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Aliyah: What I Hadn’t Expected; What I Hadn’t Dreamed

Leaving America Behind

Snow covered the wings of the plane I boarded at JFK in January 1971, my first flight ever. My husband and I shivered as we boarded the flight to Israel. We had burned our bridges behind us, giving away all our wedding gifts that ran on 110 instead of 220 electricity, quitting jobs, leaving university. We would buy new appliances, my husband already had a job set up as a computer programmer at Israel Aircraft Industries, and I would finish my last fifteen college credits in Tel Aviv University, graduating in absentia from Brooklyn College.

We had both never been to Israel. But like the Biblical spies, we didn’t want to scout out the land before settling. That would have been much too practical, and our decision was completely ideological. So what was the point in determining if the naysayers were telling us the truth when they said Israel didn’t have toilet paper or canned tuna or coffee? Whatever there was, we would have to make do, we told ourselves. We expected hardship and were resigned to poverty.

We had made this choice independently of each other, long before meeting. Mine came as a result of a growing adherence to Orthodox Judaism. I took G-d’s command to Abraham to: “Leave your homeland, your birthplace, and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you” literally. If I was going to be a religious Jew, I was going all the way. I just couldn’t see myself doing that in America, where I would always feel like an outsider: my holidays ignored, my food hard to find, my beliefs marginalized.

Also, during college I had come across the book: While Six Million Died, describing the apathy of the U.S. government, and the blatant anti-Semitism of the State Department, in thwarting rescue attempts for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. This knowledge pushed me ever further towards the idea that my birth at the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital to an American- born mother of Jewish-Polish immigrants and a father who had lived in the Ukraine until age three, was simply an accident, not destiny. If I had a destiny as a post-Holocaust Jew it was to build the land of the Jews, where our culture, our religious observances, and most importantly our security, would be in Jewish hands. I wanted my lifetime of years, my youth, my labor, my taxes, my children to help build that safe house. It was a miracle that the option even existed. After 2,000 years, there was once again a Jewish homeland. My place was there.

Even though I was still quite young when I made these decisions, the journey to this mindset had taken many years and could not have been more unexpected given my background and family. We were not Sabbath-observant, although my mother dutifully lit candles on Friday night in the silver-plated pewter candlesticks that had survived more than one hundred years in its journey from Poland. While her own family had been devout — I was raised on the tales of a kindly grandfather who became a house painter to avoid working on the Sabbath, and who, my mother often repeated with considerable pride, would not drink a glass of water outside his own home fearing some transgression of the Torah’s strict dietary rules — my father’s had been the opposite. Upwardly mobile Jews from the Ukraine who had seen advertisements recruiting workers for Pennsylvania coal mines (steerage passage to the U.S. guaranteed!) my grandfather and great-grandfather and uncles had jumped at the opportunity, never mind that they were all tailors. They had left the Ukraine and its poverty and pogroms behind them without a backward glance. Unfortunately, my grandfather, who had been a boxing champion during his time as a colonel in the Russian army, also left my grandmother, my toddler father, and baby aunt as well. Despairing of the promised tickets to join him, my resourceful grandmother, after whom I am named, managed to work hard, pinch pennies, and buy her own tickets, thank you very much.

The reunion wasn’t a happy one. By this time, my grandfather had soaked a little too long in the melting pot, deciding he preferred bleached blondes and card parties to his devout old-country wife and Friday night gefilte fish. Religious observance became a bone of contention in the family, to the extent that my own father, who adored his mother but couldn’t stand his parents’ constant squabbling, wanted nothing to do with it.

Sadly, the kind, hardworking, generous man who was my father died when I was only six years-old, leaving my mother a poor widow with three small children living in a low-income housing project in the Rockaways. My father’s death thrust me from the peanut-and-jellyness of my life into mourning and reflections on the nature of life, death, and creation. Sitting on the cold sands of a winter beach watching the waves in their endless passage, I began to think about God. I don’t remember exactly what form these thoughts took, but enough to open up the topic.

