When you're a tourist in Israel, every cab driver, bellhop and tour guide asks you, "Why are you still living in the Diaspora? Why not live here, in the Jewish state?" Absolutely no defense deters them, not even "I have to take care of my 99-year-old Granny" or "my multi-million dollar contract stipulates that I live in New York."
You belong here, they insist. "Bring Grandma, she'll love it," they counter, "and our economy is stronger than in the US; you'll do even better here."
So you "make aliyah," take the plunge to emigrate, and Israelis you meet say, "You came to live here? From America? Why?" The clear implication: "Are you nuts?"
So why would a couple that has "everything" – a terrific community in the States; great schools for their five children; a solid income; a beautiful suburban home with loads of grass to mow; friends, family – why would they cram all they own into a 40-foot lift and move into a place less than half the size in a parched town aptly named Beit Shemesh – the House of the Sun? I now think of it as House of the Burning Sun where air conditioners better work or you're fried.
When I announced our intention to move to Israel, it felt good to finally tell everyone what had been on our minds and in our hearts for many years. I felt a little trepidation, yes, but overall Hubby and I were full of hope and optimism. In fact, shortly after we made The Decision, I came up with the idea for an online series that would chronicle each phase of our aliyah experience. It turned into 10 episodes, which I'll intersperse as my story continues. Though they are only capsules of what we experienced, they do a good job of conveying the process, the emotions and the unexpected moments.
I've spoken to large crowds before, done live TV and all, but I was never so nervous as when I broke that news. Afterwards, we busied ourselves with the practical nuts and bolts of actually moving our tribe abroad.
The first defining experience of aliyah, the event that gives you an inkling of whether or not you've got what it takes, is "the lift." When that truck pulls up to your door, the surreal becomes real. This is the tipping point – no turning back now. You've spent weeks getting rid of things, forced to choose between "need" and "want," "like" and "love" – which is cathartic, in a sense. Do you travel through life laden with useless junk? Do you really need all that stuff?
Besides the limitations of the container that will transport our things, there's the reality that our next home will be Lilliputian compared to our present one. So we had a tag sale for the neighborhood, a give-away for close friends and family, and we donated a ton of items to charities. It's harder to part with things than you would imagine. Remember when we threw that big Geller family Chanukah party and this gigantic punchbowl dominated the buffet? No room for it now. Remember that charming English tea service we got for our wedding – and never used? We'll probably never use it; might as well give it away.
So the lift arrives along with a few burly guys who do this night and day. They immediately get down to the wrapping, taping and loading of the items you deem precious enough to take along. Somehow the lift marks the end and the beginning, all at the same time.
It was all over around 2:00 AM when the container was driven away with all our stuff, and we had the uncertain sense that we may not see it again for a long, long time. (What if it's not delivered in six weeks, as promised? What if it's not delivered ever?) In the dead of night, as our children curled up in sleeping bags on the floor of our empty house, Hubby and I went outside, stared up at the stars, looked each other, and just took in the gravity of the moment.
For the next six weeks, we lived on whatever can fit into the two-bags-plus-one-carry-on-per-person allotted by El Al on the aliyah flight. It ain't much.
We discovered that parting with furniture and knick-knacks is nothing compared to leaving folks we love. And we never realized how many people had become deeply entwined in our lives till now.
With Nefesh B'Nefesh (the agency that helps people make this huge jump of immigrating to Israel) we hosted our own goodbye BBQ. Nearly 100 of our friends, family and neighbors came to our Open House party (really “open” – it was empty!). Didn't do a blue and white theme, as everyone expected, either. I went with a sunny gerbera daisy/sunflower yellow theme and accented by dressing in blue. It felt good to know that I was focusing on the really important things just one week before the big day.
So all was happy and bright – the emotional departure put on hold for one glorious day – while we partied. But we knew that eventually we would have to face up to actually leaving these wonderful people (despite all the tearful pledges of trans-Atlantic visits). Our last 24 hours in NY arrived. We busied ourselves with last minute prep: empty out the house and the fridge; pack the bags; do a few errands; count out diapers, formula, snacks, activities and kids' games for the trip. It was so very intense.
This felt bigger than anything I had done in my life. This move was final and would have so many ramifications, for us and our children. Adrenaline courses through your veins, pushing you along. You think you're too busy to cry, but then waterworks start without notice at the most random and inopportune moments.
