This Normal Life: Reentry syndrome and the five stages of aliya

Israel can be a wonderful place, I thought to myself. If only it was filled with Norwegians.

September 24, 2015 10:37

A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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‘It’s called reentry syndrome,” my therapist friend Nomi explained to me as I was describing the difficulty I was having returning to Israel after our recent vacation abroad. “It happens to everyone.”

It’s especially acute, she added, when you’ve just come from an especially polite country such as Norway, where we’d just spent two weeks hiking up waterfalls, gazing at glaciers and – most pertinent to my surprisingly strong resistance to coming home – rediscovering the meaning of the words “customer service” and “patience.”

I certainly won’t be the first person to point out that Israel can be a tough place to live. It’s a rough neighborhood, yes I know, and our history has given us ample reasons to dispense with many of the social pleasantries that our neighbors in the West so value. Moreover, my wife and I were, after all, on vacation in Norway, interacting with service providers primarily in the tourism industry, not the general population. Who knows what life is really like in a place like that? But still, it can be jarring. At least on the surface, everyone in Norway was just so nice. Like Eden at the front desk of the Vangsgaarden Guest House in Aurland, who went out of her way to strategize the best trekking routes and let us borrow the hotel’s bikes for an hour at no charge.

Or the manager at the sweetshop in Geiranger who, after we ran into her and her staff on a team-building day and took their picture, insisted we come in for hot chocolate on the house.

Or all those drivers on the narrow switchback mountain roads who never tailgated or honked or flashed their lights at us, and never, ever tried to pass when it wasn’t safe. If a tour bus needed room to maneuver at a tight curve, car drivers would simply wait.

On our return, the contrast came as quickly as the ride from Ben-Gurion Airport back to Jerusalem.

Our taxi driver cut between other cars with feckless abandon, while texting on his phone most of the time. A few days later, my wife and I were in a clothing store. Could the saleswoman have looked less dour? At the evening concert at the annual Hutzot Hayotzer arts and crafts festival, a burly guy with a crew cut and a white T-shirt insisted on sitting on the back of his seat.

Why should he care if he was blocking the view of those behind him? Magia lo – he deserves whatever he can take.

Israel can be a wonderful place, I thought to myself. If only it was filled with Norwegians.

When I told my kids about my bout with reentry syndrome, they were quick to offer excuses for their fellow countrymen. “Maybe that salesperson had a boyfriend in the army on the border with Gaza and she’s really scared,” said one. “Or maybe the guy at the concert lost someone to a terrorist attack,” suggested another.

“I’m not trying to blame anyone for their behavior,” I replied. “I accept that this is the way it is here. I just wonder sometimes if it’s worth it. I mean, is this how I want to live out however many years I have left?” That was how I felt, a few months earlier, when I had a near meltdown at the bank. After waiting close to an hour, the clerk in charge of my account couldn’t find the papers she needed and yelled at me (or maybe she was just speaking normally; it’s hard to tell in Hebrew), telling me to come back another time and rudely dismissing me with neither an apology nor an explanation.

As I walked home, I was drained, defeated, and found myself questioning some pretty big life choices. “Why are we even here?” I blabbered, as I recounted my experience at the bank to my wife, Jody. “I’m just so tired all the time. Maybe we should consider leaving.”

“What would that look like?” Jody asked, entertaining my question seriously.

The truth is, I’ve pictured this scenario before.

But it always crosses into the realm of fantasy.

The only way I can relieve the existential angst of leaving Israel and all the messages of betrayal and cowardice it brings up is to imagine going totally “Jewcognito.” That is, moving to a place and ditching any remnants of an Israeli – or for that matter, Jewish – identity in order to blend in without baggage.

It would have to be some city where we didn’t know anyone. That rules out all the places we’ve lived in the past as well as anywhere near family.

We wouldn’t join any kind of organized Jewish community and we’d take neutral stands on all the burning Jewish questions of the day – BDS, Iran, anti-Semitism – that is, when we weren’t ducking having opinions entirely. I doubt we’d move to Norway – that would be too far off – but a small town in Iowa might fit the bill. We’d have to invent an elaborate backstory and stick to the script, like Don Draper from Mad Men. (Wait a minute, that didn’t work out so well for him in the end, did it?) Fantasies, of course, are just that; black-andwhite escape routes born out of frustration that don’t take into account the 67 shades of gray that give life its real richness. Short of the ultimate extreme makeover, coming to terms with Israel as it is would probably be a better long-term solution.

Worst comes to worst, I can always retreat into the Anglo bubble that characterizes my southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka and leave the interacting with the outside world to more stoic souls like my wife.

NOW, I’M aware that my post-vacation beef with the boorish behavior of my neighbors might come across as trivial; a wimpy whine expanded into an artificial crisis obsessed primarily with the most superficial of qualities.

“Israelis may not always be the easiest on the outside,” one of my kids pointed out, “but they will always have your back.”

I know that, along with all the other big-picture arguments for making a go of the Jewish state: the historic opportunity of Zionism and the ingathering of the exiles, a country run by the Jewish calendar, the casual creativity that infuses everything from start-ups to wedding attire, the positive qualities of aggressive openness, the democratic responsibility of prodding change in those systems that are infuriatingly broken, the excellent hummus. But that’s missing the point: I needed some help with getting past my very real reentry syndrome.

Nomi used to work at the AACI, where she counseled new immigrants on coping with culture shock. There are some interesting overlaps with reentry syndrome, she explains. For aliya, Nomi cites a five-stage process developed originally by Lucy Shahar, co-author of Border Crossings: American Interactions with Israelis.

The first stage is “euphoria,” a honeymoon period where everything Israeli is wonderful. This is followed by “depression,” however, “characterized by a sense of homesickness, nostalgia for the familiar and a sense of loss,” Nomi goes on. “This second stage is also marked by a negative stereotyping of Israelis; a sense of them and us, and of not wanting to be around them.”

Fortunately, the depression usually passes, followed by an “adjustment” phase. But it’s also short-lived, and about a year into one’s aliya a new downer arises, “disillusionment,” with a feeling of “Is that all there is? Wasn’t aliya supposed to improve my life in a more meaningful way?” If you can get past the disillusionment, and you make the choice to stay, you finally reach the fifth and final stage, “biculturalism,” where you can function and live a full life in both your original and new Israeli milieus.

“The catch-22 is that you have to wait until you’re bicultural in order to decide if you want to be bicultural,” Nomi adds wryly.

Nomi uses the five stages to give immigrants insight into their initial transition, but every time you leave and come back to Israel, she says, you go through the entire process again in miniature. In my case, I seem to have skipped over the euphoria phase and landed somewhere between stage two, depression, and stage four, disillusionment.

“Eventually you’ll get over the reentry syndrome and regain your previous sense of equilibrium,” Nomi reassured me. “It may take a few weeks or even longer.”

I hope so. Living in this livid limbo is no fun.

I’m pretty sure I’ll get back to my version of Baka bubble biculturalism and I’ll be fine.

That is, until the next vacation. 

The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. More at

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