Serendipitously, at that very moment, my mother’s friends urged her to take me and my brothers out of local public schools and send us to the prestigious and expensive Hebrew Institute of Long Island, an Orthodox private prep school. Her widowhood irresistible to even those determined rabbi/administrators charged with the Herculean task of milking reluctant parents of the full tuition due, she managed to secure full scholarships for all of us. To my astonishment and confusion, I was yanked out of P.S. 42 where I was slowly learning to read English, and thrust into classrooms with long-bearded rabbis who attempted to teach me to read backwards strange Hebrew letters I had never before encountered.

For several months, I recall being bitterly unhappy. But slowly and unexpectedly, I finally started enjoying certain aspects of this new world, foremost among them the singing of communal prayers. I loved music. I was also kindly invited to spend Shabbos at the homes of my new classmates. And it was there that I encountered for the first time what it was like to live an observant life. Part of the charm, no doubt, was the joy of leaving the somewhat sinister and dangerous projects for those cozy, middle-class, one-family homes, complete with silver-filled china closets and carpeting you sank into. But most importantly, there I encountered a functional, traditional family: a father who had a well-paying profession and stood up to make kiddush on Friday night; a mother who wore an apron and baked cakes (my own mother worked full-time and hated the kitchen); and well-scrubbed siblings who didn’t (unlike us) compete over food portions, especially dessert.

As a result, with every passing year I spent in Hebrew day school learning about my heritage, the Bible, the Prophets, I was drawn – willingly and intelligently – ever closer to the personal decision to embrace wholeheartedly a life of religious observance. Chief among my reasons was the number of times the Torah speaks out against the oppression of the orphan and the widow, which spoke to me personally, as did the other laws that prohibited evil and promoted kindness, friendship, charity and generosity. I began to truly love the giver of such laws, who I regarded, and still do, as a caring father.

I continued on at the Hebrew Institute through high school, by which time I was an observant Orthodox Jew as well as a fervent Zionist, although with an ideology based more on the Book of Genesis than Herzl’s The Jewish State. The Six Day War, which took place at the same time as my high school graduation, solidified those feelings. It was a seminal experience. Listening to Arab propaganda, I really envisioned the country I had dreamt of for so long being utterly destroyed before I even got a chance to go there. I went so far as to charge into the Israeli Embassy demanding to volunteer, only to be calmly handed a piece of paper requiring my mother’s signature since I wouldn’t turn eighteen until July.

Needless to say, she wasn’t signing. By the time I could go on my own, the war was over.

But living through those days and nights, experiencing the depths of despair and the subsequent heights of euphoric victory, especially the recapture of the Western Wall – Judaism’s most revered holy site long prohibited to Jewish visitation by the Jordanians – bonded me profoundly to Israel, a country I had never been to, as well as its courageous people, whom I had never met. From that moment on, I was only temporarily living in America, until I could figure out some way to come to Israel before anything else happened.

In my first year of college at Graduate Center Freshman Program – an enriched, experimental humanities program housed in CCNY’s building facing the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan – I attended meetings of Yavneh, a social organization for Orthodox college students. It was there one Purim at Columbia University, that I encountered a young man several years my senior who turned out to be something rarer than a unicorn, at least in those days: an Orthodox male Zionist who was actually planning on making Aliya. In the months to come, our paths crossed often until one day he eventually even asked me out on a date. Walking through the dark streets of Far Rockaway one Saturday night, we poured our hearts out to each other, planning our lives, hopeful, passionate. We wanted the same things, we understood: to be Jews faithful to our heritage, and to live our lives in the land of Israel.

It was a bit awkward, actually, to have found the perfect mate so early. Getting married wasn’t in my plans. I had a full scholarship for Hebrew University waiting for me for my Junior year. But when my sophomore year came to a close, Alex said: Don’t go. Stay here. Marry me. I promise to make Aliya with you and live in Israel the rest of our lives.

I said I wanted it in writing. He obliged, and I still have it, on the back of a restaurant napkin.

