America, Israel, the Open Road and the Expanding Universe

Recently, I’ve come to realize that there is a flip side to an issue very dear to me. That is the issue of freedom of movement. Literally – freedom…of…movement. One thing I love about living in America versus Israel; in America it’s an absolute given that you’re free to travel where you want, when you want. Even in some of the worst neighborhoods here, there is no comparison whatsoever to the limitation on freedom of movement in Israel, whether for logistical reasons for those on the periphery or safety concerns particularly for those living in Judea / Samaria.

For me personally, the ability to move around freely, to hit the road and stretch my wheels with the windows down and radio up if only to clear my mind is essential, therapeutic, even spiritual to some degree. That’s just me. It’s also the simple things in life; I love being able to pull out of the driveway, turn whichever way, get on the highway, get off in any town for gas, for shopping, to go antiquing, to check out some local backwoods bar, or for no reason whatsoever…without the fear of being descended upon by a Jew-killing lynch mob. You may not think this is such an important part of life, to the same degree or even at all, but I’ve always had a special appreciation for the freedom of the open road and for me this is a huge plus to living in the US. I can’t express the feeling of disgust when passing the large red stone signs along the roads, basically warning that entry by a Jew will result in near-certain death. The problem is obviously not as acute and safety concerns play a far lesser role outside the heartland of Judea / Samaria. I know when I’ve vacationed along the coastline or the “mercaz”, the fear wasn’t as ever-present and death by wrong turn wasn’t as certain. Still, there are high traffic, main roads well within the boundaries of the green line; roads upon which you do not want to be stuck in evening traffic, as they’re surrounded by Arab villages with opportunists known to take pot shots at sitting duck Jews.

I’ve been well aware of this for years already. Nothing new there. Nothing I didn’t “sign on to,” so to speak. That awareness, however, and eventual acceptance as a fact of life in the Jewish homeland did not make things easier over time; quite the opposite. Over the years, the limited freedom of movement, has led me to feel often isolated, trapped even claustrophobic to some degree. Over the years, I’ve also become increasingly resentful, maybe even a tad bitter about not being able to move freely and safely through my own country.

But the chidush here for me, is that there is actually another side to this coin, a side which I’ve only become aware of after some time once again living in America. The very fences and boundaries -physical, political and psychological – which restrict our freedom of movement in HaAretz also serve to strengthen and enhance the quality of life of those communities within them. It’s a bit ironic given a couple millennia of Jewish history in the Galut, that one should actually now prefer living within the walls of the Jewish “ghetto,” but that is basically the conclusion I’ve reached.

I always imagined were I to ever move back to the United States, I would buy a country home with a nice large piece of land. Nothing too isolated or too far outside the suburbs, but just far enough up in the hills to have a long, tree-lined driveway and a good couple acres of pristine wooded land. Maybe even a stream flowing through my property where I could take my kids fishing. That used to be a large part of my American dream. And believe me, dreams like that are hard to let go. But now, I’d give up the wooded acreage in order to be surrounded by neighbors I know and trust. I’d give up the relatively cheaper 3,500 sq ft country cabin-like home within walking distance of the local reservoir or lake for a small, relatively more expensive house within walking distance of the local beit knesset. I’d gladly trade the quiet privacy of the home in the hills for the beautifully chaotic noise of my children playing with their friends in the street and in our small, cookie-cutter front yard. In short, I’d give up all I’ve dreamt of having in America for what I already have in Israel.

This is the flip side of all that freedom; America can be a big, open, scary place. Want to buy a home in Israel? Close your eyes, throw a dart at the map and chances are you’ll end up in a uniquely flavored, close-knit community; a place you can belong, a place with tremendous support networks, a place you and you’re children’s children can call home for generations to come. Not so here in America. Outside of those small Jewish enclaves, you’re pretty much on your own. And that may be fine if being able to walk to shul is not a high priority. Or if you don’t mind your kids mostly playing indoors after school rather than going down the street to play with their friends or walking to the corner store to buy some fresh rugelach and barad. If you’re fine with the idea of very possibly living somewhere for 30 years without ever knowing your neighbors. If dead bolts and home alarm systems seem normal to you. But that’s America. That’s the private, impersonal anonymity which comes naturally to living in a country of 320,000,000 people.

But, if that’s not quite your thing and you happen to be or strive to be a Torah-observant Jew, well then, you have two options: the first is living in Israel and the second is living in one of the very far and few between American Jewish enclaves. Ironically, just as in pre-haskala Europe, it’s not always the ghetto walls that confine, but sometimes the ghetto walls that liberate.

This realization, for a proud American as myself is a very bitter pill to swallow. But it is the post-golden-era American Jewish reality. Sure as the universe continues to expand, the bonds of American Jewish communal life will continue to trend towards dissipation in the long run, save for the occasional star cluster here and there. As the younger generations increasingly view aliyah not only as a viable option but actually a step towards an enhanced quality of life for themselves and their children, America will unfortunately become a larger, colder, lonelier place for a Jew to live.

Am I Cheating on my Israeli Wife with my American Mistress?

