No Longer New: Aliya, the first year

11 months have passed by, since we left behind America, boarded an El-Al charter flight and came home to Israel.
11 months have passed by, since we said goodbye to friends and family, and drove from Boca Raton, Florida, to New York City.
11 months have passed by, since we left the comforts and ease of life in America, and landed in the fast and furious Middle East.

I planned to blog for our one year “Aliyaversary”, but I quickly realized that the kids would all be home, as their camps are almost over (and there’s still a whole 5 weeks of summer vacation to go!), and the chance of me having time to sit and write was slim. It seems appropriate to write the blog post today, 11 months and 1 day after our arrival, as the Nefesh B’Nefesh summer flights have just begun. In fact today, in JFK airport in New York, some 220 people are boarding a flight, right about now, much like ours from last year. Tomorrow morning they will arrive at Ben Gurion airport, they will have their welcome ceremony, similar to that which we had last August, and they will start their new lives as Israelis.

It makes me really happy to say that I know 3 families on that flight. One from Florida, one from Virginia, and one from Colorado. As everything is still so fresh in my mind, I have tried to help each of them as much as possible plan for this move. Whether advising them on what to stock up on for their lift, recommending crates for the dogs, or simply explaining to them some of the “shouldbesosimplebutisnt” things that they will have to deal with upon arrival, I’ve attempted to cover it all.
With their arrival tomorrow their dream will be fulfilled. The days, weeks, months, and often years leading up to making aliya are a work in progress – so many things come into play, faith, beliefs, emotions, money. Once you finally arrive here at your destination, it’s difficult to know what to do next. The first weeks (months) are a mess of bureaucracy, something that many find difficult to deal with – especially those coming from North America. Once all of that is out of the way, your dream is now your reality.

Our reality here in Israel is good. It’s wonderful. I’m not one to tint things with rose colored glasses – you should all know me better than that by now. There are things here that will never be easy, and many people allow those things to become an obstacle to their happiness. In order to be happy here, you simply have to “Let Go, and Let God”, as a well known rabbi from South Florida once said, while sky diving somewhere in Israel. I try hard not to let things get to me. Like waiting almost 5 hours at the driver’s license bureau in Holon, simply to get a piece of paper stamped to allow me to take a test to switch my license over. Yes it was frustrating. No it was not fun. But it was part of the first year full of things that just had to get done. Once it’s done, you never have to do most of those things ever again. (Ok, so grocery shopping, dealing with the bank and post office, are things we kind of have to always do, but you get used to it…)

Tomorrow morning, an airplane full of people will become the newest Olim in Israel. As of tomorrow, the Olim of 2014 become the “vatikim” – the “old timers”. We will always be immigrants, as I wrote a few weeks ago, but we are no longer the newest crop. We still have so much to learn about our new-to-us homeland, and yet we have learned so much that we can impart to the newbies.

I wish all the olim arriving tomorrow hatzlacha raba – much success – and a klita kalla vene’ima – an easy and pleasant absorption. May you enjoy a wonderful first year in Israel, and may it also be your worst year in Israel – let each year get better, and let our love of Israel only grow and strengthen our reserve to stay here, in our homeland, our country.

Let’s talk about schools again!

It’s been a while since my blog covered this topic, hasn’t it?! It’s June 30th, that’s the last day of elementary school here in Israel. Middle and High School ended almost two weeks ago.

I’m always excited for the last day of school, I enjoy the summer generally – less pressure on the kids, no homework, no tests, more time to play and have fun. This year is different. This year, I have an added element to my usual summertime excitement. This year, we are celebrating. My children got through an entire Israeli school year, and we all survived!

It’s less than a year since we arrived here in Israel. School started a mere two weeks after we landed, our lift had yet to arrive, and the kids didn’t have real beds to sleep in for the first few weeks of school. They didn’t have a proper table to do their homework on, and they didn’t really know anyone yet.

We told the kids when we made aliya, that they could each take a “personal” day each month, where they could stay home from school. We recognized that it would be a difficult and challenging year for them, learning the language, sitting in class without understanding much of what was being taught, and starting from scratch in the social arena. In the beginning, they each took a day off here and there. There were a few rough weeks where one child or another begged to be allowed to stay home all week. We did not give in. They each worked hard, they all made friends fast, and pretty much every day, all three of them came home smiling from school. Since Chanukah, not one child has asked to take a personal day from school. It’s a good job I never suggested we roll those days over!

For kids who have always been at the top of their class with grades, without ever having to put a lot of effort in, it is very difficult to suddenly sit in class and really not get any of what is going on. To become a kid who struggles to get any kind of grade in a test, rather than easily getting an A, simply because the language isn’t your own, is a really big adjustment. The schools worked with them to an extent, giving extra time where needed, and grading them according to their progress, rather than according to how well they did. But it’s no easy feat to accept that a 65% is a really good grade in a history test, when you’d have gotten 95% had it been in English.