And so we got married, lived for a short time in Brooklyn, and then in the middle of my senior year at Brooklyn College took the final plunge into making our youthful, idealistic dreams a reality.

Reality Struck

When the plane landed, we were shocked to find ourselves exiting into a warm, spring day. It was like Dorothy getting off in Oz. The grey of New York took on the orange and gold of nearby fruit orchards that filled the air with the fragrance of orange blossoms. On the taxi ride to the absorption center, we saw men driving donkey carts!

Oh, it was so charming. We loved everything: The sunshine, the way manhole covers were stamped with Hebrew writing, the way people seemed to reach out to us wherever we went, like family.

Reality set in soon enough. The company who had hired my husband – now under new management – was on a mission to fire all the Americans. I was soon pregnant and anxious to get some prenatal care. But when I went to the only available medical facility, a clinic in Kfar Chabad near our tiny Absorption Center apartment, the nurse took me outside and whispered: “The Rebbe says not to talk about it for three months.” Worse, perhaps, there was no supermarket, and anything we wanted to buy we had to ask for in Hebrew as we stood in front of the counter of the small grocery store that served the entire village, explaining to the unhelpful patroness, who was flipping latkes on a small electric frying pan, what American-equivalent foods we wanted. How deeply then did I regret my stubborn resistance to the Hebrew language throughout my eleven years at the Hebrew Institute of Long Island! But what my excellent Hebrew teachers could not accomplish, hunger soon did.

We soon learned that what we were looking for- a ob-gyn and an open -shelved modern supermarket with shopping carts – actually did exist, a bus ride away in Tel Aviv. The bus that carried us out of the Kfar was old and ran infrequently. On that first unforgettable ride, I was surrounded by devout, bearded hasidim and the radio was playing: “She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini…”

The shock of the language barrier soon clarified what I had done: Despite being Jewish in a Jewish country, I had become an immigrant among foreigners, native people who did not share my mother-tongue, my American cultural experiences and expectations, my education, even my religious beliefs.

I found the natives a contradictory bunch. Some, even relatives, were astonished and critical that we had left the golden shores to join them. “Everyone here is trying to get to America,” one distant cousin scoffed. “And you come here!” Others were openly resentful of what they perceived was the handouts given to newcomers, like tax-free cars, sometimes going far afield in their understanding. “Why did the government only give you a Fiat, while others they give a Volvo? (the most desired vehicle in Israel circa 1971) someone once asked me.

On the other hand, when our new car got a flat on the highway, it took less than five seconds before two cars drove off the road to help us, no questions asked, all thanks and gifts waved away. And when my husband was drafted for six months into the regular army with no pay, despite being the sole breadwinner for a wife and two babies, his boss went directly to the Ministry of Defense and personally saw to it that his designation was changed to a reservist status that would last two months, with full-pay, thus saving us from penury and a possible flight back to America.

We were prepared to be poorer than our American contemporaries, just not impoverished and living on hand-outs. But in the beginning, it was very hard to make a living.

My husband, working as systems analyst for the government on contract, wasn’t paid for seven months despite numerous attempts to collect his salary. When I came home from the hospital with a new baby and we couldn’t pay for a crib, he finally burst into the offices of the CEO describing his plight. To his credit, the man was appalled and hauled the human resources manager responsible over the coals, demanding this be taken care of immediately. It was, but the incompetent woman later took her revenge, calling up my husband’s new place of employment and lying that he was receiving a double salary. This resulted in their withholding his paycheck for several days until it was finally straightened out.

The much maligned “pushiness” of Israelis, however, did not bother me as a New Yorker. We shared the same chutzpah, the same multiculturalism, especially in Jerusalem where black Abyssinian priests, Muslim shopkeepers, and Yemenite fruit-peddlers mingled casually and constantly. For a city with one traffic light, Jerusalem even in 1971 was never a backward village, but a sophisticated international gathering place where I immediately felt at home, the way I had not in my rented apartment in Petach Tikva, where my neighbors were all sabras who had been in the army and spoke no English. They meant well, really. And when my homesickness had me blasting my Joan Baez records, they almost shamefacedly knocked gently on my door to ask me if I wouldn’t mind…if it might be all right…if I could just please, perhaps, turn it down just a bit?

