Why’d You Want to Live Here, Anyway?

by Brian on July 25, 2014

in In the News,Politics,The Old Country,War in Gaza

YMCA Chorus in t-shirts (sm)An article a few weeks ago in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned why someone would ever want to make aliyah from a comfortable country like the U.S. Especially these days – with the murders of the Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shear and Eyal Shach still on our minds, the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khaider stinging at our collective conscious, followed by hundreds of Hamas missiles from Gaza and the thunderous response of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – why, asked writer Vered Kellner, would a family pick up and leave friends and family, “a renovated apartment in the heart of Manhattan, a lively Jewish community and kids in some of the best schools around,” to come to what is these days among the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world?

Why indeed? Even as a not-so-recent immigrant to Israel, it’s a question I still ask myself sometimes.

Kellner, an Israeli living in New York for the past two years, became obsessed with a particular family making the move to Israel. “I followed them on Facebook and peeked at them in synagogue, trying to pick out from among their words and glances the reason why they were taking such a dramatic step,” she writes. Kellner admits she misses the Israeli pressure cooker with its intense, bipolar emotions, as she puts it. “I’m already addicted, a lost cause,” she says. “But what about the new immigrants, the ones who choose it?”

Like the family in New York, I left a good job in hi-tech to move 7,500 miles away from all but our immediate family and I’m still struggling, 20 years later, with accepting that I will never fully speak a language whose backward squiggles and ornate verb constructions are so completely foreign from the English in which I make a living expressing myself as to render me prime parody fodder for an Israeli TV comedy show like Eretz Nehederet.

And then there’s the missiles. It’s not that I didn’t know there was the possibility of sirens and running for shelters in my future. During the first Gulf War, I had a transistor radio at my desk in California tuned in all day to the local all news station. I would hear the sirens, the reports of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds and the purposely-vague descriptions of where they landed. But just like the parent I would soon become, I put it out of my mind. When our kids grow up, there will be peace, I cooed. We won’t need an army and there certainly won’t be any more rockets.

The day we made aliyah, Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped. I can almost hear Kellner crying out, “What were you thinking!”

The truth is, I was never supposed to be here. I came to Israel almost by accident. After I graduated from college, I dreamed of traveling around the world. I loaded my arm up with inoculations that would allow me to go anywhere – Africa, India, Southeast Asia. Israel was just a stop along the way.

But from nearly the moment I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was captivated. Even though (or maybe because) I grew up utterly assimilated, with no bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur just another school day, and the highlight of Shabbat mornings our weekly bacon breakfast, I couldn’t tear myself away from this place. The trip around the world was put on hold, I stayed for three years and met my wife-to-be. We returned to the U.S. to jumpstart our careers, started a family and made aliyah for real a few years later.

Bomb shelters were never a part of the narrative. So, maybe the question is not why’d you want to come here, but why do you stay?

We have a family trip to Ireland planned for the end of the summer. (The irony of visiting a country that had its own long-term terrorism problem is not lost on me.) As the missiles fell, my daughter asked if we could move the date of the vacation up.

“Could we maybe get out now…just for a little while?” she asked.

“You know what you’d be doing, right?” I replied. “You’d have your news app open on your iPhone all day and you’d be Whatsapping with your friends non-stop and be totally unable to enjoy the trip.”

That was the experience of Allison Kaplan-Sommer who was vacationing in Rhode Island during June’s kidnapping crisis. She was looking forward to the trip as a break from the “sadness and strife” of the Middle East. But try as she might, “I haven’t been able to give myself that break…it seems wrong to wake up and read a local morning newspaper where the top story is a feature celebrating the fact that the shin-guards worn by the American soccer team in the World Cup were made in Rhode Island.” And so she spent much of her vacation glued to streaming video and social media out of Israel.

To friends who have helpfully suggested to Kaplan-Sommer that maybe she ought to pack up the kids and “find a safe refuge until the storm blows over,” she responds that she’d “rather be here experiencing it than far away wondering what the country is going through.” She likens it to when a family member is ill. It’s easier somehow to cope when you’re right in front of them, “with your finger on the pulse of their condition.”

Kellner gets it too. “Why settle for a seat in the balcony when you can have one in the orchestra?” she mused.

And yet, that seat in the orchestra can be so difficult. Why choose to put yourself in harm’s way when, as an immigrant with two passports, you always have an easy way out?

Michael Oren says it’s a matter of responsibility. Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and an eminent historian – his “Six Days of War” is by far the best and most comprehensive volume in English on the 1967 war.

The rebirth of the state of Israel is an historic opportunity for Jews who care about their Judaism to take responsibility for making the country all that it can be, Oren told a sold out crowd at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies earlier this month. “The notion that as Jews we are responsible for one another is a time-honored Jewish definition…and what I’d call the base definition of Zionism,” Oren explained.

Yes, Israel is beset by a myriad of problems – economic, political, social, racial. “Sovereignty is messy,” Oren said. “But taking responsibility for that mess is what Zionism is all about. It’s very easy for me to talk about Israel’s astounding achievements in hi-tech, medical science and Nobel Prize winners. But what I’m proudest of is the mess, the chaos. And right now, we have no shortage of it.”

(Maybe that’s why our Jewish mothers back in the States have such a hard time with us being here. They spent their entire childrearing years trying to coax us into avoiding getting messy.)

Our youngest son sings in a unique Israeli-Palestinian teen choir. The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which has been meeting for two years now under the sponsorship of the Jerusalem International YMCA, has performed all over the country – including singing backup for veteran Israeli guitarist and peace activist David Broza’s Israel radio chart topping cover of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.”

The group’s weekly meetings alternate rehearsal time with “dialogue,” led by trained facilitators. The conversations are not always easy but for the 32 teenagers in the choir, an understanding and respect for the “other side” has developed.

Sometimes, though, I wonder: what’s the point? A couple dozen kids are being educated towards coexistence? Big deal. How is that going to make a difference on the national level? Can any of them personally stop the missiles? How, in fact, is my being here rather than in the U.S., also not being involved in anything political, going to make a change in Israeli society (other than, say, encouraging dog owners to pick up after their pets in the park)?

But you don’t need to educate a whole society for change to occur. A single individual can have profound impact – for better or for worse. Maybe one of the kids in the chorus will grow up to be prime minister and figure out how to forge peace in a way no one has yet thought of. Maybe, because of this experience, one will not grow up to be a terrorist (Arab or Jewish). And here’s one for believers: maybe one will grow up to be the messiah.

When you hear the sirens, it’s easy to succumb to despair, that this is too overwhelming a mess. “But I look at it the other way around,” Oren concluded his talk. “I can think of no greater blessing than to be alive at a time in Jewish history when I as a Jew have to deal with this mess.”

I get that and agree. But a little less mess, that would be OK too.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine and blog.

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