Tag Archives: Aliyah

I Made Aliyah 20 Years Ago as a Child. This Is My Story

Dear Josep,

So… I’ve got a few “something-versaries” either recently past or coming up. You and I had our tenth “friendversary” two months ago; next week is LtJ’s 2nd “blogiversary” (frankly I can’t believe it’s only been two years!!! So much has happened!!!); and tomorrow is my 20th “aliyaversery.”

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve done anything for 20 years, except be alive. Maybe. 😛

But it’s true: on December 16th, 1996, I stepped out of a plane and descended a mobile staircase onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport. Some people around me knelt and kissed the ground. I did not feel like kissing anything.

I was nine years old at the time and had just left behind the only life I’d known to immigrate to Israel with my parents, older sister, and two younger brothers. “Aliyah” literally means “rising up,” referring to the elevated spiritual status we achieve by being in the Holy Land. But I think you already know that. 🙂

It’s a story I usually only refer to in passing. I don’t talk about it much. I mean… it was a long time ago. I’ve spent 2/3rds of my life in this country, and if you were to ask me if I feel more American or more Israeli, I’d say I feel more Israeli.

The truth is, though, that the experience of immigrating from the USA to Israel was the formative event of my life. The story of my aliyah is basically the story of how I became who I am today.

I don’t regret a thing, and I am very grateful to my parents for bringing me here. I don’t think I ever would have had the courage and stamina to make this choice as a parent. We had a comfortable life in Pittsburgh. My parents owned a two-story house with a big basement and a huge front and back yard. We were part of a close-knit community of religious Jews in Squirrel Hill; we had a religious Jewish day school, Hillel Academy, just a ten-minute walk away. My dad was a physiatrist (rehabilitative medicine physician) making a very comfortable living, and my mom taught karate to women and children in the community. There was no reason in the world to leave–except Zionism. My parents believed all Jews should live in Israel and planned to make aliyah long before I was born. So I grew up knowing that it was something that would probably happen in the distant future, and when it finally started to materialize, it didn’t come as a shock.

I remember our first few months in Israel in kind of a haze. I had been taught to read and pray in Hebrew at my school in Pittsburgh, and some extremely basic conversational skills, but it was not enough to understand what was going on in the classroom or to have meaningful conversations with my peers.

Even harder than the language barrier was the culture shock. Introversion is… not tolerated very well in Israeli culture. It’s a very social culture, everybody all up in each other’s business. And my classmates interpreted my shyness as snobbery. I made a few English-speaking friends, but most of my classmates either ignored or actively teased me in the first few years. I remember feeling “other,” and intensely lonely. I went from easily the top of my class in Pittsburgh to doing literally nothing in the classroom. Most days I brought along a book in English and read instead of even trying to understand what the teacher was saying.

It was really, really tough. I cried often. I missed my friends and my old life terribly. I fought with my parents and siblings regularly. There was a period I spent 15 minutes every morning throwing a tantrum and screaming at my mother that there was no point in going to school and I didn’t want to go.

This is why I don’t talk about it much. It makes me very emotional to remember how hard it was. (I neither confirm nor deny that I cried several times while putting together this post.)

It didn’t help that I’m highly sensitive, which meant that relative to other children my age, I experienced emotions and relationships very intensely… and that I had already had a history of depression and anxiety. I was seeing a psychotherapist regularly from second grade up until I made aliyah. About a year after aliyah, my family went to a “family therapist” for a few sessions, but other than that, I didn’t have professional emotional support. When I look back on that period, I see that I developed some creative coping mechanisms, using fantasy and creativity as an outlet for my loneliness and sense of helplessness.

Me, age 10, about six months after aliyah

As you’ve probably guessed, one coping mechanism I developed was writing. I kept a daily journal of my thoughts and experiences, starting a few weeks before the aliyah and ending in the summer of 1997. Six months later, I started another diary, which I wrote in every day all through 1998. I also received a hardcover notebook for my birthday that year which I started to use as a poetry book. I still have all three of these, and they are among my most treasured possessions.