Our Little Immigrant Oasis

They were lovely people, but strangers I simply could not get close to as much as I tried. This problem was soon resolved by the Jewish Agency which came to the rescue, finally summoning us to take possession of a modest two-bedroom apartment in a dusty new development built on over-the Green-Line land just north of Jerusalem’s municipal borders. It was a neighborhood based on a new concept: settling religious olim with others just like them from all over the world.

What a building we had, a little United Nations! My next-door neighbors were doctors from Moscow, above them lived a Swedish family, and next door to them was the distinguished Moroccan rabbi, his beautiful wife Jackie, and their ten children. Two floors down were the Brits, and next door to them a haredi family of six from Williamsburg. I became best friends with the Sharons, an older couple with children almost my age from Baldwin, New York. Albert Sharon, a survivor from Belgium, was a gifted story-teller man whose tales of his family’s flight from Hitler impressed me deeply. His wife Lynn was also a talented writer and a charming, dear friend.

Probably contrary to the Jewish Agency’s best laid plans, the neighborhood and its people became our little refuge from the native population. Here we made our best friends for life to this day, sharing our Sabbath dinners, our holidays, our family celebrations, with friends who stood in for our far away families. Soon we became a kind of kibbutz. When I had to have a gall bladder out right after giving birth to my son, my dear neighbors made up lists of who would baby-sit for him and my two-year old daughter so my husband could go to work, and who would bring over food every day until I was back on my feet. I can’t even imagine what aliya would have meant without them.

This support system was brought to the supreme test when late one weary Yom Kippur afternoon as we lay in our beds, hoping for a respite from our growling bellies and aching feet, we were suddenly awakened by sound trucks going through the neighborhood. All I could make out from their urgent Hebrew message was the world “emet,” truth. Still half asleep, I turned to my husband and said: “Can you believe it? Who would go electioneering in a religious neighborhood during Yom Kippur?” “Emet” was the name of a political party.

My husband turned to me in astonishment. “They are announcing we need to go into bomb shelters; that this is the truth, not practice. There’s a war.”

There was a war. And we were Americans, whose only experience with war was three minute segments on the nightly news, or the fashionable protests of our contemporaries about a conflict thousands of miles away fought by strangers, soldiers from far away places in America where people spoke with accents we in the Jewish community never heard except in sit-coms or Hollywood movies. Yes, there was a draft, but except for one unfortunate boy I knew from synagogue who had joined the National Guard in college after being assured in writing(later ripped up in front of him when they sent him to Vietnam) that his college tuition would be paid and he would never be sent abroad, I knew not a single American soldier.

And here, in my new home, I watched from my window as IDF army trucks arrived and departed, bearing away fathers, sons, and brothers, many with prayer shawls still draped around their shoulders. In another six months, my husband would be inducted. In another eighteen years, my son. Despite what I had read, Israel did not have an army, the way America had an army, people you would never meet from places you would never visit. All we had, was my neighbor’s husband, and the grocer’s nephew—the tall, handsome one named after an uncle who died in the Holocaust—and the twenty-year old only brother of the woman who sat next to me in synagogue.

We scrambled down two flights of stairs to the bomb shelter, my husband clutching our two-year old daughter and her doll, while I carried my still sleeping two month-old son in his “sal-kal” baby carrier. The shelter, which was being used as a Chabad synagogue, still had a mechitzah down the center, bisecting it into men’s and women’s sections. But when the distinguished Moroccan rabbi showed up with his wife and ten children and found no place for his family to sit, he magnificently and decisively flung the mechitza aside, firmly rejecting the chorus of protests with: “This is no longer a synagogue. It’s a bomb shelter.”

We huddled there, strangers in a strange land still undergoing deadly armed conflicts, something which had disappeared from the lands we all came from. The soldiers—young men and women carried off direct from their prayers—were in my thoughts every hour of every day. The thought that these people were now in a life-or-death struggle, putting themselves in harm’s way to protect our lives and our country’s, and that something terrible might happen to them was unbearable.