Israel and the United States of America – the two geographical and cultural loves of my life. The only two places I’d ever dream of living and the two countries tearing my heart. The following is a shortened correspondence I had recently with a friend of mine who lives in Israel:

ME:  I think I’m extra sensitive at the moment with everyone asking why, why why. Thing is I don’t even have all the answers myself. (not w/in original correspondence; though I tend not to talk about it, one of the main reasons I’m here at this time is because my parents aren’t doing well, and as an only child, it’s my responsibility to do what I can to help…and I can’t do much from the other side of the planet)

I’ve never felt so conflicted. I feel like a “traitor” so to speak, admitting that there are aspects of life in America that are infinitely better than in Israel. On the flip side, I feel very defensive whenever someone else implies anything negative about Israel.

On the one hand, I hate the feeling of having to defend the integrity of our homeland 100% in every situation, as if life there is all roses and dancing camels. A lot of BS goes on there that I don’t like. And I don’t mean just politically, but culturally as well. It makes it worse to feel I have to look the other way or sweep it under the carpet, so as not to offend or embarrass my fellow Israelis in front of our American counterparts. But, c’mon, only the absolute lowest of the low would speak publicly of their ‘spouses’ shortcomings.

On the other hand, don’t I have the right to call it as I see it? To have an honest discussion of the good and bad in both countries? Even to fly back and forth as I please without justification and without feeling as though America is my secret mistress with whom I’m cheating on my wife, Israel?!?

FRIEND:  I understand your conflicted feelings. I felt the same way for my first years back in the US after the army.

But I have come to two conclusions about these matters:

1) you have every right and responsibility to be critical of the US and Israel when it comes to Politics, culture, social trends, etc. that you feel need to be addressed. Your current country of residence is irrelevant.

As someone who has spent significant time in both countries you are in a unique position to compare and contrast. The only caveat is: try to be aware of your audience. Context is important. What an informed friend understands as ” The Israeli government needs to improve x, y and z”, the uninformed person may hear as “Israel is evil”.

2) So you are in the US now. The reason does not matter. No need to justify it to anyone. Just embrace the moment and make the most of it. How long will you stay? When is the right time to come back? That is for you and Sara to decide and when you reach that bridge you will know if it is time to cross. But it is nobody else’s business. And just because you write about encouraging Aliyah, it doesn’t mean you are a hypocrite for doing what is right for your family at this given moment.

Parshat Lech Lecha – The Very First Oleh Chadash and Why I Chose to Follow Him to Israel

There’s a short story I tell often. It’s a personal anecdote and every time I tell it, I feel the need to emphasize to my audience that although it indeed happened to me, I don’t expect them to take it at face value, as I still find it hard to believe myself. In fact, I probably wouldn’t believe it at all, and as the years pass would become more apt to attribute it to faulty memory, fanciful thinking or exaggeration…were it not for the fact that I found it so astonishing that I immediately recorded the incident in a journal, knowing I would come to doubt my own experience.

This past Shabbat the audience was my own children. It’s the week of Parshat Lech Lecha and I felt my seven year old son especially was ready to hear it. I felt they all needed to hear it, given the impact it has had on my life and, by extension, their lives. The story goes something like this: many years ago, after finishing my undergrad degree, I found myself at a crossroad. Nothing too unusual so far. I finally found myself “out there in the world” and had to decide where to build my life. Luckily, I’d narrowed it down to two places: here in America or there in Israel. All the pros and cons charts in the world, advice from teachers and mentors, input from family and friends, though helpful, just couldn’t provide the certainty I needed to make such a huge decision. I was so overwhelmed, I began to think that no one less than G-D could make such a decision.

Then I learned of a Jewish tradition, along the lines of sending igrot to the Rebbe, but dating back much further. It is straight forward enough; pop open a chumash, point to a random posuk and there you’ll find some guidance. For anyone who knows me well, to say that I don’t believe in such things, is quite an understatement. I flipped the pages as nonchalantly as I could and judging by the thickness, could tell that I’d landed somewhere in Sefer Bereisheit. I wasn’t in the ballpark, in the neighborhood of, or on the page opposite from, but right on the posuk:

 “וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ”

“God said to Avram, ‘Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

-Bereisheit (Genesis) 12:1

Coincidence? Seemingly. One in a million chance? Yeah, probably something like that. Worth looking in to? You bet. And the rest is history. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about that one posuk, that one sentence that allowed me to make a decision that changed the course of my life. I say “allowed” because I already knew the answer, the decision…I just couldn’t give myself permission to take such a giant leap of faith.

Let’s look at the posuk closely, break it down, and if you’re able to, please read it carefully in the original Hebrew.

 וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךּ

There are two major issues with the wording here. Firstly, what do we learn from the repetitive, seemingly redundant language of this posuk? If G-D was telling Avraham simply to leave his land, it could have said “lech”, which means “go.” But the words “Lech lecha”, literally translated, mean “go to yourself.” Secondly, the instructions given to Avraham seem counterintuitive. Obviously, when giving someone directions, you instruct them in a step-by-step order from their present location to their destination. Here, the GPS isn’t messed up, it’s ordered perfectly backwards. Avraham is first told to leave his country, then his hometown, lastly his precise location; his father’s house.