Minutes before pulling away in the car, we had to say all the goodbyes we had been avoiding. Clinging to my mother at the airport, my soul hurt, my heart ached, my body didn't want to let go. My daughter was crying, hugging me, hugging her Grandma; somebody was yelling that it's time to go and my brain kept saying, "I'm leaving her… I'm leaving her alone… I love her… I miss her already… I'm taking her grandchildren away… I'm sorry, so sorry…"
Any flight from the US to Israel is exhausting, and this one was no exception. But on this flight everyone was making aliyah and the energy level was so high there was a tangible electricity in the air. Each one of us had made a conscious decision to move "home" and we bonded like long-lost brothers, despite external differences. We were young, old, single, married, religious, non-religious. We met a newlywed couple – 80+ years old – who had hooked up on Jdate and were fulfilling their lifelong dreams. Our commonalities pulled us together as family. And it reminded me of something I once heard… we are all more alike than we are different. When my nerves could no longer handle my crying baby, a kind gentleman paced up and down the aisle with her till she fell asleep on his shoulder. (Not to make excuses, but I was on overload not only from the move and months of working overtime, but also because I was a juggling a book deadline, a major Joy of Kosher business/magazine merge, and, of course, directing, producing and editing these aliyah videos right there on the plane.)
Then we landed. All of the planning, every agonizing decision, every doubt melted away as we were seeing Israel for the first time as our actual not theoretical homeland. Hubby and I looked at each other and our eyes said, "We did it." In that one instant, our whole world – our entire existence – made sense.
We had come home to the land of our forefathers, the Promised Land, the land that our great-grandparents and ancestors had seen only in their dreams. Tradition tells us that our Matriarch Rachel cries for her children to return. Now we were here, really here, and not only us – for we brought the future with us: our children and generations that we know will follow. The plane door was thrown open and light flooded inside. We felt the sun streaming in – the sun of the Land of Israel – and we were gripped by a deep sense of spirituality. I'm thinking, "Home. Mama Rachel, we've come home." And we could almost feel her embrace.
Descending the stairs to the tarmac, I think we were all in a confusing daze. You don't know what to think about first. Despite the flashing cameras, people cried and kissed the ground – an ancient gesture of love for the Holy Land. At the same time, you're thinking about your kids, rounding up all your bags, everyone around you is bursting with emotion. We were led down a path, past hundreds of cheering Israelis, friends, relatives, people who had gotten up at 4 a.m. just to greet us.
A band played, someone blew a huge shofar, and there were screams and tears everywhere as relatives reunited, with flags, flowers and gifts in hand. Hugs, hugs and more hugs. My cousins, my sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews – had been waiting for us since before dawn. "Did you think we would ever come?" I wailed to my sister-in-law through my tears. "No!" she answered, candidly, "But the guys never lost faith." It was true, my husband and his brother always knew in their hearts that we were going to make it.
Total chaos. Through a haze of noise and exhaustion (my 2-year-old was crying the entire time) we tried to focus on the aliyah ceremony – our aliyah ceremony which had been the capstone of many a daydream – trying to look dignified as Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted us, the newest "olim" – Jews who had come to take their places as citizens of Israel. But I felt numb. This is the homestretch, I told myself, don't collapse now. All those people who came to hug us, strangers and friends, want to see bubbly, excited olim. I tried to smile, to put together a coherent sentence or two, but I was fading fast.
Then it was time to file out, get our luggage, get a taxi, take all the kids to the bathroom, lose a bag, lose a taxi driver… I wanted to drink in every inch of the ride to our new home, but I fell asleep almost instantly. I was awakened as we passed a sign that said Welcome to Ramat Beit Shemesh. We were home.
Hubby had rented our house praying that it would suffice, that we would be able to manage in a place half the size of our previous home. We explored each room amidst a riotous mix of relatives, with more than a dozen children trailing along. Our furniture, of course, was on the high seas, but they provided us with a few borrowed things, scattered here and there.
"Welcome to my home" I kept saying, but I was walking around in some kind of dream. The whole thing was so crazy. Okay, the place is small BUT (and this is huge) I was completely taken by the views of the gorgeous Israeli landscape from our windows. Three months later, I'm still captivated by those views, and I thank God for the healing, calming effect they have on me, every time.
Making aliyah brings new meaning to the word “exhausting.” The first two weeks felt like one long day interspersed with little naps: We set up our bank accounts, got our teudot zehut (Israeli ID cards), bought a car, then rented a car until our new one arrived, arranged for health insurance, got the kids into school. And then we waited for our lift. And tried to learn Hebrew. And waited for our lift. And tried to adjust to the culture shock. And waited for our lift.
