I’ve heard the stories at least a hundred times: My Great Grandma Tsiryl dry-heaving over the side of a steamer ship as they rolled up into Baltimore Harbor in 1904. A pregnant Great Grandma Esther stoically clutching the belly that held the baby that would one day be my grandfather while ocean waves battered the hull of the last ship out of Europe before World War I.
Two different women from two different places, and yet they shared such a similar experience with each other and with the thousands upon thousands of other Jewish immigrants who left Eastern Europe for American shores. They crammed their lives into small suitcases – sometimes with incredible forethought, other times in great haste, they kissed their families goodbye, and on trains or buggies or by foot they traveled over hostile terrain toward distant harbors, and ultimately onto ships that would take them excruciatingly slowly, slowly, slowly away from the achingly familiar.
(Cue Itzhak Perlman playing something in a minor key.)
And like so many others who left the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe during those fragile years at the turn of the 20th century, my Great Grandmothers made it work. They gave birth to American babies. They raised their children in broken English. They played Mah Jong and drank coffee with other landsman in cramped apartments in big cities far away from their childhood friends. They waited for letters from their families. They dreaded the inevitable telegram. They celebrated mitzvahs and simchas at the synagogue. They sat shiva. They buried their own on foreign soil.
You have to be an optimist to pack up and move for a life unknown like that and survive.
And not only did they survive, they thrived as they grew roots in a new world.
For me, it’s different. I wasn’t escaping pogroms and persecution. We took a stretch limo – yes, a stretch limo – to the airport because I have delusions of grandeur and decided that the only way to leave LA was to leave in style. Our voyage was 14 hours, not 14 days (although believe you me, with an infant and a toddler, it felt a lot longer.) Our worldly goods amounted to eight suitcases, four carry-ons, two car seats, and a portable DVD player with a battery life of 12 ½ hours.
Unlike my Great Grandmothers who started from scratch, with facebook and my smartphone, I am connected 24/7 to my life back home – clinging to moments and milestones in real time, 10 time zones away.
But, I’m trying. Because I’m here in a dynamic, vibrant country by choice, and I am the only one who can take full responsibility for my own happiness. So instead of sitting on my ass on the computer all the time at home, or riding around and around and around in circles on my bike, I am cadging rides to the train station where I am able to visit with another landsman – a woman my age who moved to the other side of the world and feels so many of the things I’m feeling.
We share struggles over supermarket shopping, and triumphs over taking the train. We speak in short-hand without having to fish for just the right word or explain a cultural nuance.
And along the way, I’m learning about this new place: As I discover and explore and get lost (more times than I care to admit) I’m figuring out how to live here. And with each train ride in to Tel Aviv, I’m slowly shedding that need to ask “Excuse me, do you speak English?” right along with my patented deer-in-headlights expression.
I am realizing that while I may always be “from somewhere else,” that’s OK. I can be from “somewhere else” and live here, too. After all, Israel is a nation of people from “somewhere else”, and if they can deal, then so can I.
And so, like my Great Grandmothers, I am putting down roots in a new place.
At first, it wasn’t on purpose—I didn’t want to feel settled here. And on principal, I filled my garden with clay pots, and staunchly refused to plant the lavender, honeysuckle, jasmine, sage, lemon verbenia, and poppies into the earth, like some hackneyed metaphor. But then, after a trip to the plant nursery last month where I found the delicate pink Mexican primroses that my mother loved so much, without even thinking, I dug a deep hole in a patch of dirt, placed the fragile plant into the soil, and patted the earth around it.
(Sarah:0 Cliché: 1)
Because slowly, I am figuring out where I fit here: Relationships don’t grow overnight, and yet, I am beginning to feel that maybe I can be here—maybe. Maybe, it’s not so bad. And sure, while I still spend most of my nights sitting cross-legged on the bed and back in LA on facebook, I definitely won’t turn down the opportunity to go out and have a drink with a new friend.