We Made It - Three Years Since Our Aliyah
We Made It - Three Years Since Our Aliyah

We made it.  Three years living in Israel with citizenship. My wife and I each have our own Teudat Zahudt (citizen i.d.) and government travel permit, in case we decide to visit leftover kids in Chicago, travel through the exotic Middle East, or just run away.

We retired in Israel to be with two children and their kiddies living here much longer than we.  They were shocked but happy when we told them we were making aliyah, but not as much as the four (adult) children we abandoned in Chicago. “I’m tired of raising you,” one son told me. 

What’s the big deal that we live here three years? Neighbors and friends tell us the first two years are the honeymoon period.  Olim (immigrants) are busy unpacking and settling into new homes.  Most olim we meet like us lived in our last homes overseas for 25 years or longer.  The apartments, everything in Israel, are so much smaller. One man invited me to a meeting with a warning it’s going to be in Tel Aviv—an hour away from where I live.  I broke the news to him that in Chicago I can drive for an hour and never leave the City.

Just deciding what to bring was cause of a near declared war. I am a minimalist.  She is a realist.  Needless to say we are still unpacking. Our American-Israeli accountant handed me his $15,000 check, a sum equal to our international freight hauler’s bill. He said take only pictures, clothes, mementoes, and toiletries with you.  Buy everything with this check you need in Israel, and give me the change back. We should have accepted his offer. 

By year three, olim are finished with ulpan. Too many new olim give ulpan short shrift. It is as much a sanctuary besides the place where you go to learn to speak pidgin Hebrew.  The benefits of ulpan to olim are social, cultural, and integrative.  Ulpan eats up a good part of everyday, five days a week; it wears you out trying to learn a foreign language; it gets you out of your house. You meet adult friends from around the world with whom you can carry on adult conversations.  The grandkids are great, but….

Second, ulpan is a place to meet others with whom to commiserate, share joyous times and spots of depression. We learned critical information like how to contact the best appliance repair guy, a barber, and where to get a new teudat after losing mine. The teachers are ready to help translating the first electric bill that comes only in Hebrew, and other official looking documents. The teacher then makes a lesson plan from your insecurities, and explains the public announcements rushing students into the mamad (bomb blast safe room) when sirens blare. You didn’t have one of those designated safe rooms in your old house, one Israeli asked me in all seriousness.

The Teudat Zahut is required equipment in Israel carried everywhere at all times, because this is a country living under marshal law. Yet, you give your number to every 16 years old store clerk, bank teller, government agent, and post office employee, unlike your U.S. Social Security number that you guard as if it is a state secret never sharing it. That was a culture shock.

Ulpan is a safe haven. It is where olim get socialized to the country much like the army does for young olim.  Many friends are made in ulpan. We still have several from the classes.  Olim in our case are thrilled to be here, but there are pangs of wonder—what are the kids back home doing today?  Can I get to my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah? How do you clean the caking white lime junk on the shower doors and dishes? How did the Vietnamese mother pushing her stroller past me learn to respond to another passerby with, “Kol beseder, Baruch Hashem,” while I’m still struggling to conjugate, “Vatik” (senior citizen, eligible for half fare)  when my wife and I get on a bus?

We hear many olim start returning to their former countries more frequently in the third year of aliyah, and for longer periods of time. There is an emotional tug-o-war taking place, especially if husband and wife are acclimating at different speeds, and worse, in different directions. One may start a new career. The other is desperate for things to do beyond sponga and giving the grandkids breakfast.

On our third day after arriving in Israel, right ”off the boat” and still jet lagged, my artist significant other drags me to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to see an exhibit from the best Israeli art majors. She was marking her territory, letting me know she may be my significant other, but there are other things in life she is pursuing more significantly.  It’s incredible how much you learn about yourself as an oleh.

In time we begin drifting from adult friends made in the early months upon arriving.  You or others might move away.  The common interests you thought you share are not so common after all.  Israeli politics can be a sledgehammer to relationships.  They take their politics so seriously here, because survival and security are always atop the agenda. In America, politics are less important and not suffused in everyday conversation among average citizens. Losing new and old friends can be a slow insouciant process, or swift and surgical.

People you meet in Israel, and with friends from “the old country,” begin getting sorted out in the third year. Some de-friend you intentionally, sometimes by circumstance. They stop accepting invitations for dinner, and extending invitations to their homes, simchot, etc. Worse, friends calling to chat and visiting from your former hometowns stop calling or getting together when they come to visit. One lesson learned about aliyah is, when you’re gone, you’re done.

In some ways, I feel like having grown from an oleh chadash, a new immigrant, to a ger chadash, a new stranger in the land. My Hebrew isn’t good enough to understand fast-talking Israelis—forget phone calls and the TV news send jokes.  All subtleties go out the window.  It’s a growth process, and I’m still in the petri dish.  

Our promise to ourselves when we made aliyah is to not sweat the small things, and we’ve been pretty good about it. Even Dr. Seuss encourages us with his reminder, “And will you succeed? Yes you will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed).”