Rashi commenting on the words “lech lecha” tells us that the double language denotes for one’s own good and benefit. The Zohar reads it “go to you.” Examining further commentaries, we find that the first word “lech” describes a physical journey, while the second word, “lecha,” describes a spiritual and emotional journey. The Slonomer Rebbe, elaborating on this concept, teaches us that the command “lech lecha” implies fulfilling one’s purpose, reason for being and unique task in this world.

The proper understanding of the words “lech lecha” sheds light on the second half of G-D’s command to Avraham in that one fateful, zipfiled sentence. Hashem is telling Avraham as well as instructing the entire Jewish people how and just as importantly where to begin their individual and national journey. We’re instructed to go on a journey of self-discovery and growth, far away from all that we’ve ever known. As such, Avraham is not directed in chronological order from current physical location to destination, but rather in order of the easiest to most difficult steps on a spiritual journey. Avraham is being instructed to fulfill his potential through a journey to self-perfection. “Your land, birthplace and father’s house” serve as an ordered representation of the depth of character traits ingrained in a person, and thus the difficulty in uprooting them.

“Your land” comes to represent your earthly, everyday attachments and the negative influence of the culture in your home country; all those cultural traits foreign to Judaism, which we take on through assimilation, as well as unnecessary material attachments. “Your place of birth” is an indication of the social and economic status you’ve attained through accident of birth. Leaving “your father’s house” refers to overcoming self-defeating behavioral patterns, social and psychological conditioning. It entails an awareness and improvement of any negative traits you possess – genetically as well as those picked up from your immediate surroundings that have become second nature. The lesson taken is that in order to fulfill your purpose in the world, you have to rid yourself of the things holding you back, whether inherited, learned or absorbed from your environment.

Furthermore, we see that G-D is in fact telling Avraham to go on aliyah. Regardless of any difference in interpretation or understanding of what it means to be a Jew or a part of the Jewish nation, I think we can pretty much agree that it is no coincidence that Avraham, who is destined to be the father of the Jewish people, is being told to leave everything behind and immigrate to the Land of Israel.

No one can claim that living in Israel is easy, and the Torah never presents it as such. In fact, almost immediately upon his arrival in Israel, he is confronted by certain poverty (some things never change) as famine ravages the land. Avraham is commanded to take a leap of faith and travel to the land that G-D will show him, where he will then merit to father a family and an entire nation.

The Torah clearly presents Israel as the place most suitable for a Jew to realize his full potential and it is G-D’s will and explicit command to live there. The duty to live in Eretz Yisrael permeates and underlies all of Torah and the reasons for doing so are borne out constantly and very often tragically throughout Jewish history. We don’t have to search very far to learn why. It is in Israel that an Israelite goes to find themselves, in Judea that a Jew goes to become themselves. Such a special story to be able to share with my children this past Shabbat. And I’m thankful for now having the opportunity to share it with you as well.

American Jewry and the Biblical Paradigm of Antisemitism

Hi Ran,

How’s it going? I want to pick up on a very uncomfortable and extremely sensitive topic. You touched upon it your last letter, when you wrote: “My perspective about the future of American Jewry is more based on faith-based historical patterns and perspective. In my mind, when we see a very large, successful and well-integrated Jewish community which is deviating further and further from its Jewish roots, and specifically during the era of Kibbutz Galuyot (prophesied in-gathering of Jewish exiles from all countries back to the Land of Israel – my words), when the unmistakable historical/prophetic direction is Israel retaking its place as the center/nucleus of the Jewish world, G-d will not let the phenomenon that is America Jewry remain undisturbed. When American Jews en mass are abandoning their identity, and by and large not taking part in the the era of Kibbutz Galuyot, G-d is gonna give it a big ol’ whooping, a huge wake-up call. So based on this perspective, I believe that American Jewry is on the brink of cataclysmic changes in terms of American society turning hard core against them.”

Torah prophecy combined with a basic understanding of millennia of Jewish experience was a major factor in my own decision to make aliyah. I remember trying to explain my decision to my grandparents, who implored me not to leave what they referred to as the “golden medina.” And no doubt it was just that for countless European Jews fleeing persecution as well as their descendants who continue to live fulfilling lives in this wonderful country. I’d imagine most American Jews feel more than a bit touchy about this topic for good reason; it could be they take offense at the very notion that America could ever become less than hospitable to immigrants and minorities in general, and the Jewish people in particular. It could be that they’re aware of the pattern of Jewish history, realize there are (to my knowledge, at least) few if any exceptions to this pattern, and yet for whatever reason aliyah is simply not an option for them. It could be one spouse would like to raise their children in Israel while the other prefers to remain here.

These are all extremely difficult issues, which I don’t dismiss lightly. Still, the fact remains that the American Jewish era is a beautiful yet small blip on the timeline of our people’s history. There have been other golden ages for world Jewry and almost all came to a relatively abrupt and similar conclusion.

You have a sweeping knowledge of Jewish history, so there’s no need for me to confirm the truth of what you wrote in your last email; you can probably rattle off 20 different exiles that follow the pattern you describe.  But, did you know there is an eerily precise template presented in the Torah for the cycle of Jewish migration, acceptance, hostility and eventual persecution? A Biblical paradigm for the recurring pattern of antisemitism throughout history. As I’m sure we’ve talked about in one of our marathon, over-night discussions, it makes no difference whether you read the Torah literally, metaphorically or a mix of both. And it’s freaky that no matter which country or time period you choose to examine, the Jewish experience fits very neatly into this original template – the correlations are startling!