Photo of books
Left to right: the poetry book, the aliyah journal, and the diary
Journal entry that reads: Dec. 16th, 1996. Dear Journal, Today I landed in Israel. We got a warm welcome from a society at the Ben Gurion Airport. Our temporary apartment is okay. I was very tired today. Instead of going out to someone's house for dinner, I stayed home with Ima.
Not sure what I crossed out there, but my mixed feelings definitely come across!
Journal excerpt that reads: Dec. 22, 1996. Dear Journal, Today was the first day of school (for me). Everyone kept on staring at me. It was terrible. I hope tomorrow will be better. I EVEN HAD HOMEWORK!!!!!"
Journal entry from my first day at an Israeli school

At age ten, just a few months after making aliyah, I wrote my first chapter book. It was called “To Keep the Peace” and recounted the adventures of yours truly and my real-life British friend Shareen, who, upon learning that the USA and the UK were about to go to war with each other, flew to London and Washington D.C. to convince the Queen of England and then-President Clinton not to fight. It was ridiculous and beyond adorable. And looking at it from a psychological perspective–how awesome was I? I gave myself agency and freedom and the power to cross oceans and change the world through fantasy and creative expression. What a wonderful coping skill!

After writing that book, I had a definitive answer when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up: an author.

Diary entry that reads: April 3rd, 1998. "Dear Teddy, Oooh I - I'm just at a loss for words. Why - how?! No, nothing horrible happened, no one died. Well, my old self sort of did. I am an author and poetess, no doubt about it. But I - I am an *Israeli*. I am going to fall in love with *Israeli men*. I am going to live in Israel. I'm going to have *Israeli children*. But - most of all - I am eleven years old. My sister is thirteen. My life is changing. Too quickly. I can't keep up with myself. I just - can't. Yours, Daniella"
11-year-old Daniella philosophizing about the passage of time and what her future holds.

With the gift money I received for my bat mitzvah, I purchased a computer, which was a pretty standard thing to do with bat mitzvah gift money, but the thing I was looking forward to most about it was fairly non-standard: I wanted to start writing my first novel. And that’s exactly what I did. At age 14 I completed it, and a few months later, completed another novel I had started writing in the meantime. When you and I met four years later, I had already penned five full-length novels. An Ancient Whisper is my sixth.

Over time, my grasp of Hebrew improved, and I learned to find my place within Israeli society.

…Usually off in a corner, having deep philosophical conversations or geeking out over books with my little group of friends while everybody else giggled about movie stars and boys. (Somehow I suspect you will relate, Hamlet. 😛 😛 😛 )

I was in eighth grade when the Second Intifada broke out, and was volunteering for OneFamily, an organization that assists terror victims, as it was tapering off. So my entire experience of high school was on the backdrop of some very grim and scary things going on. For my part, it had the effect of strengthening my connection to Israel. That sense of solidarity I write about, the way Israelis cope with terror, helped me feel a part of something, and helped me understand very deeply why my parents had brought me here. This is my people, this is our land, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

By ninth grade I was fully functional in school, and did very well on my matriculation exams despite the fact that I received no accommodations whatsoever on account of my status as an immigrant. (Back then we were expected to be completely functional in Hebrew 5 years after making aliyah. The law has since changed–had I come just a few years later, I would have been eligible for all kinds of accommodations–and I am super pissed off about it. 😛 ) (It makes literally no difference to my life. My scores were excellent and I never needed them anyhow. BUT IT’S NOT FAIR!!!) (Okay I’m done)

Basically… I grew up with one foot in each world, struggling to make the transition to the new one while clinging nostalgically to the old one. Reading my writings from that period is kind of heartwrenching: there’s this girl, on the seamline between childhood and adolescence, facing an upheaval in her life that was too big for her to fully comprehend, simultaneously finding relief in her rich imagination and criticizing herself for having her head in the clouds.

Me at a restaurant in Israel, age 10-11, with my paternal grandmother

Story of my life in a nutshell.

Love,

Daniella


A couple quick announcements before I go:

1) Today is the last day you can download Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism for free! Don’t miss out!

2) *ahem* Speaking of my novels… if you’re subscribed to my newsletter or you follow my other blog, you already know this, but I haven’t announced it here yet: my debut novel, An Ancient Whisper, is scheduled for publication by Kasva Press this coming fall! It’s about an American Jew of Sephardic-Moroccan descent and a Catholic Spaniard who team up to research their families’ respective histories… only to discover that their pasts are inextricably linked. Woven into their narrative is the story of their ancestors in late 15th-century Spain: a Jewish family that runs into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, and the Christian family that comes to their aid. For more information and updates, make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter.

