It was 1987, 15 years after my wife and I made aliya from the United States. I was on a sabbatical with my family in Falls Church, Virginia. We enrolled our children in public school. All our children were born and raised here and while we speak English at home, they were not well versed in reading and writing the language.
The curriculum for one of my children’s classes was colonial American history. Having no idea what a Pilgrim or a Native-American was, I thought that it would be educational to visit the preserved colonial town of Williamsburg.
While we were there, a guide ushered our tour group into the living room of a colonial mansion. In the midst of her explanation of the historical significance of the place, she dramatically lowered her voice and whispered: “In a few minutes we are going out the back door of this mansion to see an ancient village. Does anyone have any idea how old the village is?”
When she saw that there were no responses, with great pride she exclaimed: “It is an 18th-century Pilgrim enclave. I bet that no one has seen anything older than that!” My daughter yelled out: “Where I live, my father and I hike to the gravesite of Samuel the prophet, who anointed Saul and David kings of Israel about 3,500 years ago!”
Growing up, as I sat in synagogue, I would pray three times a day for return to Israel. I would read in the liturgy at the close of the most important theological holiday in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, and at the close of the most important historical holiday in the Jewish calendar, Passover: “Next year in Jerusalem.” And, when the Torah was taken out, I would recite the words: “Out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
If I prayed these supplications, it necessarily meant that I believed them; and therefore I felt compelled to act on what I was praying. After all, I was taught that faith and follow-up, belief and action are the staples of our religious tradition.
More so, since the destruction of the Second Temple, the central focus of Jerusalem served as the ideological mainstay for our physical and spiritual return to this land, helping us survive the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, Cossacks, czars, Nazis, Arab armies, terrorists. No one could suppress the will of the Jewish people to gain its national expression in its ancestral homeland during two millennia of statelessness.
For me, the flow of Jewish history warranted a Jew to live in Israel. Aliya represented the ultimate expression of my deepest historical understandings. It also meant that my Jewish self-definition would never become only faith-based, where religious expression would define my Judaism. For me, Jewish identity includes people, land, state, language, culture as well as religion.
But to conclude that my sole reason for making aliya was based on some sort of an internal intellectual discourse would be misleading.
COMING OF age in the 1960s in the States, I was naturally influenced by the social protest movements of the times. One that particularly attracted me was the call to liberate Jews from the former Soviet Union. All our activism on their behalf was geared to bringing them to Israel. I felt hypocritical working for them to make aliya while I remained in the US.
But, like many people, I was influenced more by personalities than ideologies. Every step along the way, I met significant individuals who spoke about Israel in powerful terms. With their encouragement, I went to Israel as a student for the first time. That year, I literally fell in love with the people and the country. It also helped that the woman I was dating then, who later became my wife, came from a Zionist family like my own.
During that year in Israel, I found that it was impossible not to be involved in the social, political and religious issues of the day. This country is the only self-contained and self-defined Jewish community in the world. The perception of Judaism and the image of the Jew are very much determined by what happens in the Jewish state. In the words of the American Jewish author Saul Bellow: “Israel is to the West what Switzerland is to the winter holidays – a moral resort area.” Israel is the lightning rod by which the Jewish people are judged – for good and for bad. For me, it was critical that my activism of the ’60s would be realized in a Jewish state, not allowing me to take a moral vacation.
I experienced something else here – a familial closeness. There seemed to be no generation gap, as parents and children undergo a commonality of experiences, simultaneously tortuous and glorious. Life is a veritable emotional roller-coaster as Israelis lurch from sadness to joy, from pain to relief, from shame to pride, from fear to hope – all within the blink of an eye.
Additionally, life here struck me as simpler. Little did I know how complex it would turn out to be! But the social demands were not as intense as in America. Life seemed very informal, which suited my anti-establishment attitude at the time.
IT WAS clear to me that immediately upon ordination from rabbinic school, my wife and I would move to Israel. Indeed, exactly one month after graduation in June 1972, we began our new life here.
Ultimately however, I think that I made aliya not only for myself, but for “the children.” We have four daughters (three married with children), all living close by – and all dedicated to a Jewish lifestyle in the Jewish homeland. They instinctively sense that Jewish life defines who they are. What better example than the following: Upon finishing the army, our oldest daughter traveled to the States to visit family. As aforementioned, while our children speak English fluently, their reading and writing, as well as their English vocabulary, is limited. We sent her with traveler’s checks. She entered a bank in New York City to cash a $100 note. The teller asked: “Any particular denomination?” Surprised by the question, she answered: “Jewish!”
Of all the reasons that I made aliya, none can explain them better than this innocent and intuitive remark of my daughter. Her point of reference is so completely Jewish. If one wants to know why I made aliya, it is because a Jew in this country can live a Jewish life 24 hours a day.
And so, the promise of life here seemed so encouraging to me. Living a Jewish life in a Jewish state represented the fulfillment of the Zionist dream, that is helping to build a nation that would be a reflection of the best of the Jewish value heritage – a country based on the prophetic vision of equality, social justice, decency and humanity.
But sadly, after almost 40 years here, with all the satisfaction I gain from life here, like so many immigrants from Western countries, I have been sorely disappointed. The ideal of Israel has given way to the reality of Israel.