On January 13, 1994, I boarded an El Al flight from Budapest to Tel Aviv. I was 25 years old and full of dreams, hopes, and a good, healthy dose of progressive Zionist ideology—or so I thought.
I was raised in the Reform movement in New York. In high school, I spent an inspiring summer in Israel, and after following up with a semester there, I was hooked. And now, a decade later, I was there. Five years later, still in Israel, married and pregnant with the first of my four children, life was good.
Fast forward 21 years.
On June 2, 2015, I returned to Israel after three years of living with my four children in northern California. My husband and I had been disturbed by the insularity of Israeli society and how our teen boys were becoming the type of Israeli Jew that we could not identify with. Their admiration of American culture was limited to consumerism, and the values of the progressive American Jewish community were as foreign to them as the cultural heritage of any other nation, be it China, Japan, Kenya, or France. So, I packed up and left on a mission to embed great Jewish and progressive values into my Israeli children. However, during that time, my husband had to remain in Israel for his job, and as a family, that was tough.
Officially, the children and I are considered “returning citizens.” However, to me it feels more like a second aliyah—but this time without the ideology. Three years ago, I opened Pandora’s box, and now I can’t find the key to close it.
Since my return, I admit that I have become quite a bit of a kvetch. I seem to only see the dark side: the stifling heat, the aggressiveness, the rudeness, the racism, the homophobia, the lack of accessibility for those living with a disability, and once again, the pervasive racism.
Beyond the news and the high profile stories are the smaller daily incidents that throw me for a loop: parents pulling in to pick up their kids from camp parking in any direction and in any manner they wish; grown men using the side of the highway as their restroom even when the nearest gas station is a mile or two away; cars honking even before the light turns green and drivers passing on the right when I am driving a few kilometers above the speed limit; the manicurist at a Tel Aviv mall who has never met me and has no qualms about asking, “How do you manage living in Beersheba when it’s chock full of Arabs?”; parents from my small upper middle class suburb openly expressing disgust when hearing that my daughter used to attend one of the five mixed Arab-Jewish schools; our wheelchair user friends needing to call and make arrangements prior to using Israel Railways in order to travel anywhere and even then having no guarantee that things will go smoothly; cab drivers feeling perfectly comfortable complaining aloud about the “inconvenience” of transporting wheel chairs and their users—the fact that the wheelchair user’s small daughter is present and listening is of no relevance; when suggesting a meeting between an Arab child with a disability and a Jewish child with a disability, the Jewish mother told me in the most natural of ways, “Oh no, I am sure you understand that I cannot have that sort of child in my home. It’s not personal, it’s just the way it is—we are so different.”
And so 20-plus years after deciding to forego my family for the “privilege” of living in my ancestral homeland, I feel sort of stupid. I really miss Shabbat dinners with my parents, my mom’s visits from New York. Perhaps most of all, I miss Friday morning breakfasts with my brother and watching my daughter play with her cousin.
I crave for the “lightness of being” I experienced in California. I crave for the burritos from Picante, Mexi-mochas from Catahoula Coffee, Target runs, the fog, telling my kids to use their inside voices, and walks in the Point Isabel dog park. I even crave my soccer mom status and the long drives to watch adolescent boys kick around a ball all weekend.
But most of all, I miss the natural diversity. We lived in Richmond. Our friends were people linked to a plethora of ethnicities, races, religions, and abilities. Gay, straight, Jew, Christian, Muslim, white, black, Latino, Hispanic, Punjabi, Eritrean, wheelchair users, amputees—it was all good.
I crave the order—or rather, the absence of chaos: in the schools, at the supermarket, on the soccer pitch, on the roads.
Nonetheless, I am not naïve and I have no illusions. I know that California is not without its social ills, but as a dear friend once said, “It’s still just about as good as it gets.”
But. Here I am. Here we are. Together. A family. In Israel. My husband will be 53-years-old in December and continues to serve, voluntarily, as a physician in the IDF. My two eldest sons are no longer playing soccer in California and will be drafted within a couple of years. I continue to work at the Arab Jewish Center for Equality, Empowerment and Cooperation. I remind myself often that Israel is a young, complex country.
Today, I am neither at home here nor there, or rather, I am at home both here and there. We have wonderful friends both there and here.
This evening, as I kvetched some more, another dear friend said, “The situation here is far from good, but it is people like us, those who work to make things better, who need to keep working.”
And after darkness must come light. I spent the last two months desperately searching for the light. I think I finally understand: Look inward, just keep swimming, and do some good.