Despite religious restrictions, someone had a radio on in which Israeli authorities announced that the country had been attacked and we could be bombed. My blood ran cold. How long would we be locked in here, I wondered, realizing that in my haste and confusion I had forgotten to bring my newborn a bottle. What if he woke up? Would I risk my life to return to my apartment to get him one? Would I let him cry? How could I be a mother in this new land if I didn’t understand anything? How could I protect my children?

Luckily, my son slept right through it. But by the time the all-clear sounded, something had changed fundamentally in all us new immigrants. Aliyah wasn’t horas and dunce caps and swinging hoes. It was a life-or-death business, and our little homeland was far from secure. And the Israelis, the ones who I didn’t understand, who had seemed so foreign and distant to me, suddenly became my brothers and sisters. Every loss, was a family loss. I would mourn for them, and they for me if God forbid such a sacrifice be asked. We were all Abraham being asked to put our sons and daughters on the altar, and only the whisper of the angels could save us. There was no good reason that our enemies should not overpower us. They had the element of surprise. They had endless weaponry gifted by the nefarious Soviets. Only later would I hear of Golda’s Balcony, and how this courageous woman, racked with guilt at having listened and trusted the bad advice of her generals, seriously considered a doomsday scenario in which she launched an atomic attack, or committed suicide, or both. At the time, we knew nothing of such things. The voice on the radio was consistently upbeat, assuring us we were rebuffing enemy advances. The song they played most often was: “Next year we will sit on our porches and count the migrating birds” with its refrain: “You will see, you will see just how good it will be in the year, in the year that’s to come.” I listened to that song, and wanted to believe. And the more I listened, and the more I believed, the more I became an Israeli, one with the natives who whatever their differences from me, were my family now.

 Crossing over the Dividing Line

A year later, the war over, my husband donned the IDF uniform and began his three-month training program. The difficulties of single motherhood, and the Sisyphean task of washing all the sand of the Sinai Peninsula out of his clothing was countered by the deep satisfaction of finally doing our part as true Israelis to protect our precious Jewish homeland.

But I wasn’t just a wife and a mother. I was also a writer. It was the long-held dream I had nurtured through my degree in English with a concentration in writing, after having been encouraged all through my schooling, and actually beginning publication in local newspapers as early as high school. How was I going to achieve this in a land of Hebrew writers, a place in which I had no “protexzia, “ having missed out on the bonding that takes place during high school, college, and especially IDF service? I didn’t know anyone who could help me.

But at a certain point of desperation, I realized that I had something most Israelis did not. Not only was English my mother-tongue and my degree in English, but I also had a secret weapon: A tape recorder. In the early 1970’s no one in Israel had such a thing. And so, when I decided that I would write my first freelance piece and with great chutzpah arrived at City Hall demanding an interview with the legendary Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, my machine so dazzled the PR people, no one ever asked me for press credentials, which I certainly did not have. Ushered inside to speak to the Mayor (he too was very interested in the workings of the machine) I sat there, all bluster, feeling like a fraud, a bit terrified as I quizzed Mayor Kollek about the appalling conditions of our immigrant neighborhood which still had no paved roads, or bus lines, or grocery stores, or public telephones. In America, I would no doubt have been thrown out. But Jerusalem in 1971 was a little town with one traffic light and a soft spot for Americans, especially Olim. Mayor Kollek answered my questions with equal parts patience and discomfort. Thrillingly, the resulting article was actually accepted by the Jerusalem Post and made front page headlines. Just like that, my career was launched. It could never have happened that way in more sophisticated America.

From that moment on, armed by publication, I discovered that the need for English-language writers in Israel was voracious. Government ministries, private charities, newspapers, foreign magazines were always looking for well-written freelance material. Getting a full, or part-time salaried position, however, was quite another matter. Ironically, my first such position came through the kind of “protexia” I had despaired of every attaining; a friend from New York who had recently made aliya, offered me a job as a writer at the newly created Israel Environmental Protection Service where she a Ph.D in Environmental Sciences- was now head of foreign relations.