I’ll say right off the bat; I can’t say with any certainty that American Jewry will follow this pattern and that prevailing currents can’t be reversed. I can’t pretend to know the nuances of how this will happen in America nor when. No one does. However, it would be one hell of an historical anomaly if it didn’t happen at all. We see this pattern playing out (rather, wrapping up) right now in France. Some of the Jew hatred has been brought to the surface by French policy towards Israel but interestingly, most of it has been imported and the French government is attempting to protect its Jewish population. Actually, a quick Google search will turn up recent instances of French officials literally begging Jews to remain as aliyah to Israel gains momentum.

Let’s take a look now at the Biblical ‘origin’ of this pattern. First, I’ll summarize the events presented in the Torah, and then I’ll bring you the particulars, the actual text of the Torah, broken down stage by stage. Towards the beginning of the Torah, in Parshat Vayeitzei Yaakov flees from his brother Esav. He finds refuge in a place called Haran and takes up residence at Lavan’s house. We soon discover that Lavan, who appears to act with warmth and hospitality, is actually driven by ulterior motives. Hashem’s blessing, accompanied by Yaakov’s many years of hard work bring good fortune to Lavan’s entire household – a fact not lost on Lavan himself, who becomes ever more exploitative and resentful of Yaakov’s success.

So there is our forefather, Yaakov, living in a foreign land as a guest. Lavan’s sons grow envious of the outsider who, having arrived empty-handed has now amassed a small fortune. As their envy turns to disdain, they begin dredging up conspiracy theories, making false accusations against Yaakov, charging that he stole from their father. At the same time, Lavan himself, frustrated by economic setbacks and baffled by Yaakov’s success, grows increasingly hostile. Yaakov begins to sense the change taking place in his adopted land but remains complacent even as suppressed hostility turns to overt hatred.

Hashem then intervenes, commanding Yaakov to return to his home, the Land of Israel. Yaakov proceeds to discuss the matter with his wives, who have a more intuitive understanding (don’t they always?!) of the growing danger they all face. The wives exhort Yaakov to act in accordance with Hashem’s will and the entire family flees in haste.

Every Pesach (which I really missed spending with you this past year), in celebrating our national liberation from spiritual, cultural and physical bondage, we read the following passage from the Haggadah: “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” Are we really to believe that Yaakov suffered greater persecution during his 20 years at Lavan’s house than did the entire Jewish nation, enslaved for over two hundred years in Egypt? Obviously not! Amalek was no more brutal than any other nation that went to war against Israel, yet they are singled out by the Torah because they were the first to attack, weakening the deterrence afforded the Jewish nation through G-D’s destruction of Egypt. In the same way, Lavan is singled out not for being the most brutal but for being the first. Lavan was the prototype and his exploitation of Yaakov set the pattern for all subsequent Jewish history.

The cycle of defenselessness, dependence and persecution began the very first time the Jews left Israel. From that point forward, whenever escaping persecution, they would find refuge in yet another foreign country whose government and people at first appeared genuine in their welcome.

וַיְהִי כִשְׁמֹעַ לָבָן אֶת שֵׁמַע | יַעֲקֹב בֶּן אֲחֹתוֹ וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְחַבֶּק לוֹ וַיְנַשֶּׁק לוֹ וַיְבִיאֵהוּ אֶל בֵּיתוֹ

“Now it came to pass when Laban heard the report of Jacob, his sister’s son, that he ran towards him, and he embraced him, and he kissed him, and he brought him into his house.” (Vayeitzei 29:13)

I’d like to point out an interesting caveat – particularly that of the Hellenic period as well as post-Enlightenment Europe;  Jews have been offered the opportunity in theory for acceptance as equals with individual rights ‘protected’ by law. This often comes, however, at the expense of having to shed any outward sign of distinctiveness (more so the higher one wishes to climb within the social hierarchy) and embrace varying degrees of assimilation. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression; to be more “German than the Germans.” Even this aspect of exile and anti-Semitism can be learned out from Yaakov’s experience with Lavan; “and Laban said to him, ‘indeed, you are my bone and my flesh.’ And so he stayed with him.” Vayeitzei 29:14)

In most cases the Jewish people as a whole arrive at their new destination empty-handed and impoverished. Most of our grandparents, immigrants to America, began as street peddlers, moving up to become barbers, tailors, retailers etc. Hashem’s blessing, coupled with the focus on education, hard work and self-improvement leads the Jewish minority to eventually achieve prosperity within their new home. The host country at first acknowledges and even celebrates Jewish success and contribution to society.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו נִחַשְׁתִּי וַיְבָרֲכֵנִי יְהֹוָה בִּגְלָלֶךָ

“And Laban said to him, ‘I see the Lord has blessed me for your sake’.” (Vayeitzei 30:27)

In the next stage, trouble begins; prosperity and acceptance eventually lead the Jewish people to stop longing to return to their eternal homeland or even forget entirely that they are foreigners, permanent outsiders, strangers in a strange land. Social and material comfort leads to complacency, a belief that the current exile is permanent and the mentality of “it could never happen here…this time it’s different.”