So are we crazy? Could be. Once we got past the first few weeks, we thought we had triumphed. We had been warned there would be challenges, and we thought we were ready. Ready for the big stuff – plopping our sweet, trusting kids into a country that's always at the brink of war; miles of bureaucratic red tape; struggling with the economy and mastering tongue-twisting Hebrew.
Turns out, those are the low hurdles. We don't think about war – we leave that up to God. Maybe I'm fatalistic, but I figure that if, God forbid, we were destined for something, it would take place anywhere in the world.
The paperwork is a pain, but we were so prepared, we went into it like a star Army quarterback tackling the entire Navy team.
And the language? Well, though I know it's just a matter of time till I can speak fluently, I still dread going to the supermarket where translating the labels give me a headache. I'm liable to pour machine oil into my skillet with the burgers. In fact, NONE of my food is coming out as I plan, since most of the ingredients are what we call "mystery food," despite the fact that Hubby and I use the translator app on our iPhones. My little daughter calls it a calculator. When she sees us struggling to read the package at the store, she implores, "The calculator, Abba, use the calculator."
When we first arrived, we saw signs for a supermarket tour. I was thinking, oh so smugly, "What am I, a tourist? I can figure it out. We're not talking about the Tower of David. It's just a store." Now I'm frantically searching for that supermarket tour guide's number. Anyone out there have it?
We were still living like gypsies, wondering if we'd ever feel at home, when the lift finally came. Hear me? I said, THE LIFT CAME! What relief! What excitement! What a heck of a job.
It took a few weeks, but we got through all the boxes and I made sure to hang up our family pictures on the wall ASAP. That's what makes a house feel like a home, when you're surrounded by your own familiar things.
But I still cry. A lot. And I'm trying to figure out why. I think it's the stress of it all. I've been on overload since months before aliyah and there's no end in sight. I have to confess here: My "problems" make me feel like a spoiled American, and I feel powerless to change that.
Do I lack pioneering spirit? No. But was I ready to deal with an air conditioner that suddenly floods the house? Again, no. You'd think that in a country that treats water like gold, every air conditioner would hum along flawlessly. You don't expect it to cause rain – yes, I said rain – in your apartment. So one morning, we awoke to find the place flooded. One of our oil paintings was water-stained. Our beautiful Ralph Lauren wood buffet that we had schlepped from the States was under water. It holds a lot of my china, serving pieces, cutlery and my wedding album. It's where I light my Shabbat candles every week. The candles were soaked, my prized china soup bowls were filled with AC liquid.
I thought okay, okay, we can dry this, we can handle this, we can get the picture re-matted. But then I saw the box with our wedding album, sopping wet, and my lips quivered, my voice shook, my eyes misted. Hubby slowly opened the box and finally announced that the album was safe and dry inside – but I finally broke down. It's silly, I feel silly – it's nothing, but really it's everything.
There are lots of ways to deal with challenges, and Hubby says it's a question of attitude. Without going into deep philosophy here, he invoked the cliché that you can view the glass as half empty or half full.
I hate clichés.
One of our most frustrating experiences is paying the bills. I mean, they're in HEBREW. Totally in Hebrew. You've got to know who you're paying, for what, and when to pay. And those are still deep mysteries to Hubby. So after laboring over the bills with his trusty dictionary and every translator app, he swallows his manly pride and calls his brother to come over and explain these invoices to him. It's a bitter, bitter moment. Of course, I sweetly remind him that it's all just a matter of attitude. "The glass is half full" I call over my shoulder, as he chases me from the room.
I think about my immigrant grandparents saying. "Jamie, it could have been voirse, much voirse…" In fact, everything in my life could have been, well, like my Israeli stove. Remember that I write cookbooks. Remember that my reputation is built on serving good food, fast. And imagine what it's like to go from a superstar kitchen, with all the latest American appliances, to an old freestanding Israeli tiny oven/stovetop thingy with only three working burners. Sorta working. Kinda slow. I calculate it'll take an hour and a half to cook one of my "Quick & Kosher" 20-minute meals on this thing. By then, the kids will be starved, I'll be cranky, and Hubby's glass will be half empty.
Hubby suggested that maybe this is just the way appliances work over here, but I insisted that the stove must be broken. So I called in Dror, the oven repair dude. After poking and tapping and unscrewing various parts of the stove, Dror announces "At tzodeket – you're right." I was right, right! As I woman, I felt I had been heard; as an oleh, I felt savvy and vindicated; as a cook I felt hopeless. But Dror tinkered a bit more and declared the Thing fixed.
The stove breaks down again, and so do I.