My job was to put out an environmental bulletin that was sent to similar government ministries all over the word, alerting them to Israel’s achievements on the environmental front. I went from expert to expert—in air, water, noise and every other kind of pollution—milking them for information about their work. It was early days on the environmental front in Israel, and I came to appreciate and admire the struggle of colleagues in creating awareness and minimizing damage to the environment in a young country heavily invested in creating industrial growth to provide jobs and increase the national economy. To this day, when I pass by the smokestacks of Hadera, I remember Dr. Shlomo Brovender, who single-handedly fought to have “scrubbers” installed to remove the poisonous gases from power plants, transforming the acrid black smoke into a benign white plume. I remember too how he thwarted a certain enthusiastic Minister from achieving his plan of shipping the coal from Haifa ports to Hadera via open railroad cars, leaving a cloud of coal dust to pollute the entire countryside. Instead, thanks to Shlomo, they created a port in Hadera.

While I was grateful to be part of such meaningful work, this was not exactly the kind of writing of which I had dreamed. What I wanted was to be a novelist, something for which no one pays you in advance.

All this time, we were struggling financially. The little two-bedroom Jewish Agency apartment had grown cramped as our family grew. In a bit of desperation, we decided we would sell our tiny apartment, and simply rent a larger place. After all, hadn’t both of us had spent most of our lives in rentals? Everyone in America rented. We scoffed at the appalled reaction of our Israeli friends, who thought the idea madness. Unfortunately, by the time we understood how right they were, it was much too late. Six months after selling, the government underwent a historic political upset, Menachem Begin’s opposition party finally taking over the government. New “enlightened” economic policies, led the price of real estate to triple, effectively shutting us out forever from home ownership.

In equal parts fury and desperation, we concocted a reckless plan: we would use our money as a down payment for a new home, and while it was being built, we would go back to America to earn the money to pay off the rest, the part we didn’t have and couldn’t borrow.

Can You Go Back Again?

Looking for high-paying jobs, we zeroed in on job-abundant Silicon Valley where after a nail-biting month of interviews, my husband was hired as a computer analyst at a well-known high-tech firm. My own portfolio of publications gained me an excellent job as Director of Development Communications at Santa Clara University. We lived in a luxurious rented house on a leafy street. The children were enrolled in a local Hebrew Day school. We had full medical and dental coverage, a car, sunny California weather, vacations to Disney Land and Yosemite. Our friends back home, hearing all this, openly wondered if we were ever going to be able to tear ourselves away. Yes, we had it all. And I was profoundly, unreservedly miserable almost all of the time.

In fact, more than anything, it was those three years abroad that revealed to me the extreme and wholehearted changes I had undergone as an olah. Expecting to slip back seamlessly into being an American, to my shock I realized how impossible that had become. After experiencing life as a free and proud Jew, celebrating my holidays openly as national holidays, speaking my own language, governed by my own kind, it was torture to experience Yom Kippur in a tiny breakaway Orthodox Minyan in a bank’s recreation hall, while all around traffic swarmed and shops were open. It was awful to be forced to order kosher meat from hundreds of miles away which needed to be flown in and picked up at the airport; to obtain kosher challah and cheese through a cooperative run by an Orthodox congregation which turned out to be a cult who callously cut us off after we refused to accept the dictates of their leader, an exiled South African rabbi with a murky past.

From my work as a freelancer, I had gone to a challenging nine to five regimen that forced me to leave my youngest in daycare. From the ease of buying kosher take-out on every street corner, I had no choice but to cook and bake everything from scratch, preparing my own challah dough on Thursday and leaving it overnight in the refrigerator to be baked the next day; putting dinner in a slow cooker before leaving for work. And if we wanted to go out to a kosher pizza parlor, the nearest one was 500 miles away in Los Angeles.