וַיִּפְרֹץ הָאִישׁ מְאֹד מְאֹד וַיְהִי לוֹ צֹאן רַבּוֹת וּשְׁפָחוֹת וַעֲבָדִים וּגְמַלִּים וַחֲמֹרִים

“And the man (Yaakov) became exceedingly wealthy, and he had prolific animals, and maids and servants, and camels and donkeys.” (Vayeitzei 30:43)

As time passes, envy of the disproportionately successful Jewish minority begins to surface. Despite (and often because of) efforts to ingratiate, blend in, display national loyalty and keep a low profile, awareness grows among the general population that there is an outsider living among them. The amount of time it takes for this awareness to develop depends on the particular culture (as well as other factors such as the economic situation), but this growing awareness is predictably followed by the next stage, characterized by some form of demonization, false accusations, conspiracy theories, scapegoating and outright anti-Semitism.

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֶת דִּבְרֵי בְנֵי לָבָן לֵאמֹר לָקַח יַעֲקֹב אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ וּמֵאֲשֶׁר לְאָבִינוּ עָשָׂה אֵת כָּל הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה. וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב אֶת פְּנֵי לָבָן וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ עִמּוֹ כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם

“And he heard the words of Laban’s sons, saying, ‘Jacob has taken all that belonged to our father, and from what belonged to our father, he has amassed this entire fortune’. And Jacob saw Laban’s countenance, that he was not disposed toward him as (he had been) yesterday and the day before.” (Vayeitzei 30:44-31:2)

The Jewish people usually refuse to recognize the changing tide (we are a “stiff-necked people” after all), disregard the warning signs, and fail to consider the possibility of returning home, believing still that “this time it’s different.” Finally, Hashem must ‘tell’ us to leave – usually in the form of religious or physical persecution – a “big ol’ whooping, a huge wake-up call” as you put it. With a bit of foresight, a fraction of the Jewish population leaves early, proud and of their own free will. Part of my own family chose to leave Poland prior to the Holocaust, while others (legitimately, due to constraints) stayed and were murdered. On the other side of my family, some chose to leave Russia at the height of the pogroms, others as the Communist revolution gained traction, while others stayed behind. Throughout Jewish history, the majority, realizing the inevitable only at the last moment, are forced to flee in haste…assuming they are able to get out at all.

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל יַעֲקֹב שׁוּב אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲבוֹתֶיךָ וּלְמוֹלַדְתֶּךָ וְאֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ

“And the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Return to the land of your forefathers and to your birthplace, and I will be with you’.” (Vayeitzei 31:3)

וַיִּגְנֹב יַעֲקֹב אֶת לֵב לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי עַל בְּלִי הִגִּיד לוֹ כִּי בֹרֵחַ הוּא. וַיִּבְרַח הוּא וְכָל אֲשֶׁר לו

“And Jacob concealed from Laban the Aramean by not telling him that he was fleeing. So he and all that were his fled.” (Vayeitzei 31:20-21)

This pattern, this cycle of Jewish history then begins all over again. There is, however, one major difference today (actually, there have been short, infrequent windows of opportunity in the past as well); just as it was during Yaakov’s lifetime, our generation has been both blessed and challenged with a rare opportunity to break the cycle…returning to our own land of our own free will is once again a viable and realistic option for Jews worldwide.

At the end of your letter, you wrote “So obviously, and you already knew this, I believe (as you fear) there is no long term future for Jews in America. The mass American Aliyah will not be an Aliyah of choice, but of fear, and Jews who today would never contemplate moving to Israel will find themselves doing so, whether 5 years from now or 20 years from now. So as far as the security blanket the little blue book (American passport – my words) gives us, well – as far as I see it, whether one likes it or not, we are all Israelis now.”

You’re right, and thank G-D, both you and I have had the privilege of spending the past ten or so years planting our family’s roots deep in the soil of Eretz Yisrael. I’ll write you more about my reasoning (or rationalizations?) for returning to the US in a future email. Yaakov left Israel for his own (very legitimate) reasons, got a bit too comfortable in a foreign land, and had to have a fire lit under his backside along with his wives insistence, before going home. Do I see a similar pattern potentially taking shape right now in my own life? You betcha!

Until next time ach sheli… kol tuv from America.

Mike

Biblical Paradigm                                   Corresponding Historical Pattern

Yaakov flees Esav                                    Flight from persecution

Lavan welcomes, offers refuge           Refuge found in a foreign country

Embrace turns to exploitation            Cultural/poli/econ realities shift, exploitation begins

Yaakov’s success leads to comfort    Wealth, acceptance lead to complacency

Jealousy, accusations and hostility    Demonization, anti-Semitism

G-D tells Yaakov to return to Israel   G-D ‘tells’ us to leave, usually in form of persecution

 

For a quite thorough listing of anti-Jew massacres, pogroms, expulsions and attempted genocide in the common era; http://www.simpletoremember.com/articles/a/HistoryJewishPersecution/ Continue reading

Finding My Way to Israel

It seems appropriate before I go any further, to tell you a little bit about how I came to fall in love with Israel. It was towards the end of my third year of college. I had spent the last two years becoming increasingly involved in student government and Model UN. Not being religious at the time, these things seemed to give meaning to my life. As the end of the school year approached, I began to feel as though I were with the completely wrong people; I wanted to build lasting friendships having something much deeper in common than politics or being on the same committee. I was longing to reconnect with my Jewish heritage and to feel part of my extended Jewish family.