I can’t attest to how much they have learned from an educational perspective, (not much teaching appears to go on from Pesach until the end of school, just an abundance of field trips, tekesim (ceremonies) and parties) but they have learned so much.

They have each emerged from this school year as young Israelis. They have the little shoulder shrug and that shaking of the thumb/forefinger down pat. While they sometimes claim they still don’t speak or understand much Hebrew, I have proof that this is not so. I read their Whatsapp messages, in Hebrew, with atrocious spelling (just like most Israelis!).

Three weeks of camp begins tomorrow – 3 kids, 3 camps, 3 different directions – and then we have the month of August to recuperate, relax and get ready for another year of school. I will have a 3rd grader, a 6th grader (last year of elementary school here) and an 8th grader. Wow, how time flies!

My 3 little Israelis

My 3 little Israelis

It’s like living on Mars (I’m an Alien, Part III)

Following onto my two posts earlier this week, where I reminded all Olim that we are the immigrants, that we have to adapt, adjust, try to learn Hebrew, take it all with a grain of salt, I had a day.

I had a full day of “dealing” with Israel and Israelis. In Hebrew. Just end of school year events and parties, and lots of back and forth trying to get answers, and understand cultural requirements. It was taxing. So, I responded to a message in English, out of pure frustration and exhaustion, in a Whatsapp group (Gosh I hate Whatsapp at this point!) and I got yelled at! Like, if you could write Hebrew in capitals, this would have been screaming at me, in Hebrew, why are you writing in English, you’re in Israel now, you need to use Hebrew. Mind you, I wasn’t the only person in the group who had send a message in English, I guess I just chose the wrong moment to do so. So what did I do? Did I lose it, and scream back in English? Or in Hebrew? Nope. I refused to allow myself to be intimidated. So instead I apologized profusely. In Hebrew. Said that I was tired, and it was difficult to translate what I was trying to say properly, and then to type it all out in Hebrew. If she didn’t understand what I wrote (see where I’m going here) I was happy to try and put it into Hebrew. Of course she responded it was fine, she understood, no need to apologize, yadda yadda yadda.

Earlier this week I had a definitive “I’m so Israeli now” moment while in the mall. At a bath & body store (Laline, love their stuff), a lady was picking up hand cream that her daughter in the US had asked her to get. She was debating getting for herself also. I offered her completely unsolicited advice, and recommended she purchase for herself also, because it’s such a good quality cream, and told her that her daughter has great taste because she likes the same fragrance that I do. By the time she checked out, thanks to my unsolicited advice, she purchased, 2 handcreams, 2 body scrubs, a body mist and a shower gel. I should have asked for commission…

Living in Israel is so unlike living anywhere else on Earth… And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I’m an Alien, Part II

“Why don’t these people speak English?”

“I hate calling customer service and not understanding what they’re saying to me!”

“Why is ‘1’ for Spanish, and ‘2’ for English?! If you live here, learn English!”

In case it wasn’t apparent from the above, these are all things I frequently heard Americans say while I lived in the United States. The lack of empathy that the average American has for people who are not native English speakers always shocked me. No matter how many variations of the above sentence I heard, no matter how often I witnessed people getting angry at someone who didn’t speak English well enough to make themselves understood, I never ceased to be amazed.

Contrary to popular belief, English is not the official language of the United States, it is simply the most common language. According to Wikipedia, “Approximately 337 languages are spoken or signed by the population, of which 176 are indigenous to the area. Fifty-two languages formerly spoken in the country’s territory are now extinct

Most public school systems in the United States have ESL (English as a second language) classes for kids who are not native English speakers. Through this, the second generation of immigrants will speak English fluently in addition to their mother tongue.

In Israel, there are two official languages. Neither one is English. Nor French, nor Russian, nor Spanish. Hebrew and Arabic are the two languages officially recognized in Israel. But it’s not difficult to find Israelis who speak a decent level of English, and there are many Israelis who speak French, Russian and Spanish, often depending on their own heritage.

One of the most common complaints I hear from Olim to Israel from the US, is the inability to communicate properly here. Not everyone comes to Israel with a high level of Hebrew, and even after months of Ulpan, not every immigrant will have the ability to speak Hebrew, or even understand it at a level that enables them to communicate well. No doubt this is one of the most difficult things about moving to a new country.

But here’s the thing – remember all those Latin American immigrants to the US? The parents who never quite master English? But whose kids will be in ESL until they do, and who will be fluent? That is who you are. You are the parents who immigrate at a slightly older age. You may never speak Hebrew well enough to talk politics with Yossi the bus driver, or to argue about bank fees with Iris the bank manager.  You may never be confident enough in Hebrew to haggle prices in the shuk, or to give a Dvar Torah to a room full of people. But your children will. It may take time, and I’ve been told to expect it to take a couple of years, but it will happen. Your kids will be bilingual, and they will be able to help you when you need it. They will also be Israeli culturally, which means you can get them to haggle at the shuk on your behalf.