We threw a party, a modest little BBQ for 25 people. And right in the middle of it, with a ton of stuff half-cooked, the Thing breaks down again. And so do I. We summon Dror, and once again he waves his magic wand and gets the Thing to sputter and start. After a few similar frantic experiences, I decide that either we have to adopt Dror, or shop for a new stove.
I'm shopping. Though it's over-budget, I'm looking forward to a brand new top-of-the-line stove (wherever the line is). But first I have to learn the lingo, or take an interpreter with me to the store so I don't wind up ordering a European washing machine by mistake.
So I guess that's one of our major obstacles: finding it hard to do everyday things that we never even had to think about in the past. Like reading notes from our kids' schoolteachers. (Is she saying that our daughter is brilliant and adorable, or do we need to come in to talk over a problem?) When we help the kids with their homework, we pray that we're not adding to their troubles.
And we're not sure what to teach the kids about social niceties. Here, there are none. In the US, we always told them to stand patiently in line, allow people to go ahead of you, be polite in the elevator, let others go first. But here there are no lines – pushing, reaching, shoving is the norm and elevator etiquette is out the window. Though it's rude, somehow there's also a sort of down-home warmth in it. Why stand on ceremony when you're all family?
Formalities seem kind of superficial in a country that is always fighting for its life. The real values – reaching out to someone in need, understanding when a stranger on the bus needs to unload a heavy heart, going out of your way to help a child find his way home – that level of caring is so natural and vibrant here, that the other stuff doesn't seem to count as much. Yet we so want each of our children to grow up to be a "mensch," a polite, gracious person, that we can't bring ourselves to counsel them to "use your elbows" at every turn. This is a cultural problem we still need to work out.
So the reality is that moving to Israel is a life-changing experience with a tough adjustment to a new place and foreign culture. Despite all that, we know in our guts it was a sane decision.
Pull of the Homeland
People ask: WHY? I speak all over the world about my life; about how and why I went from being a non-kosher, non-religious TV producer to a wig-wearing Orthodox kosher cookbook author. I lay my life on the table, explaining coherently how I made this choice to become a "BT," a baalas teshuvah "returnee" to religious Judaism (though I had never been there before). The BT movement (which started a good 40 years ago) has exploded in the last 20 years, and now we have an entire generation of BT parents raising kids who were born into a religious lifestyle. What does my change of lifestyle have to do with aliyah? Everything.
Making choices empowers you. BTs seem to have an inherent desire to change and grow, and not fear change and growth. (We don't have a monopoly on those characteristics, of course.) For us, aliyah seemed like the next logical step in our spiritual development. There are many reasons, both superficial and deep, but I can sum it up simply: I am descended from Abraham and Sarah. I am a Jew. Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people, and I wanted to go home.
I believe that no matter where we are, we all have a desire in our soul to return to our Source, our Maker, our home. The word "home" means a sense of belonging and tranquility when you're there, and you feel the pull to return there when you're not. For us, it was an intrinsic, undeniable, mind, body, and soul pull to the homeland of the Jewish people.
Although that need was deep within me long ago, my studies of Judaism have put those longings in sharper relief. The Land of Israel is central in the Torah – the history of our people living in this land, later exiled, and the Divine promise we will someday return. I learned to face Jerusalem when I pray. I comfort mourners with the traditional blessing that they will find solace "among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Israel is the place that speaks the language of our prayers and holy books, the place where my brothers and sisters have gathered after a 2,000-year painful exile. Why shouldn't I be among them?
Now that I'm here, I cry a lot, but most of the time, they're tears of joy. When words fail, you cry. It comes from deep within your soul. When my family is gathered around our table on Shabbat, and I look out to see the tree-covered hills of the Land of Israel right outside my window, I cry. When my kids sing the "Grace after Meals" in Hebrew together, already mimicking their teachers and classmates with their new Israeli accents, I cry. When I run my hands over the exterior stone of my house, that uniquely indigenous cream colored "Jerusalem stone" that turns golden at dusk, my heart skips a beat.
"Mommy's crying again," my kids say, "because she's happy."
This is what we call living the dream. In this finale video you will see us take our children to the Western Wall, remnant of the Temple Mount that stood at the time of the Second Holy Temple. Its very stones have been drenched with the tears of pain, gratitude, hope and fears of millions of Jews who have come here to pray for thousands of years.
Most of them have been sojourners, visitors to the Holy Land. But we live here. We're here to stay, and we want to savor all of the sights and sounds of our the land promised to our forefathers as the destined homeland of the entire nation of Israel. We want to share that with our children, and with you.