My workplace held its own unique challenges. The University was a Jesuit Catholic institution, headed by a priest. While the people I worked with went out of their way to be accommodating, certain things were difficult for them to comprehend. For example, when in a kind gesture of welcome they arranged a special luncheon for me at the beautiful Faculty Club, part of an old Spanish Mission, they preordered salads for everyone. But when the meal arrived, the greens were covered with cheese and—could it be?—some kind of meat! I sat there pondering what to do, not wanting to offend or get myself fired on my first day. I gingerly tried to lift the forbidden parts off the lettuce leaves, but to no avail. Finally, I got up, brought my plate into the kitchen and asked the chef to give me a melon with cottage cheese. I rejoined my colleagues waving away questions with a smile. But inwardly, I felt like a leper.

But out of this difficult and challenging experience came much good: we finally appreciated just how wonderful our lives in Israel really were. The kids saw a bit of the world and also learned to speak, write, and read English fluently, which helped them enormously throughout their education. But most of all, out of my intense misery and longing for home, came the unquenchable impetus to begin writing my first novel.

When the day finally came in which we realized we had a new, spacious home ready and waiting for us in Jerusalem, and that our mad plan had actually succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, we came home, realizing that is what Israel had become. How I rejoiced in rejoining my friends, speaking Hebrew, attending my lovely synagogue, the familiar downtown filled with kosher restaurants, bakeries, and pizza parlors! I was no longer an olah. I had finally become a native. The America of my birth and upbringing no longer held any connection or any attraction for me. Even after sitting though the Passover bombing at the Park Hotel; wearing gas masks in the sealed room under bombardment from Saddam Hussein; sending my sons and daughters off to the IDF and National Service, I never again questioned if I had made the right choice.

The Writing Life

Having brought back a novel from my years in America, it was now time to get it published—no small task when you know no one in a publishing industry centered a continent away! But the interesting thing about Israel which I discovered is that far from being a provincial backwater, it is a lodestone for the most accomplished and famous all over the world.

This was true of editors and writers as well. Soon after returning, I attended a woman writers’ conference and sat next to Mary McCarthy. Seeing this as an omen (surely God wouldn’t do this to me if He had no intention of helping me publish my book) I soon after came across a want ad in the Jerusalem Post seeking a cookbook editor. The employer turned out to be the former editor of Architectural Digest and a book packager who had worked with Jacqueline Onassis at Doubleday and was now a ba’al teshuva at Or Sameach Yeshiva. Having volunteered to turn a shoe box of recipes into a book, he was desperately seeking someone to mediate between himself and the implacable elderly author. I told him I had no interest in this job but would take it if he would agree to help me navigate New York’s book publishing world. It turned out he had all the connections I lacked. An agent and publisher soon followed.

With my first book, Jephte’s Daughter, I began an exploration of women in the ultra-Orthodox world, unique subject matter to which I was privy only because I had made Aliyah. With time, I was inspired by such diverse topics as Israel’s struggle against terrorism and the Sephardic legacy. Living in Israel also gave me a new perspective on American- Jewish culture as well, resulting in novels like The Saturday Wife, and The Sisters Weiss. For a writer like myself, making Aliyah gave me a cornucopia of marvelous, inspiring subject matter from which to choose. The well has never yet run dry, and writer’s block is something I have only read about, but never personally experienced. To paraphrase Marcel Proust: when I moved to Israel, my dream became my address.

My husband too found success with a dream job in a little start-up called Check Point, begun by three IDF buddies in the garage of one of their grandmothers. Now a multi-billion-dollar international company leading the world in software security, Check Point was only one of many such companies that turned Israel into an economic powerhouse, giving all Israelis opportunities that were hard to find elsewhere.

To summarize, making aliyah, we found many things we had not expected, and many things of which we had not dreamed. We expected poverty but found the opposite. I dreamed of writing one book and have so far written and published more than a dozen.

Nourished by the beautiful ideological and religious climate of our homeland, our personal lives have also flourished: We have been married over fifty years, and have two sons, two daughters, and fourteen grandchildren who have given us much nachas. My son Asher, under a full fellowship to Harvard University, earned a Ph.D. in Assyriology, while my grandson Yotam was one of Israel’s first Rhodes Scholars, earning a Master’s in Physics from Oxford. These academic successes are in no small measure due to the wonderful public education system in Israel.