Stranger in a Familiar Land

Dear Josep,

So we are back in Israel as of yesterday afternoon, and still trying to get over the jet lag and exhaustion from around 36 hours of travel (I know, boo hoo. Try doing it with three restless kids!) and get our act together because Passover–the Jewish holiday requiring the most intense preparation–is next Friday night. (Ahhhhhh!)

Being in the States was many things for many different reasons, but one thing that I felt there this time was… strange. Back when I was a kid and still a new immigrant, going back to the USA was a huge relief. When surrounded by people speaking Hebrew, I didn’t even realize how much I was straining to understand even when I wasn’t trying. It was only when I was surrounded with English again that I realized how much easier that was. And as you mentioned, Americans are so nice and upbeat when interacting with strangers. This used to be so refreshing for me.

This time, though, it was kind of exhausting. Israelis have a pretty bad reputation when it comes to friendliness and politeness. They don’t mind if I walk around as my usual pensive, antisocial self. 😛 I have the unfortunate combination of being both extremely curious about people different from me, and extremely shy, if not somewhat socially anxious, so I usually end up wondering about them and making up stories about them instead of striking up conversations. (This is where Eitan comes in handy. He “interviews” people for me, and I listen. 😉 )

Moreover, I felt extremely self-conscious in my long skirts and covered hair, next to my boys with their kippot and payot. I am no longer used to being a Jew in a primarily non-Jewish place. This may sound strange, but it adds pressure, because it means I become a representative of the Jewish people to the world. We are supposed to be “a light unto the nations”. It makes it that much more important to me to present myself as being kind, respectful, and generally a good human being. This is pretty challenging when you have three energetic little boys who are not used to, uh, non-Israeli standards of behavior. 😛 By Israeli standards, my kids are pretty well-behaved, but by American standards–let alone European standards–they can be a nightmare. (…I don’t know what your standards are, that you think my kids are so great, but you’ve always been an odd bird. 😛 )

This is not just my own quirk, either. There’s a mitzvah known as kiddush Hashem, “sanctification of the Name”, that specifically involves presenting yourself as a positive example of the Jewish people to the world. Throughout history, the whole Jewish nation has always been judged by the actions of the few–usually for the worse :-/ and that can be dangerous to all of us.

Practically speaking, when in the US, I experience this “ambassadorship” fairly often. Most Americans have a vague idea of what Jews are and know to categorize us that way, and we had quite a few “Shalom”s and other friendly comments indicating recognition. Other Jews tend to feel an automatic kinship with strangers they recognize as Jews, so we had some of those approach us, too. At one supermarket checkout counter, an African-American lady asked what our religion was and when we told her we are Jewish, she said “I have so many questions for you”. We asked for her information and promised to be in touch. (My father-in-law took this upon himself and said he’s going to send her a link to this blog. If you’re reading, say hi!)

This made me want to wear Jewish symbols outwardly so people would know what they were looking at. I’ve been wearing that gold Chai necklace of my grandmother’s pretty much every day since she was diagnosed (there’s a picture of it in this entry about Jewish symbols), but not everyone recognizes the Chai. Of course, the USA is pretty much the only place in the Diaspora where I could even consider proudly displaying a Jewish symbol. (This is what happens when you do that in France. 🙁 )

I often feel the same way about being an Israeli. I sometimes get friend requests on Facebook from random people in all kinds of random countries, and when I ask them to what I owe the pleasure, often it’s because they love and support Israel.

I am willing and proud to take on this role, but especially during these tough political times, it can be a heavy responsibility. As soon as I set foot on Israeli soil, I felt it lift from my shoulders somewhat. Here, I still represent something–observant Jewish women, American olim (immigrants), settlers, what have you, but that’s less pressure than the entire Jewish people and the whole state of Israel. Sometimes I wish I could just blend into the crowd. But I’m always going to stand out… not only because of my religion, nationality, and personal choices, but also because of my unusually high sensitivity and empathy, and sometimes it can be a burden.

We thought of you as we flew over Barcelona on our way back to Israel. I told H we were flying over Spain, and he said, “So Josep might see the airplane!” I chuckled and said you probably wouldn’t, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know it was us 😉

Lots of love,

Daniella

***

Blog readers: Yes, I still have an announcement, but give me a little more time to get settled 😉 In the meantime, have you ever felt that you are representing something to the world? What did that feel like?

