As promised a couple of weeks ago, here are my thoughts on aliyah. In another post, I’ll have to fill you in on all the things I’ve been up to that kept me from finishing this for over a month.
So one of the most frequent questions I get from both Americans and Israelis is, “Are you making aliyah (immigrating to Israel)?” When I talked with my fellow postdocs at Hebrew U, none of whom are Jewish, they said that they also get that question a lot. I think this reflects a very strong societal imperative to encourage immigration, which can be seen through the various government benefits afforded to new immigrants and programs offered to help with absorption. We’ve also noticed a general excitement when people think that we’ve made aliyah, only to be let down when they find out that we’re only here for two years. Alli and I joke that whereas in America, Jewish grandmothers ask, “Are you married and do you have kids,” here it seems as though those questions are immediately followed by, “Did you make aliyah?” From the American side, I believe that this question reflects more on who we are than on who the questioners are. Meaning, it’s mostly our friends, who know that we are religiously committed Jews and, hence, tied to the land of Israel through the religion.
The good thing about people constantly asking this question is that it triggered some important conversations between Alli and me where we analyzed our feelings and the reality of the situation. So as not to keep you in suspense, the answer is…no. We are not permanently moving to Israel at this time nor do we see ourselves able to commit to that at anytime in the near future. The rest of this post is more or less the analysis that we went through to come to this decision.
From what we’ve seen and experienced, making aliyah from North America is different than many other places in the world (with the possible exceptions of Australia and South Africa, though I’m not so familiar with those situations). Please remember that in what follows, I’m talking about the general case. The main difficulties in making aliyah are the language, absorption of kids, jobs, and the distance from family. The first two are common among all immigrants and can be overcome with time and effort, though it’s not easy. In terms of jobs, generally speaking, people from North America wind up having to accept jobs that are not quite as good as what they had before they came to Israel. Finally, and most importantly, is the distance from family. For other groups of immigrants, either their entire family made aliyah or they’re a short plane ride away. We know several people, for example, who made aliyah from England. For less than half the price and half the travel time, they can be home for the holidays. France is even cheaper. For people who are so close to their family, this is a huge impediment. Before coming to Israel, it would be rare to go a whole month without seeing our parents and we would regularly visit with brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews and cousins. There were stretches of time when all of us (brothers, spouses, kids, cousins, etc.) would get together like every other weekend for two consecutive months. Living here, we’d be lucky to see our family once or twice a year.
Now for the benefits. It’s quite clear from the Torah and other Jewish texts that the ideal is for the Jewish people to live in the land of Israel. Besides the mitzva (commandment) to live in the land of Israel, there are so many other mitzvot (commandments) centered around living in the land of Israel. For example, the laws of shmitah (sabbatical year for growing crops), and the laws of teruma and ma’aser (tithing crops) only apply in Israel. Living in Israel, one can feel how the natural cycle of the land matches so nicely with the religious observances. For example, on Tu B’shvat (the day delineating between years for trees in terms of the tithes), which invariably occurs at some point in January, marks the turning point towards the regeneration of spring. I never really saw the excitement in observing this day as anything special until this year, feeling the warmer weather returning and seeing blooming trees on Tu B’shvat. If I remember correctly, we had a beautiful, sunny 60 degree day on Tu B’shvat.
There’s also the nice perk of having the general pace and culture of society match up with one’s own practices. What do I mean? Well, kosher restaurants are all over for one thing. More importantly, as Alli has highlighted about Chanuka and Purim, the general energy and excitement for the holidays is felt everywhere we go. It’s a lot easier to get into it when so many other people around us are doing the same thing. I also really like that the school breaks match up with the holidays. No, I didn’t get all of Chanuka off, but I did get Purim off and I certainly get all of the major holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot off. In the states, I took these days off, but it would always feel like when I came back that I had a lot of catching up to do. Here, everyone in academia has those days off, so the stress of feeling behind doesn’t enter the picture.
Beyond this, on a level that mixes both the religious and the historical/nationalistic aspects, from the inception of Jewish peoplehood it has been a Jewish value and ideal to not just live in the land of Israel but also to be a sovereign nation that formed a just and holy society. To be a part of fulfilling this national dream and to participate in shaping the society and helping it reach that lofty goal of being a “light unto the nations” is a huge draw for me. For 2000 years our ancestors dreamed about a return to their national homeland and now we have that opportunity.
For us, religious and ideological motivations can help overcome many obstacles, but our connection to our family is too great. In a way, Fulbright helped us get the best of both worlds. We get to, in a small way, fulfill and experience that dream of living in Israel and participating in its society and then we get to return home to the family we love. So thank you Fulbright.