As the Torah writes of Abraham: “And God blessed Abraham in everything.” Looking back on my life after fifty some odd years of Aliyah, I feel the same can be said about myself. In no small measure, I attribute this to the decision we made to make Aliyah.

This essay in its edited form appears in the book Goodbye America: Fifty Years of American-Jewish Women’s Immigration to Israel, edited by Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz and Barbara Getzoff-Schoenfeld, published by Peter Lang. I urge you to get hold of this fascinating book and read all the essays, written by a unique group of accomplished women.

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6 comments on “Aliyah: What I Hadn’t Expected; What I Hadn’t Dreamed”

  1. מלכה שלזינגר

    Although a sabra, doughter to Holocaust survivers,I identified with everything
    you wrote. I enjoyed it tremendously as I did your other books.
    A happy new year to you and your family.
    Malka Schlesinger.

  2. Howard Katzoff

    Personal to Naomi….Did your family eventually move to Ramot ?

  3. Miriam Suss

    Naomi I am another rusted- on fan of your books from Melbourne Australia and we met and spoke many years ago when you visited here. Your story had me in tears, as the child of Holocaust survivors who met in a Bet Olim in Raanana in 1949, and who eventually landed in Australia. With my maternal family all in Israel I am heartbroken by the tyranny of distance and the Covid restrictions that keep me from them. Wish you and your family Shanah Tova u’metuka and please continue to enchant us with your evocative and moving words
    Miriam Suss.

  4. Glenda Urmacher

    I did the reverse of your life, but a decade earlier.
    I met a Holocaust survivor child in New York who worked on the S.S. Jerusalem and was doing the winter cruise to the Carribbean. After 2 dates ( 1 month apart ), he proposed, and I accepted, and I decided I wanted to stay in America, and he agreed.The only consolation was that the wedding would take place in Israel, so his family could meet mine. It was the best decision we ever made.
    I thought I came from the most dyslexic amily until I met his.
    His father married in Israel, his girlfriend, (after the birth of 2 children out of wedlock ) whom he met in the camps with his wife still alive. My mother in law died under suspicious circumstances, (my husband and his sister were then abandoned ), and Uri’s abba made his way back to Israel with girlfriend and 2 children. My father in law was allowed entrance during the British mandate because he had come to Israel with Ben Gurion as a teenager ( from Sciedlce, Poland )to drain the swamps of Tel Aviv.
    While abba lived in Tel Mond with his 2nd family, my husband and his sister made it out of war torn Europe thanks to Warsaw fighters, who had survived the war, and who made it their mission to save as many Jewish children, place them in D.P. camps, and smuggled them into Palestine.
    Uri and his sister made it to Israel on Exodus 47, “the ship that launched a nation”
    It was 2 years in DP camps that my husband got his first education, and learned of American and its’ language.
    Sorry I have ranted on, but your book tugged at my heat strings, and I wanted you to know some of Uri’s history.
    After 60yrs. of marriage, Uri is living in a memory care facility in California with Alzheimers.
    Although his family collected reparation from Germany, he did not, living in America, and for many years, not wanting any blood money from Germany.
    He did sit on ground controls at the ‘Cape’ for the first 7 minutes when America’s first space flight when up..
    And one of our twin grandsons ( Dylan (Shmuel ) made alyiah this year, and lives in Jerusalem.
    So the world spins around, and we all land on our feet, but our heart and soul is in Israel.

  5. paul haines

    Naomi, I have tears in my eyes. Your writing is beautiful. I am so missing my families in Israel. Another year will pass before I am able to travel. I ask HASHEM every day to keep you all safe. I missed Kinneret”s daughter”s Bot Mitzvah last year. I am sad every day. Rabbi Moss and I were to participate in the bike ride from Jerusalem to Eilat in October. This too shall pass I am told. Hope all is well with you and your family. Paul Haines

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