Like many Americans who make aliya, I was under the distinct impression that
upon setting foot in the Holy Land, I would be met with open arms by the many
excited sabras eagerly awaiting my arrival. Who could blame them? After all: I
was an American. From New York City! In my mind, the combination would prove
intoxicating to the long-suffering people of Israel, who inhabited a desert, ate
rudimentary pastes made by some guy named Baba Ganoosh (Ali Baba?), probably
rode camels in their spare time, and read everything backward. They needed all
the help they could get. Especially from an enlightened New Yorker like
Look, I watched CNN and read The New York Times – Israelis lived in a
war zone, for God’s sake. Sure, they could cross-pollinate a tomato with a
cherry, grow oranges as big as basketballs, create triage units more efficient
than a Swiss Army knife, and shoot an M-16 with disturbing precision, but could
they deal with the pressure of riding in an extremely crowded subway during rush
hour while mentally keeping a perfect beat to an excellent song on their iPod,
processing guilt about the various homeless men on the train, and spotting every
attractive woman within a 20-foot radius – all without missing their stop – like
me? I seriously doubted it.
No, I clearly had much to teach these tough
but kind desert-dwellers. They needed someone to tell them the many harrowing
stories of “modern” life. It’s a good thing I came when I did, I
OF COURSE, as it turned out, nothing could be farther from the
truth. When I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport last July, I immediately knew
something was off. Instead of flocking to me like the rock star I deluded myself
into believing I would be (or even holding a “Welcome to Israel” sign), Israelis
showed about as much interest in me as Paul, George and Ringo probably showed in
Yoko. There was no doubt in my mind that I was about as relevant to these people
as ABBA. Maybe even less.
Don’t get me wrong – whenever I told someone I
had made aliya, the information was warmly received. However, invariably, the
follow- up question was: “Where did you come from?” And when I answered New York
City – fully expecting an excited, animated response – a look of bewilderment
came over their faces, as if they were staring at an escaped mental
Then the final sentence of the conversation: “Are you crazy?” It
was as reliable as clockwork.
Israelis seemed to want to embrace me about
as much as I wanted to embrace a tax audit.
Without a doubt, my real
Israeli education began shortly after I arrived at the kibbutz where I would be
living and studying Hebrew for the next six months – in the Negev Desert. A
place where Abraham once roamed. A place with more goats, camels, cows and
chickens than people. A place as diametrically opposed to my old life as
possible. A place where I was almost entirely ignored by the hundreds of
kibbutzniks who inhabited my new home.
So, since I was an avid jogger, I
decided that to help warm up my icy new neighbors and acclimate myself to desert
life, I would run around the kibbutz (roughly 3.5 km. a lap) three times every
day. This, I told myself, would help me become a familiar face, keep me in shape
and learn the lay of the land. Problem solved.
I’LL NEVER forget my first
run. During a particularly popular walking time on my third day at the kibbutz,
I excitedly strapped on my running shoes, strolled over to the dirt path around
the grounds, and began a slow trot – during which I eagerly waved and smiled at
every man, woman and child I passed.
To my shock, not one of them waved
Even their dogs ignored me. This went on for several weeks. No
matter how enthusiastically I smiled or waved, I was disregarded. As the days
turned into weeks, I began to relate all too well to Bill Murray’s character in
Groundhog Day, who relived the same miserable 24 hours, day after day after
Soon, I began to feel as if I were engaged in a some strange form of
brinksmanship, where the first person to give in (me, by giving up; them, by
being friendly to me) would “lose.”
In my mind, as a new immigrant with
no family or friends in Israel to speak of, the stakes were too high to throw in
the towel. A loss would mean acceptance of isolation. So I ran harder and harder
every day – and kept waving (sans irony) at each now-familiar face, every
After two months of being ignored – and no doubt being perceived as
a massive oddity – something different finally happened. I noticed a few of the
people I passed begin to nod at me. Nothing special, just simple acknowledgment.
But for me, it was a breakthrough.
By the third month, the nods began to
transform into waves – sometimes even sprinkled with slight
Finally, after four months of running nearly every day in the
stifling desert heat, virtually every person I passed either waved at me with a
big grin, or pumped their fist in the air and shouted, “Kol hakavod!” (“Bravo!”)
or “Metzuyan!” (“Excellent!”). Some of the once-coldest members of the community
even learned my name, and shouted it out as I chugged along. Even the dogs
warmed up to me.
I had never felt so proud.
When my Hebrew
improved enough to make small talk, my hard-earned friends eventually explained
to me that they had seen countless olim (immigrants) come and go – many arriving
with delusions of grandeur, who ended up going back where they came from. With
me, they said, they were pretty sure I wasn’t going anywhere – and had heart to
Ultimately the sabras taught me an invaluable – and much-needed –
lesson: In this country, friendship and respect don’t come easy. No one will
embrace you just because you made aliya. Nothing is given to you – and nothing
is taken for granted – except, of course, chutzpa.
Take it from me,
Israelis don’t need you as much as you think. Even if you’re an “enlightened”
New Yorker like me. But if your heart’s really with this place – and your
actions speak louder than your words – they’ll warm to you in the
end.The writer is on the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post. He is a
multiple award-winning magazine editor from Hearst Magazines, former New York
City Government spokesperson and reporter. He made aliya from New York City in
July 2010, and currently resides in Jerusalem.