Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why I Made Aliyah

A little background might be helpful here....
Summer 2004

Thirty is a dangerous year for single women. Not precisely 30. Sometimes it is 31, sometimes 32. On occasion, a particularly proactive woman might start to become dangerous at 29. But normally, it is the years starting with the number three.

Thirty is the year a single woman wakes up and sees that one of these things is not like the others, that one of these things doesn’t belong…and that the renegade thing is she. Her friends have married, started popping out the papooses, bought houses and are settled down while she is still…well, what IS she doing?

That is why thirty is dangerous. We decide to search and figure out what, exactly, it is that we are doing. If we are not settling, it stands to reason that we should be doing something else.

Married women will tell you that thirty is dangerous for them as well. They will speak passionately about how they feel old, how they have reached the end of their youth, about how…oh, was that the baby? Their passion is reduced to a subdued whimper and they scurry off to do what settled people do. Do not get me wrong. Married women do get dangerous. But they get around to it later-say forty or fifty, once the kids start having lives of their own.

But we single women? We are dangerous now. And we act on it.

Jennifer picked up and moved from Maryland to California. Renee picked up and moved from California to Maryland, and bought herself diamond earrings to boot. Amy entered the Reconstructionist rabbinical school and Rebecca entered an ultra-orthodox women’s seminary. Jennifer K. decided that 30 was saaaassy, and bought a house. Diane quit her job as a lawyer, sold her house, and traveled around the world. When she came back, she started on a new career in public radio.

What did I do? I moved to Israel.

To be honest, I had planned on aliyah for years before I got a kick in the butt from thirty, and finally made the leap. In August 1995, I arrived in Be’er Sheva, Israel to study for a year at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. By the time the program ended in June, I knew that Israel was where I belonged.

Israel is comfortable. Israeli is home. Life in Hebrew both calms and excites me. I like being in a place where being Jewish is completely normal. I like being in a country where a rock concert in Hebrew is just another rock concert and an Israeli Independence Day Parade celebrates Israel’s independence, as opposed to being special events to help the kids learn about their Jewish heritage and Jewish responsibilities, respectively.

As relatively non-observant as I was raised and I am, I have always felt my Judaism as this giant, prominent aspect of myself, like a huge birthmark. This has been the case ever since I was a small child. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979, when I was in fourth grade. My teacher talked to us about this historic event (it should be pointed out that I went to a public school) and had us reenact the signing of the treaty. She asked me to be Sadat. I refused. I had to be Begin. I was Jewish. How could I be anyone else?

This level of awareness and pride feels somehow out of place in the US. You can be Jewish, but could you please be quiet about it? Have a Hannukah bush, celebrate Christmas as a “secular” holiday, maybe marry a nice goyishe boy or if I do marry a Jew, have the good taste to do so because I happened to fall in love with a Jew, and not for a some disgusting reason like actually wanting a Jewish home. Watch Keeping the Faith with an understanding smile and an “oh yes, my mother was also funny that way”.

I do not do any of this well. I was always explaining, announcing, displaying, fighting, defending or doing something regarding this giant thing—my Judaism. Keeping the Faith made me furious- how can you portray a rabbi, (a RABBI!!!) as only wanting to marry a Jew because his mother wanted him to? The movie was bad, but the credits were worse. All those Jewish names.... How could you do that to us? Did your parents give you no Jewish pride?

But in Israel, I do not have to fight. My Judaism just is. Here I can let it be. Here I am comfortable. Here I am normal.

I believe that it has always been has been my destiny to be Jewish in a complete way. I could have ended up ultra-Orthodox in Crown Heights and it would have been just as natural a progression. Instead, I ended up here, living my day to day life in Hebrew, and dwelling in a city where people use Christmas lights to decorate their Sukkot, and think that Santa Claus is the Lubovitcher Rebbe dressed up for Purim.

Nuuu, so what is holding you up?
I had decided to make aliyah by June 1996. I arrived as an olah in July 2001. What happened in the meantime?

Originally, my intent was to make aliyah immediately after I graduated college, in December 1997. To that end, I spent the summer of 1997 in Israel as an intern at a non-for-profit business development organization through a program run by the Jewish Agency to help potential immigrants taste real life in Israel. At the same time, I met with accounting professionals to gather information on the field in Israel. Everyone told me the same thing: get your American CPA first.

