I Belong Here, Yes I Do, No Questions Asked!
BY TEHILLA KATZ
I made Aliyah right after my year in seminary, with about twenty Hebrew words in my vocabulary. Sure, I knew it would be difficult, but I could do hard things. I graduated high school! I wouldn’t even have to drain the swamps. How hard could this immigrating thing be?
Three years and many crying sessions later, the answer to that question is: very. Turns out, Aliyah is incredibly stressful and has been so since the days when David Ben-Gurion tore apart his house looking for his children’s long-form unabridged birth certificates. I am certainly in no position to offer advice on this process; I don’t even own a pair of Blundstones! But if I had to epitomize the Aliyah experience in one sentence, it would be this: Aliyah is a sequence of questions and answers.
The questions begin long before you step foot on the plane, when the dream of Aliyah is still a “five-year plan.” In the months and years leading up to your Aliyah, you will make it your mission to educate yourself on every aspect of the Middle East. You will forge a bond with your Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah advisor, an eternally patient individual named Keren or Yuri, to a degree that you will never experience with anyone else. You will hound Keren and Yuri with questions at all hours of the night. “What the heck is an apostille? Does being Israeli mean I have to buy a pair of Shoresh sandals? Should I move to Beit Shemesh? Will they let me make Aliyah if I don’t like Bamba?” You will need documents you didn’t realize existed (I moved here three years ago, and I still think an apostille is a man named Matthew or Paul). You will add these documents to ‘The Document File’, a bulky binder that will be so crammed with papers you will need to purchase an extra suitcase for it. At some point, someone will recommend you join Secret Jerusalem on Facebook, a group so obscure that there are over 96,000 members. This gives you the chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself, a forum where thousands of people can ask the same questions over and over and get ignored (except for random questions about bonsai trees or yoga retreats; somehow, these regularly get answered).
On your fateful Aliyah day, you will come prepared to the airport with your nicest blue and white outfit. If you have children or a spouse, you will make sure that all of your blue and white outfits are coordinated. After all, these pictures are being posted on the Nefesh b’Nefesh Facebook page! You clutch that folder of documents which is stuffed to bursting with your entire existence – from your great grandparents’ ketubah to your grocery store receipts (you might need those!) – and guard it more carefully than your offspring. Yuri will be on standby. Your mother will tearfully send you off with Kirkland’s finest and ten packs of Costco barbeque sauce. But nothing can prepare you for when you are handed your teudat zehut, given a free taxi ride, and left to integrate. Yuri will vanish into the sunset, likely never to be seen again, and all attempts to email him will rebound back into cyberspace.
At some point soon afterwards, you will have a sinking feeling, somewhere in your stomach, that you have made a terrible mistake. Which brings us to the next question. Now what?
Here, the real fun starts. Every oleh experiences a moment (or two!) when they secretly wonder if they should turn around and go home. My moment came when I realized no one spoke English in the immigration absorption center and so they couldn’t tell me I was in the wrong building. It was a moment of absolute helplessness, when I realized that nothing I had ever learned would help me now. Yes, we are the people of the book, but I realized that I am now a citizen of a place where the inhabitants routinely throw that book out the window.
Then there are the questions that people will ask you. Israelis are fascinated that you grew up in a country with Trader Joe’s, and left anyway. “Why are you here?” the bank teller, the taxi drivers, and your suspicious elderly neighbor will frequently ask you. And of course, your limited Hebrew vocabulary will only let you respond that your notebook is pretty and you are a girl.
Is it worth it? The eternal bureaucracy, leaving our families behind, breaking our teeth over Hebrew, struggling to feel like a pioneer, and failing. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what it’s all for. But to this question, there is one answer, and one answer only: YES!
For every difficult moment, there are a host of other reasons to celebrate every day in this country. And while the big questions and answers are what brought us here, it’s the small, priceless moments that make us stay. The first time you order something in Hebrew, and you hold your breath and the waiter just nods and doesn’t automatically switch to English. Seeing store vendors huddling in an alleyway to daven Mincha. Buses that say “Shana Tova” on the side, secular Israelis effortlessly quoting obscure passages from the book of Zechariah. Your first Yom HaAtzmaut when you experience the unadulterated joy pulsating through the streets and you realize that you are the fulfillment of a prophecy. It’s being in shul on Shabbat when you say the prayer for the IDF and the State, knowing that you are praying for your own country now, and for the army that protects it.
Life in Israel is a glorious paradox. The same bus driver who yelled at you for holding up the line will stop to help old ladies cross the road. A crowd that seemed so impenetrable will scatter, in seconds, to let a pregnant woman sit down. I have had cab drivers give me relationship advice, strangers offer to pay my bus fare when my card wouldn’t scan, and been scolded by my neighbor for not putting on a sweater in the cold.
Every time I throw my hands up in despair and swear “that’s it, I can’t do this anymore!”, something minor and magical will occur and I am humbled and fall in love with Israel all over again. The very fabric of this country is woven with magnificent stories of compassion and sincerity, with people who know they are part of something bigger than themselves, who are making history every day just by living here. You may never learn what a long-form unabridged birth certificate is, but the day will come when people will ask why you made Aliyah and you will respond simply “because I belong here.” You do, and they’ll accept it – no questions asked!
Tehilla Katz has fulfilled her dream of Aliyah and is completing a year of mechina at Hebrew University. Originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, she has a passion for exploring each neighborhood of Jerusalem, one category of street names after another.