If you feel comfortable only mixing with other Anglos, that’s fine – it certainly takes a lot of the stress out of your social life. But remember that you are the outsider. This is Israel, after all, and Hebrew is the language spoken here – and Arabic. If you are in a situation where you don’t have the Hebrew to handle it, and English is not an option, find a friend who can help you out.

Just don’t expect Israel to speak to you in English. Israel is Israeli. Hebrew and Arabic are her native languages. She learns English in school, but not everyone has a flair for language – that’s why you’re having a hard time with Hebrew.

I’m an Alien, I’m a Legal Alien Part I

I am an immigrant. I have been an immigrant for almost 24 years. I was an immigrant in Israel. Then I was an immigrant in England. Then in the United States, and now, once again, I’m an immigrant in Israel.

I will always be an immigrant.

In October of 1998, a little over seven years after I arrived “for a year”, I left Israel. Sixteen years, 2 countries, a husband, 3 kids and a dog later, I’m back. New friends want to “hear my story” – why, if I loved it here so much, did I leave, and why, if I missed it so much while I was gone, did it take me 16 years to come back? Do I wish I had never left? Do I wish I hadn’t come the first time?

I don’t believe in regrets. In the words of the inimitable Jon Bon Jovi “you gotta believe, That right here right now, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be” (From “Welcome to Wherever you Are” Have a Nice Day Album 2005)

We all make decisions based on current circumstances, and if we constantly look back and say “if I had only done x,y or z differently…” we would miss so many current opportunities! While I’m sometimes a glass half empty kind of person (I’m working on that, and these days usually see a glass that’s half full), I believe that you can’t go through life saying “what if?” I don’t like to use the word “fate”, because I prefer to view it as God’s Hand pushing us in the right direction, but if you prefer to think of it as “fate”, go ahead.

I left Israel for many reasons, but never because I stopped loving Israel. It took me a long time to move back because LIFE!

The country I have returned to is still the same in many ways, but is so different in other ways. Thanks to the Internet, social media and Waze, life here has become a lot easier. There are a multitude of Facebook groups specifically aimed at immigrants to Israel – offering advice on how to be financially smarter, how to network, how to find jobs that don’t require too much Hebrew etc. etc. etc. But frequently, in fact, daily, fierce arguments break out on these groups between those I like to dub the “complainers” and the “martyrs”. The “complainers” are the people who live here, but who have nothing positive to say. One wonders why they made aliya in the first place. They are like the spies Moshe sent into the land of Israel, to report back to the Jewish people. If we are to listen to them, there is not a single good thing about living here. You want to say to them “go back, if it’s so bad”, and yet, how can you ever tell a Jew to go back? This is our country, this is our land – we must try to help them want to stay. The “martyrs” are the polar opposite. To them, the “complainers” have no right to complain. Many of the “martyrs” have lived here for a long time, and they will tell you how much easier we have it today, they remember when there was a waiting list to get a telephone line, and when you had to live in an absorption centre for six months after arriving in Israel. They will remind you that they helped  build the country, while you are arriving in a paradise. They will reminisce that you couldn’t buy much in the way of personal care products, and that toilet paper was like blue newspaper. One imagines that they did a  fair amount of complaining back in the day, but now Israel is so perfectly modern,  there’s nothing for them to complain about.

There has to be a happy medium. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. My family and I are very happy here. True, we have been here less than a year, so perhaps we are still on our “aliyamoon”. But I strongly believe that how you manage that first year is indicative of how your overall experience will be. The majority of bureaucratic nonsense has to be dealt with within that first year: Misrad HaKlita (Absorption Ministry), Misrad haRishui (Driver’s License Bureau), Ulpan (Hebrew class), the first passport, the first time dealing with medical stuff, opening a bank account, perhaps financing a car, learning how to navigate the school system etc, finding your way around the supermarket, understanding (or not) the post office. It’s tough. It’s even tougher if you don’t have good Hebrew. But you have to go in understanding that you’re not in Kansas anymore. Things work differently in Israel.

I learned the last time I lived here, that getting angry got me nowhere, but staying calm, and acting as if you’re on “their” side gets you further. So when I had to wait in the Driver’s License office last week, in the middle of a heatwave, for four hours, just to have paperwork stamped so I can switch my license, when my turn finally came around, I took a deep breath, and gave the clerk a big smile, asked her how she was, and handed over my papers. In spite of being exhausted, dehydrated and pretty damn annoyed at losing an entire morning. I pretended that all was well, even when the computer system went down 10 seconds before she was done with me. After all, when you’ve waited four hours, what’s another fifteen minutes?