By the end of the year it became clear to me where I intended to focus my career and my life. The love of the Land of Israel had become my driving force. I felt as though this is how I could make my contribution; this is how I could be a part of the unfolding story of the Jewish people. I spent that summer re-learning much of what I had forgotten about Judaism. I started going to synagogue and meeting other Jewish students. As my senior year of college began, I was feeling increasingly connected with my people, my heritage and my history.

I formed the first pro-Israel student organization at UConn and began hosting a flurry of events on campus and attending conferences around the country. To this day I will never forget my first pro-Israel student conference. I have no way of describing the feeling of seeing the Israeli flag being waved overhead as we danced and sang; it was as if the State of Israel had just been declared. And for many of us, at that moment, perhaps it was.

Towards the middle of my senior year, before I had even made my first visit to Israel, I found myself trying to convince as many Jewish students as possible that the best and right thing for us to do was to make Aliyah. Most students I spoke with had never even begun to think of the implications of American Jews making aliyah. The way I saw it, there is only so much student activists can do to affect US government policy towards Israel, yet EVERY student, every person could come to realize their own historical role and its impact in bringing about G-D’s plan for the Jewish people by choosing to build their lives in Israel.

During winter break of my senior year, I made my first visit to Israel. What would it be like? Would I feel as though I were in a foreign country or a strange place? That’s how I expected it to feel and as my time in Israel passed, I mistook the lack of feeling of ‘strangeness’ as my own lack of receptiveness to spirituality. But it was so much simpler than that. The reason I didn’t feel like a foreigner is because I wasn’t. How foreign could things possibly feel when you are for the first time, no longer a stranger in a strange land? I was amused by the simplicity of it all; I really was home.

A Jewish state. The concept itself boggled my mind, yet alone the reality of walking the streets, seeing street and store signs all displayed in Hebrew. This is the only place in the world where we are not a small and often vulnerable minority. This is the only place where we can truly be ourselves, truly be at home. And the thing that stuck with me most throughout my visit was how safe I felt. I had become witness to a modern day miracle. I left Israel knowing that making aliyah was the only thing that made sense.

As things began to wind down and my senior year drew to a close, I continued to become increasingly aware of what a blessing it is to be part of the Jewish people. There is so much meaning to every day, to the holidays, to the year and life cycle – especially in the Jewish homeland where the seasons and daily life itself follow the flow of the Jewish calendar.

The summer after graduating I returned to Israel for a short visit, the next year for a professional internship and the following year I returned for graduate study and ulpan…aside from short trips to visit family, I never did leave Israel again. But those are stories for another time.

Next, I’m going to take a look at an extremely important and mostly ignored topic: the phenomenon of culture shock. Is it even possible for Jews to experience culture shock in Israel?

Introduction

I made aliyah over ten years ago and live in Israel with my wife Sara and our four children. Overall, we’ve been extremely happy living here but are now at a crossroad; the next stage of our journey involves returning to the Unites States for a yet undetermined amount of time.

This blog has three main purposes: First, I would like to share my thoughts and experiences with those of you who dream of Aliyah  as well as those of you who experience guilt or derision due to a ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ aliyah. Second, after more than ten years away, I will use this opportunity to observe and discuss the changing quality of life for Jews in America. Finally and perhaps most importantly, through the course of this blog I will explore and try to reconcile my own different and sometimes conflicting American and Israeli identities.

It’s my hope that through reading this blog, you will at the very least find some comfort knowing that you are not alone in feeling conflicted or torn between the two countries you love most, even if you have lived here for decades. There are those of you for whom aliyah is not, nor ever will be a realistic option, and that’s alright. You may be wrestling with your identity as being both Jews and Americans who feel an emotional attachment to Israel. This blog is also for you.

As anyone who knows me well can attest; the single experience throughout all of Jewish history that inspires, drives and pains me greatest is the episode of the מרגלים, the spies. This was far more than an historical event, or a story meant to instruct through metaphor. The episode of the spies has had and will continue to have repercussions on all of Jewish history.

Many parallels can be drawn between our own lifetime and that of the דור המדבר , the generation that wandered in the desert. The generation of the desert, the generation which witnessed the Exodus from Egypt before entering Israel, sent spies to scout out the land. The spies returned giving a negative report and causing the Jewish people to fear entering. One of the reasons the Jews of the generation of the desert didn’t want to enter Israel was fear of the inhabitants. Another reason is that they feared losing the positions of power, leadership and physical security which they held in the desert. The spies told the people “we’ll never make it there, it’s not possible, we won’t survive, and maybe we should go back to Egypt. Furthermore, we’re comfortable here in the desert, maybe we should just stay where we are.” We witness these very same concerns playing themselves out over and over throughout Jewish history and with particular force now in our own lifetimes.

