When one talks about being American, Canadian, Israeli, British, Ethiopian, Russian, etc., it’s very often a cultural identification, rather than a geographic one. The longer one has lived in their country of origin, the more ingrained the cultural references, habits, ways of thinking and relating to people and the world become. So, when one finds oneself smack dab in the middle of Israel, by their own volition, is one obliged to become Israeli? Is one automatically required to shed their frames of reference and take on Israeli outlooks and mannerisms for everything from what’s considered polite and acceptable behavior to the Israeli way of washing floors? Or does being Israeli (as that’s how the government recognizes olim) simply mean having an allegiance to the country, adapting and slowly adopting as much as possible and necessary while retaining your core essence? In a very humorous website, How to be Israeli , blogger Maya, who made aliyah from the U.S. in early 2008, gives her take on the idiosyncrasies of Israeli life and culture as viewed by an American on everything from the Israeli version of a mop to the correct pronunciation of the name of a major Israeli supermarket chain to the difference between what is considered rude and polite in Israel vs. the States.
How hard or easy one’s acculturation process is probably depends upon one’s like/dislike for their country of origin as well as their personal attitude towards change. I would also venture that the more one is “moving to Israel,” rather than away from their home country, also plays a great part in their willingness and ease of adaptation. A very interesting article entitled “A local girl in the IDF” includes a letter from former Fresno, California resident Darrow Pierce, whose (progressive) opinions of Israel changed as a result of making aliyah and joining the IDF. She concludes:
I once heard that moving to Israel is like a marriage — you give, take, fight, love, disagree, compromise, and work on your relationship with the country and the people. For some it doesn’t work out, and others are happy for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what’ll happen after I discharge from the army, but for now, my marriage is going great.
If I was to compare making aliyah to marriage, I would say that a great determining factor as to whether or not you succeed is your level of commitment. Going into a marriage – do you expect it to work and to work it – do you believe that you are marrying your bashert (destined) or do you tell yourself that if things don’t work out there’s always the option of divorce? Or in terms of aliyah, did you come to Israel because this is the place you want to be, where Hashem (G-d) has prepared a place for you, or do you expect that if things don’t work out, you can always return to your home country? The better you are prepared emotionally, the more realistic your expectations, and the more willing you are to weather and work through the tough times, the greater chance of success you give your marriage/aliyah. If the option of divorce/return is on the table before you’ve entered the relationship/made aliyah, IMHO, this mode of thinking makes one less likely to stick with it and overcome the challenges; you’ve most likely undermined the success of the venture before you’ve even started out.
Maya, in her post “Aliyah after the honeymoon,” uses the marriage analogy as well:
The aliyah-as-marriage analogy works in many other ways, too: you must get to know each other first, you must be committed, you must discuss money and how to raise the kids and where to live. (I bet that the percentage of people who “divorce” aliyah over financial concerns is at least as high as the percentage of marriages that dissolve over money.) I once heard someone say that the best indication of how happy you will be in a marriage is how happy you are out of it. In other words, if you are miserable, don’t expect marriage (or aliyah) to transform you. We are responsible for our own happiness. As I waited for aliyah, I reminded myself to practice enjoying life then so that I would be able to enjoy life in Israel.
Reflecting on my previous relocation from New York to New Jersey, I realized that after having lived in New York for many years, I didn’t feel like a New Jersey-ite all of a sudden. My body may have crossed state lines, but I considered myself a New Yorker for quite a while afterward. I was more interested to learn what Mayor Bloomberg was doing to/for New York City than about anything that was going on in New Jersey. Truthfully, I had no frame of reference or understanding about local and state politics at that point and I wasn’t sure I cared. Over time, however, that slowly changed. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I stopped thinking of myself as a New Yorker. I could no longer vote in New York State and my interest and connection dwindled; New Jersey became my home.
I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised not long ago, to realize the degree of ownership I feel here already. When listening to Binyamin Netanyahu (I’ve not gotten to the familiar “Bibi” stage yet) address Congress recently, I took umbrage when he magnanimously offered major land concessions in return for “piece” – the little piece we would keep. What right does he have to offer so much of Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria), I said to myself – it’s my land and I don’t approve!
Most wonderful, however, was hearing my daughter, Tova, express similar sentiments to her friend who was visiting from the States. Trying to arrange a meeting place in Yerushalayim over the phone, her friend was anxious about traveling in the area – it wasn’t her territory. Tova, trying to give directions, responded – “well, it’s my territory.” And, the other day, a friend, still stateside, asked Tova if she was bored. “Bored!” she exclaimed. “It’s a different culture!” I’m so glad she’s embracing and enjoying the differences.
As much as making aliyah involves learning a different language and different way of life, it is also just the opposite – it’s living in a country where everybody speaks the same language and runs on the same calendar as you do. It’s the most comfortable place to be Jewish. For the first time we truly feel that we’re in the place where we belong. With time the rest will come, but we’ve already got the most important part.