There is so much more to say on this, but it’s for another post. For now, if you’re here, and you find yourself complaining, remember you’re an immigrant. You’re in a foreign country where things are done differently. Sunday will always feel like Monday here, and Friday will never feel like Sunday.

The Temple Mount, in our hands?

It’s Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day.

I can’t watch this footage, can’t listen to the words of Motte Gur “The Temple Mount is in our hands” – “הר הבית בידינו” without crying.

It’s now 48 years since Jerusalem was unified, but today, Jews cannot easily go to the Temple Mount, and that’s what makes me cry. I went up to the Temple Mount the first time I came to Israel, when I was 6 years old, with my beloved late grandparents. And I remember it well.

The Temple Mount, above the Western Wall, the Kotel, where our Holy Temple stood, twice, and will stand again for eternity, is not readily accessible to us, the Jewish people, in our unified capital of Jerusalem today. Today, there are very limited hours during which we are allowed to go up to the Temple Mount, and even then, it is against the law – against the law of the land of the Jewish people!! – to utter words of prayer on the site where our Temple stood. Jews are allowed to pray at the Kotel, but not on the Mount itself.

People of other religions may go up to the Temple Mount freely. And pray. Muslims pray there at the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosques. No one will stop a Christian praying up there. Only Jews are not allowed to pray up there. And when small groups of Jews (the limit is 10 in each group) are brought up to the Temple Mount (because they  must be accompanied, and are not allowed to go up unless they are in a group) they are subjected to verbal abuse by those who are free to pray up there. The Jews are not allowed to photograph or video on the Temple Mount. They are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount. They are allowed to go up, to see, and to be verbally abused while they are up there.

I’m not one for posting politics on my blog, but this is the first year I’m back in Israel, and last night, on our way back from spending Shabbat in Gush Etzion, which has also been back in our possession for 48 years, we took the road through Jerusalem. A city where thousands of years of history meets modernity. A city where you see Jews, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Christians, and many other denominations of Christianity and other religions, walking the streets of the city, both old and new, freely. But to the Temple Mount, only the Jews cannot go freely.

I pray that next Yom Yerushalayim we will be celebrating the rebuilding of the third and final Temple, and the coming of Mashiach, a time when the Jewish people will once again pray on the Temple Mount.

Happy Jersusalem Day! יום ירושלים שמח

Going home, back to the place where I belong

(Lyrics from Daughtry, “Home”)

These are the words that keep popping into my head for the past few days.

I’m surrounded by a sea of blue and white. During the Pesach holiday flags and streamers began appearing overnight, all over the neighbourhood. Even cars are waving flags. This is my favourite time of year in Israel. For 17 years I missed being in Israel for the two weeks immediately following Pesach. My last Yom HaAtzmaut here was celebrating Israel’s 50th year, this year we celebrate 67!

The week after Pesach is Yom HaShoah, which we marked last Thursday. At 10am a 2 minute siren sounds, and the country stops to remember the 6  million Jews murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust. To experience the siren cannot be described accurately. Even the dog understood that something important was going down, and she simply let out a low bark, before bowing her head, and laying down on the ground. The children all had special learning at school that day, and we spoke at length about the Shoah and the horrific impact that it had, not just on those who lived through it, but future generations. Something changed in my kids that day. There was suddenly something different about them. It’s almost as if they get it now. Why this is home. Why we brought them here. Why we can never let “them” win.

This week, on Tuesday night and again on Wednesday morning, we will have a siren again, this time to remember Israel’s fallen soldiers, and victims of terror. My younger two kids are having a ceremony at their school early Wednesday morning, and my son is taking part in Daglanut – if you recall, last year I posted videos of the Daglanut ceremony from Ben Gamla. He is also one of two flag holders who will escort soldiers to light a candle at the school’s memorial. I have no words to describe the pride I feel, and I haven’t even seen him do it yet! Oh  yes, there will be pictures, and hopefully video.

As Wednesday progresses towards evening, the cafes will slowly start to open again, the melancholy music on the radio will begin to sound a little more upbeat, and the streets will start to fill up. As we approach the festivities of this week, I’ve noticed my kids are starting to throw in more Hebrew words to their everyday vocabulary. I see the smiles on their faces as they point out all the flags on buildings. I hear them singing along to some of the Hebrew songs on the radio when they think I’m not listening. It’s as if they are suddenly Israeli. They still have a long way to go, but I have a feeling that Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut will be a turning point for them. Yom HaShoah was the starting point, when they started to “feel” it, that they are part of something bigger.

Last year I posted about the void I felt for the 16 years I wasn’t here to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut. This year, that void is filled. I’m home, I’m back where I belong, with my family, in our country.

Chag Sameach.

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