Vive L’Aliya

Dear Josep,

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am fascinated with languages. Recently I’ve been on a very strict regimen of learning Spanish on DuoLingo. I’ve been practicing almost every day since the beginning of the summer, and creo que puedo decir que mi castellano es mucho mejor ahora. O, se puede decir, es existente. 😛 They say that people with musical abilities tend to be better at grasping languages, and in these past few months I’ve developed a theory why. When I immerse myself in a new language, I start hearing words, phrases and sounds from it echoing in my thoughts, much the way I get a catchy song stuck in my head.

Anyway, what I’ve found in the last few days is that the language reverberating in my head has not, for a change, been Spanish.

It’s been French.

Three guesses why. :-/

I studied French as a third language in eighth and ninth grade. Personally, in retrospect, I think they should have been teaching us Arabic. But given that those years were the height of the second Intifada, and that it was a religious school that was not supposed to have a political affiliation but quietly arranged buses to anti-disengagement protests… you can imagine that maybe some among the staff and the parents might not have been so thrilled with that choice. So French it was. And it so happened that in eighth grade, I had a unique opportunity to travel to Paris with my school choir. We visited several Jewish schools and communities in Paris, and when we weren’t performing, we toured. It was my first time in Europe, and my maternal grandparents had firmly instilled within me an appreciation for high culture, art, music and travel, so I was well trained to appreciate Paris. 😉 The trip was wonderful and left me hoping to return someday.

However. There was one thing that struck me about being in Paris that I had never felt before in the USA or in Israel. Something that I felt again, several years later, in the city you call home. Something that I felt as a Jew, especially when visiting the Jewish communities in those cities.

Fear.

If you give it some thought, it kind of sounds ridiculous. I mean… I live in Israel, right? This trip was in March of 2001. 8 Israelis were killed and about 45 were injured in terror attacks in that month alone. My trip to Barcelona was in 2006, just three months after the Second Lebanon War, in which I personally dodged a few Katyushas in Haifa. Certainly, far more Jews have been killed on racist/nationalist grounds in Israel than in France or Spain over the past fifteen years. But in Israel we do not tuck our Stars of David under our shirts. In Israel we do not hide our synagogues behind heavy metal gates and stern security personnel. And obviously, in Israel, we do not avoid speaking or wearing Hebrew in public. Seeing Jews do these things, just as a matter of daily life, was appalling to me. It felt backwards, so different from the feeling of being Jewish in America (or even in London, which I visited in 2004), and from the kind of fear we deal with in Israel.

The news from Paris last week was horrifying but not surprising to me. (And frankly I find it upsetting that the world’s attention was focused solely on Paris while 2,000 people were massacred by Boko Haram in Africa. But I digress.) There has been a serious uptick in antisemitic incidents in Europe in general and France in particular lately; boosted by the war in Gaza, but it was on an upward trend beforehand, too. I don’t need to read the papers to know this; all I have to do is open my ears. I’ve been hearing more and more French on the streets. This year was the first time in Israel’s history that France topped the countries of origin for olim, new immigrants to Israel. 7,000 French Jews moved here in 2014–and that includes the exhausting war we had this summer. If you ask any of these olim, they will tell you that they’ll take the rockets over the constant, looming threat of antisemitism any day. At least, they say, here, we are in charge of our own destiny.

France is the world’s third largest Jewish community, after the USA and Israel. But a few years down the line, that may no longer be true. The Jews are fleeing France. And when Jews start emigrating en masse, it is not a good sign for the place from which they’re fleeing. Persecution often starts with Jews, but it never ends with them… and we already saw that in Paris last week.

And while I do find all this upsetting and infuriating, I can’t say I’m unhappy about the wave of immigration from France. There is a sizeable (and growing) community of French expats in my town, one of whom started a lovely café here. 😀 The other day Eitan and I were walking down Emeq Refa’im Street in Jerusalem and we noticed that a restaurant that had been there for many years was closing down, and there were signs up that it was going to be replaced by a French patisserie. I gave a sarcastic grin and said, “Thank God for French antisemitism.”

Vive le croissant!
Vive le croissant!

I hope that many Jews from France will make aliyah, but I really wish it were more about coming to Israel than about fleeing France. :-/

Love,

Daniella