‘I found more meaning here’

A last-minute decision to visit the country profoundly changed the course of a young woman’s life.

May 4, 2017 11:53

Levy with her cousin, who encouraged her to come to Israel, in 2014. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Sitting in a Tel Aviv café, Alice Levy slices a piece of a chocolate croissant with a fork and knife.

One wonders what Levy, born and raised in France, thinks of the Israeli version of the classic French pastry. Does it compare to the genuine article? An interesting question, to be sure, but Levy has more on her mind on this sunny morning. Specifically, how she, raised in France, living a largely secular life, ended up experiencing a life rich in Jewish meaning and experience, from lighting Shabbat candles and hosting a weekly Shabbat dinner in her Tel Aviv apartment, to volunteering for Jewish organizations, and participating fully in the Israeli experience.

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Levy, 29, grew up with her two sisters and one brother in a Paris suburb.

While her family would light Hanukka candles and gather for Yom Kippur and Passover, they did little else in the way of Jewish observance.

“In France,” she explains, “you don’t show your faith publicly, because that’s not the way the republic says you should act. Faith is private, so you keep it at home.”

As a child, Levy attended a non-affiliated Jewish camp in Switzerland each summer, and attended Hebrew school before her bat mitzva. She learned to read the Hebrew alphabet, but did not continue her Jewish studies afterwards.

She attended the Sorbonne in Paris for a year before moving to Lyon, where she studied political science. In 2008, she spent a year overseas, interning in Melbourne, and afterwards returned to university in France, where she majored in not-for-profit organizational development and management. She had been dating a non-Jew since she was 17, and moved with him to Avignon, where she worked for an organization that assisted homeless people and victims of domestic violence. In 2014, Levy broke up with her boyfriend.

“Part of the reason for the breakup was about building a Jewish family,” she says. “I realized that he really wasn’t happy with that, and I wouldn’t be able to raise my kids as Jewishly as I wanted to.”

Shortly thereafter, Levy was contacted by her cousin, Marc Leiba, who was working in Israel on a program sponsored by Masa, which offers internship and volunteer programs throughout the country. He urged her to visit and stay with him over Rosh Hashana, as his roommate in their Tel Aviv apartment was leaving for the holiday. Levy had never been to Israel, and wasn’t all that interested in coming.

“Living a small, private Jewish life,” she says, “you talk about Israel, but you don’t want to deal with it because everyone is pretty anti-Israel.”

She made a last-minute decision to fly, and arriving in Israel on Rosh Hashana eve, she and her cousin went directly to the synagogue on the way from the airport. That evening, they attended a holiday dinner in Tel Aviv.

“It was the most amazing holiday of my life.”

The conclusion of the meal, with the recitation of Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), was, to her, most meaningful.

“This was the first time in 15 years that I had heard birkat hamazon since summer camp, and it was very emotional to me. It was a childhood memory brought back.” The fact that the entire society was celebrating a Jewish holiday made a profound impression.

Another highlight of Levy’s trip was her reunion with her great-uncle, who had moved to Israel in 1952. While she had known some of the background of her family’s history, she learned more details about how her family ended up in France. Her father’s family was originally from Cairo, and when the Jewish community was expelled from Egypt in the early 1950s, made their way through Italy and ended up in France.

Another part of the family went to Canada, and Levy’s great-uncle moved to Beersheba. She also learned that her great-great-grandfather had been a rabbi in Safed.

After spending the week in Israel, Levy returned to France before Yom Kippur. Arriving at her apartment, she couldn’t find her keys. She looked through her suitcases, and realized that she must have left them in Israel. Perhaps her leaving her apartment keys in Israel might be some type of omen, she thought, indicating where her true home might be. She continued to speak with her cousin, who urged her to return.

His roommate was moving out for good, and he suggested that she return to Israel.

Arriving in January 2015, Levy joined a Masa internship program. She enjoyed life in Tel Aviv, and experienced the Masa program to its fullest, working in her internship, participating in a leadership seminar, and joining in a trip to Poland, where she explored another part of her roots, as her great-grandmother had perished in Auschwitz.

Levy returned from her trip to Poland in April 2015, trying to understand the meaning of both her Jewish and French identities.

She elected to stay on Masa for an additional five months. Her cousin, who had made aliya, got married in October 2015, and Levy’s family came for the wedding, which gave her a chance to show them her new life. After completing a second stint with Masa, Levy knew that she wanted to remain in Israel, but she was uncertain if she should officially make aliya. She began to teach in Masa’s leadership seminars, and designed a women’s issues program for Masa.

She felt that she had not served the country sufficiently, and was not deserving the rights of citizenship. Her friends countered that she certainly had given back to the country, with her work for Masa, volunteering and representing the organization, and building programs for its participants, so, on January 21, 2016, Levy picked up her Israeli ID card, becoming an official resident of the State of Israel.

She now works for a Netanya-based company that does political analysis of French-speaking countries, and she still volunteers for Masa and teaches in their leadership seminars.

While there are some who feel that French Jewry should pack up and fly here, Levy defends their right to remain.

“Jews have an important place in France and they should stay there if they want to be there,” she says.

“I want to be here, not because I don’t want to be in France, but because I feel differently about here. I left France because I found more meaning here.”

And the croissants? “Israeli bakers are doing a good job, but nothing can replace fresh butter and chocolate. I don’t miss French food, though, because I live in Israel, and that’s the food I love, too. To each place its own pleasures.”

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