Unlike the generation of the desert, today’s olim choose to come here. Many of my friends have made this choice, even in the face of adversity, and some against the wishes of their family and the advice of friends. Many who’ve come here have left behind well-paying jobs, turned down promising career opportunities or put off going to grad school.

A uniquely difficult challenge presents itself to those coming from North America or (every day less applicably) Western Europe. In this case we’re not speaking of people who’ve had to flee religious/physical persecution or hope for an increased standard of living. We are speaking of those who chose to make Israel a central focus of their lives to the point they left all behind and moved here. Just as the generation of the desert longed for the “fleshpots of Egypt”, it is all too easy for us olim to compare our standard of living here in the Holy Land to what we had known in our countries of origin. The constant challenges to those who choose to live here should not be dismissed lightly. Just as the Jews of the desert had to break the slave mentality ingrained though generations of living in Egypt, olim chadashim (new immigrants) must do the same. By the very nature of where we were born, where we’ve spent most of our lives and the society we grew up in, we’ve become enslaved, knowingly or not, to materialism, to the “good life.”

Through my 10+ years personal experience of Aliyah, and comparing it to my anticipated experience once again living in the U.S., I hope to paint an accurate picture (from my personal perspective, obviously) of what it’s like for an American Jew living in Israel versus living in America. In my heart, I would like to draw the conclusion that living in Israel continues to be the right thing for my family and me, despite the many challenges and downsides. But I wouldn’t put money on it just yet.

This topic is complicated and emotionally charged. I would like to present a complete and honest picture of what aliyah is like. I cannot give the full picture as I’ve experienced it, without discussing the many negative aspects of life in Israel.

Giving the whole picture, which I intend to do, may undermine what for the longest time I’ve seen as my mission being a pioneer among my family and friends – that Hashem has given me an opportunity to contribute in a small way to the tikun of the cheit ha’meraglim (rectification of the sin of the spies). But, if I present a dibat tov and raah, a mixed description of both the good and the bad, I risk feeling as though I’ve failed in that mission; and it’s that mission, which has been the central purpose and driving force of my life for the past fifteen or so years.

This dilemma tears me up. And the pain I’m experiencing as I prepare to leave Israel makes me wonder why I am going at all. Why am I giving all this up? Have I come to take everything here for granted or am I so shallow as to miss the material comforts of America after all these years? Are annual family visits no longer enough? Does my responsibility to care for my ageing parents justify removing my children from the nurturing communal environment unique to Israel?  Is my identity as an American stronger than my identity as an Israeli?

Of all the sins committed in the desert after leaving Egypt (including the sin of the golden calf), giving a negative report about the Land of Israel is the one sin for which the Jews were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. Now, after having wandered the earth for the past 2,000 years, we have a chance to rectify the sin of that generation. The tikun is achieved by seeing past the superficial, seeing past the many hardships and inconveniences of living here. We need to see the true beauty of the Land of Israel; the inherent spiritual beauty, the beauty of the people who live here and the historical significance of this opportunity. We rectify the sin of the spies by choosing to live in Israel. I have. My wife has. Many thousands of Americas have. Have my wife and I been successful? Only our descendants will be able to answer that question.

So, why am I going? Will this be a permanent move? The truth is I have many reasons for going to the U.S., most of which I will discuss through the course of this blog. Whatever the arguments for or against, the reality is that I’ve already chosen to experience life in America once more. And since I am going, I will use this opportunity as a pilot trip – a reverse mission to that of the spies in the desert. I will be scouting out and reporting back on the changing quality of life for Jews in America. At the same time, I hope to make peace with and more wholly integrate my American and Israeli identities.

Please feel free to leave comments or contact me directly at any time. Through creating a dialog, we can make this journey together and find answers to the questions we’ve been silently asking ourselves.

The Changing Tide in America

Hey Ran,

In an earlier letter you had asked me to further explain what I meant by the “changing tide” in American society and the influence it has had on my decision whether or not to move back. So I’ll tell you a bit more about the changes I’m seeing and how it’s given me this sense of urgency; if I’m going to make a decision to raise my children in America, I feel I’d better make the move sooner rather than later.

I’m a true believer in American exceptionalism. The country was founded and built upon Judaeo-Christian values. Many of the founding fathers drew their inspiration and ideals for their new society through an avid reading of the bible – many of them, in its original Hebrew, believe it or not.

It’s that solid bedrock of Judaeo-Christian values, which made its citizens the most free of all peoples, the protection of their inalienable, G-D given rights enshrined in law. Yes, obviously its history is scarred with injustice; owing to an often twisted, self-serving interpretation of its foundational biblical principles. It’s never been perfect and at times, yes, it’s been downright horrible. Nevertheless, it is that bedrock and it is those principles which arguably made America the greatest of all countries. Now, it’s the steady, seemingly unstoppable erosion of that bedrock and the misguided undermining of those principles that hurries its premature demise.

Here I am, in the country that has been destined, chosen, prophesied and condemned to being a light unto the nations – watching from a safe distance as the ‘shining city on the hill’ fades away. We, us American Israelis, can only look on in dismay at many of the changes taking shape in American society. Like you, I came of age in the 1990’s. I try not to idealize that time and place in history the way so many Baby Boomers do with the 1950’s. But I must admit that I feel a deep, grinding nostalgia so powerful it can rattle my ancestors awake.

