run for me, I did the deed officially, shipped my possessions over, and started to live the dream. And how did it compare? Well, it was challenging, and hard. I missed my family and my friends even while I was meeting new people and settling in. The day my lift arrived was a scary one. Ironically, the experience of having my possessions with me was an unnerving one, showing me that I really was here to stay. Starting over anywhere new is daunting, and doing it when you need to learn a new language is even more so. I discovered that however decent my level of Hebrew was, it was nowhere near fluency, and my propensity for not wanting to speak unless I knew I was using the correct language and grammar didn’t help me to improve. You need to take the plunge and talk, and practice, and that’s how you improve. Still, I completed Ulpan, and moved fairly easily into the workforce, taking my almost inevitable place in the Hi-tech boom, working in editorial positions at three hi-tech companies run by Americans over the course of my first six years here.
Life continued, as it does wherever you are, on whatever level of intensity you feel. During my tenure at that third company, having been here for six+ years, I began to feel increasingly dissatisfied with my day-to-day life, due mainly to the fact that I was bored at work. Great people, great conditions - boring, unsatisfying, frustrating work. It made me think again of my dream of working in fiction publishing - something I’d given up in order to live in Israel. And when the company I was working at had to make more cutbacks, and I was let go, I was actually happy, despite the lousy economic situation. But what then? Moving in to the seventh year of living in Israel, knowing, rather than imagining what life is like here, the itch emerged.
I think this is an important issue to acknowledge, which will probably be faced by all immigrants. This is particularly true of Western immigrants, who came out of choice and know they can always go back. What were my particular issues? I wanted satisfying work, which I didn’t feel I would find here. I saw friends my age, in England, whether married or single, buying houses and establishing security for themselves, which seemed further away from me than ever - even with a stable job I couldn’t imagine being able to buy property in Jerusalem. I now knew what high taxes and low salaries meant, and couldn’t dismiss them as easily as I’d done when I was a teenager, blithely assuming a small difference in income that I could easily manage. I was becoming more aware of the fact that my parents wouldn’t live forever, and I’d chosen to live thousands of miles away from them. I hated the way religion is politicized in Israel, the way chiloni and charedi spend so much time at each other’s throats. With all the various minyanim and organizations in Jerusalem, I didn’t feel like I had my own community, just a collection of disparate friends from different areas of life. The fact that I didn’t have to worry about leaving work early on Fridays or what food I could eat actually bothered me; it made me feel there was nothing there affirming who I was. My identity as a religious Jew had been at least somewhat washed away, ironically, by living in Israel. Having worked in hi-tech for six years, my Hebrew was still not great, and I hated feeling ‘dumb’ among Israelis when my profession, my natural bent, is in clear expression and articulation. These were just a few of the frustrations of life in Israel. So, having lost my job, I spent a couple of months in England, trying to decide what to do next, whether to leave Israel for real, whether I should try and find a job that would prove satisfying to me, in England, where most of my family was, and where I still had many very close friends, even after years of being away.
I spent time in England, even applied for a couple of jobs, and enjoyed myself seeing friends and family. By that point, with the intifada raging, it was a relief to not be tense walking down the street, or hearing a helicopter going overhead; to have a break for a few weeks. Having said which, ironically, the political situation was one of the things that stopped me wanting to leave Israel.
After two months, I returned to Israel, knowing I couldn’t make a final decision so quickly, but thinking that I probably would leave, at least for a while, to see if I could jumpstart a ‘real’ career. That I’d renew my lease on my flat for six months, but then I’d go. So what happened? It’s simple, I think. I enjoyed England; I even felt at home there and felt I could build a life there. But when I came back to Israel, having had a couple months away, I had retrieved my original perspective. Sometimes a change is as good as a break, sometimes you need that break to see what it is you possess. It happened in a flash, actually. I’d gone out with my flatmates for a birthday dinner for one of them, in a lovely little Italian restaurant in Rechavia. We were in the car on the way home, driving down Herzl (or is it Herzog, I always get confused) with Jerusalem stretching out in all directions around me, and I re-experienced that epiphany that Israel always had given me.
I was home. I loved these roads, these buildings, this country. I loved the fact that the shomer at the supermarket wished me Shabbat Shalom on Friday when I left with my groceries. I even loved the fact that I couldn’t run down the road to the shops for something I’d forgotten five minutes before Shabbat because the shops were closed. I loved the fact that walking from the center of town back to my apartment was something special for me, not just a walk through dull streets but through Jerusalem, the city we’ve dreamed about for two thousand years. I want to deal with the problems Israel has as a citizen, not standing aloof on the sidelines living a comfortable life abroad. If Israel is going through national trauma enduring the constant bombings and deaths of the intifada, then I’d rather be part of that trauma than live in another country that is critical of our policies without understanding who we are and what we are enduring. Sometimes you can’t weigh up pros and cons rationally, put England on one side, Israel on the other, and try and work out what’s got more to give you. What can you give the country? It’s not only about where you can contribute more, but where you mean more. My life means more, is more important somehow, here, than it would be in England. That’s an inescapable feeling I have. And I may be an immigrant, but Israel is a nation of immigrants; I’m not so different. With all the wandering that the Jews have done over the centuries, I am exercising a privilege that so few have had, to be able to choose to live in a sovereign Jewish State in our ancient homeland. None of these factors had changed while I was vacillating over where to live, but they’d been obscured by daily habit; they needed to be refreshed. And they had been.
And now, a few months later? Unbelievably, I seem to have found work doing exactly what I want; working in fiction publishing, from Israel, something I believed impossible. As a freelancer I get the opportunity to be creative in many different ways as I can work not only in publishing, but also in writing and in web design, all the fields I enjoy. And the view from my new flat affirms my decision every day; with the beautiful vistas of Southern Jerusalem stretching out in front of me, from Arnona, Talpiot and Ramat Rachel on the left all the way over to Malcha and Bayit VeGan on the right, with Katamon in the foreground and the hills in the distance obscuring Bet-Lechem. Life is a challenge wherever you live it, and every country has its problems and its blessings. But this, this Jerusalem, is my home.