I decided to take their advice, but not without a lot of agonizing thought. In the summer of 1997, I was 26. If I waited until I finished my certification, I would not make aliyah until I was 30. And what if, in the meantime, I met a nice guy? What if I got married? Because, you know, most nice Jewish girls do get married by 30. Why would I be any different? And then I would be trapped in the United States. One of my friends pointed out to me that many people who are trapped get that way because they want to be. He had a point, but still it seemed to me a big risk.

I debated for weeks, and in the end, fiscal prudence won out. I returned to the United States, finished my degree, got a job at a DC accounting firm, and left Delaware for the Washington Metropolitan Area and a new life. Unlike my college days, which had featured full time work, full time studies and no life whatsoever, my new life soon featured lots of friends, an insanely active social life, a brand-new Honda Civic and a fun job.

Of course I was still going to make aliyah! No question! It was just a matter of finishing my certification, maybe saving some money… But of course I was going to make aliyah. Maybe in a year. Or two.

This internal battle between my desire to make aliyah and my desire not to make aliyah got so intense that by the middle of my 29th year, I simply could not bear to think about it anymore. So I stopped thinking about it. I did other things. I learned to swing dance. I updated my wardrobe. I went on a two and a half week solo road trip to Canada. I turned thirty.

Life gets dangerous.
I turned thirty, I took a look around my life and I found myself in a rut.

Professionally, things were great. My job was fantastic, my bosses loved me and I was progressing. Friend-wise, I had literally never had it better. In my entire life, I had never had been popular and here I was, popular! I was earning good money, getting my spending habits in check and doing pretty well financially.

But there was the dating thing. To be more precise, there was a pronounced lack of dating. I had not had a boyfriend in years. Here I was, a nice, Jewish girl, in her 30’s, and not married. My friends were all settled or settling and making little contented noises. I was different. I did not belong.

It was time to do something dangerous.

I wish I could say that I moved just for the adventure. I wish I could say that my attitude toward my single status was healthy: if I was going to be single anyway, why not have fun with it? Why not have some adventure? Excitement? But of course the reality was, whether I would admit to myself or others or not, that I was counting on the old Yiddish maxim "change your place, change your luck" to spring into effect. Some wonderful Israeli would sweep me off my feet and I would live happily ever after.

As you will see, things did not quite work out the way I had planned.


Anonymous said...

Another great post about what it means to be different and what it means to be human and what it means to age. You speak to many human needs that are ingrained in our nature, but also what it means to be different, to be a Jew specifically. We are different, but in a good way. Very thought provoking and deep piece Gila. Your writing continues to amaze and pull at the strings of the heart.

Frum Jew in Recovery said...

This is very enjoyable to read and to see the development of someone becoming one with the Land and state of Israel.

I noted this in the past but actually came out and said on my recent visit, "Everyone is Jewish here", meaning for me, that I felt comfortable and could relax.

It's not only that, because I find life less frenzied than in the US, more European with the Middle eastern mix and contribution.

For me this took many years to realize as I had been brought to Israel against my will so to speak as a child and did not like Israel to put it mildly, for many many years.

And I am not the only one, believe it or not, sitting next to me on the flight was someone from the west coast who had the almost exact experience! and did I ask her to keep in contact some way, nope, too tired or whatever.

Anonymous said...

Strong piece, as always.

Lawstudent said...

Wow! I am trying every day to learn more about the world and see through the eyes of people whose experiences are different from mine. Your writing seems so courageous and strong that I can't help but feel that I can see from you perspective. I admire you for the way you have used your story to speak so eloquently to others. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hey - someone else feels the same way I do about "Keeping the Faith."

Gila said...

Wow! You mean I am not the only person who loathed that movie? Oh--it was worth doing the blog just for this. :)

the dame said...

I love how you explain your choice to live in Israel. It's a choice I have seen other people of the Jewish faith make and have understood, but no one else worded thier reasoning in such a clear and universally relatable way.

I am a first generation American living in the states and my family is (Irish-Italian) Catholic. I spent several years of my youth living in a suburb of St. Louis that had a tremendous Jewish community - and at school, I had more friends who were Jewish than those who were not. When I moved to a different part of the country, these years made me infinitely more aware of the lack of understanding and support for the Jewish faith in other communities than I might have been otherwise.

In so much of the States, Judaism is seen as different and strange. There is a lack of understanding and almost a hostility to the need to be inclusive - for example during the winter months when so many people bristle at the use of the word "Holiday" instead of "Christmas" without any comprehension of why it is important in a country that - theoretically - embraces every faith.

I would imagine that living somewhere where your faith and cultural background are just normal and not in any way foreign must be a great relief. But it is sad to me to know you didn't find that comfort level here - just as I know that some of my friends do not.