I never could have imagined that one day I’d be on the other side of the planet looking on sort of like a helpless, frozen spectator at a sporting event gone tragically wrong. Americans living abroad, anywhere in the world, can observe with a level of objectivity that is obtainable only through geographical and cultural distance. And we’re sitting here observing the changes, the divisiveness and the cultural implosion; we’re watching as our beloved America the beautiful withers and decays into something ugly and unrecognizable. As things get worse, ironically, I find myself wondering if I should continue to sit back and watch or if I should return to the U.S. It seems the idealism that brought me to Israel, to stop with all the Hasbara and instead lead by example is now, oddly enough, tugging at me to return.

Things are not perfect here, you certainly know that. We’ve discussed it before and I’m sure we’ll come back it again in future correspondence. As I’ve said before, I don’t think I’ll ever be completely at home here. My children- now that’s a different story. It’s the most extraordinary thing to watch them growing up among Jews from all over the world with such different backgrounds and yet integrating so well, blending effortlessly into this beautiful mosaic of Jewish Israeli culture. However, like so many first generation immigrants, I do take comfort in the thought that even after all these years I can still go back if I choose to. Perhaps I never feel more Israeli than I do during times of war or other national traumas. But ironically, it’s those very same times that remind me just how American I am. I can’t fully explain, and I may even be projecting, but I can sometimes…somehow…sense a suppressed jealousy turned resentment coming from many native born Israelis during these times of national trauma. And who can blame them? We, the undeniably lucky, through an accident of birth, carry the coveted American passport. If things get too bad, we can always choose to leave. Understandably, that get-out-of-jail-free card, that ever present escape hatch, draws the resentment of those who, also through an accident of birth, must remain. They have absolutely no choice but to stay and carry on with daily routine. In America, we have snow showers; here we have bi-annual missile showers. In American we have heat waves and here we have terror waves. But now things are changing. The lines of safety are being blurred.

Today’s American olim must begin to make aliyah with the realization that one day there will be no going back, period, regardless of hardships and disappointments. What will the decision making process look like when one day, just like for native-born Israelis, there is no escape for us either? What if one day, that priceless American passport lost all value? How would that new reality affect the mind frame and decisions taken by us, the proud Americans-by birth, Israelis-by-choice?

These kind of thoughts naturally lead me to think about the dangers facing world Jewry as a whole. I doubt many from my parents’ generation expected country after country to so quickly become inhospitable to their Jewish citizens so soon after the Holocaust. The most virulent and treatment resistant bigotry in human history, anti-Semitism, is in full recurrence. As it rises from three generations of dormancy, spreading across the European continent in a potent, mutated form, Jews are beginning to flee once again to Israel where their children can have a future. European Jews were at the very least yet again caught off guard and at the very most, complicit through willful blindness. But what type of wretched person could possibly say “I told you so” as we greet their frenzied arrival at Ben Gurion airport?

That’s Europe. And I think most of us saw this one coming long ago. But what about American Jews, the majority of whom have been sheltered from the intermittent European-style outbreaks of anti-Semitism? When exactly did the most recent European pandemic cross the Atlantic? Was this sickness, which was first detected and spread among American college campuses, completely unforeseen?

The immune system of American society has been depressed by seemingly endless and aimless war, a transitioning and unstable economy, and most alarmingly, a rapidly shrinking middle class, which was the great promise and dream of generations past. Now, with a weak, compromised immune system, American society has become an ideal incubator for this oldest of spiritual diseases. Unthinkable for large periods of American history, the United States now stands exposed, readily vulnerable to the disease of anti-Semitism. The European sickness my grandparents fled from has now spread to their adopted and cherished homeland. Considering the patriotism and gratitude they always displayed for America, in a very weird way, I take some comfort that they’re not around to witness it. So where does that leave us American Israelis? What of that priceless little blue book, which for so long was the unspoken guarantee of our safety? Many of us have slipped into an attitude of complacency. After all, “I’ll have you know that I’m an American citizen, I have rights.”

But the world is changing very quickly. Now we, the adventurous and possibly crazy pioneers among our families, friends and communities, who so prided ourselves in our foresight and courage to act, are beginning to feel the very same fear, which was daily life for most of our ancestors throughout Jewish history. I’m sad to say I feel as though the American umbrella no longer extends to American Israelis; Americans are too busy trying to stay dry over there themselves. And so we have to ready ourselves and our children to weather the storm alone, without America’s help. The American safe haven is becoming a thing of the past and as much as it hurts to think about, we have to accept and adapt to this new, harsher global reality.

What does this mean for us? What happens when the divisiveness, anger and hate reach a critical mass in America? What happens when we can no longer take for granted the option to simply pack up our stuff and go home if “things don’t work out here?”

What are the implications of this increasingly uncertain new reality we face – for ourselves as well as our family and friends on the other side of the Atlantic? Do we have the courage to even begin asking the questions, let alone accept the answers?

This is my journey, this is my search. I’m hoping to find those answers.

Warm regards,

Mike