Diane Neal, a talented American actress, archaeologist, model and politician, made aliyah this year. She recently took the time to discuss the details of her move with the Magazine.
Neal is known for her role as Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak [2003-2012] on the award-winning television series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She has also appeared on TV shows such as Suits and NCIS: New Orleans; TV movies such as The Magic Moment and Captain Blackout; and films such as Dracula and Newlyweeds.
In 2018, Neal ran as an independent candidate for New York’s 19th congressional district. She ran on a campaign promising infrastructural upgrades, additional roads, rail lines and other economic and environmental improvements. This dream never came to pass.
Neal opened up about the reason behind her life-changing move, her future plans, and her takes on Israel’s political situation.
Why did Diane Neal make aliyah?
Neal was inspired to immigrate after her father’s death during the COVID Omicron wave. Her parents had been married for 54 years at the time of her father’s death.
Neal was unable to travel to Florida to be with her mother at that time because she had contracted COVID. Neal explained that the loss and isolation left her mother in a state of depression, unlike the peppy and energetic woman that Neal had grown up with. This led Neal to explore ways to help her mother heal.
It was actually a friend of Neal’s who suggested the change of scene.
“There is a place in New York City called Five Towns, which is an incredibly Jewish area.
“One of my buddies from there said, ‘Why don’t you call Nefesh B’Nefesh? It’ll be fun. You and your mom can have an adventure.’”
“I love Israel, and I have always been a Zionist. And I believe that the State of Israel is necessary and it should exist. Even in the last few years in New York, I have experienced some antisemitism in a really unpleasant way, which to me was shocking, absolutely shocking.”Danie Neal
Neal’s experience of antisemitism
“For me, the better place to be is in Israel. I am feeling incredibly happy to be here, incredibly grateful to be here. Believe it or not, I feel safe here and definitely safer. I cannot express the gratitude I have for all of my family members that came before me who suffered horrific things so that there would be a country to come to.”
Neal shared a very personal memory of her grandmother asking her not to pass Jewish names on to her children. Neal said that, at the time, she minimized what her grandmother had said, thinking that the time when Jews had to keep their identity secret had passed. However, Neal said that she now understands that antisemitism exists, is rising, and that there has “always been an undercurrent of antisemitism.”
She said that with her non-Jewish last name, people had been more open about their antisemitic views.
“The kind of things you overhear when people don’t think you’re Jewish has always been very very interesting to me. So, I always knew [antisemitism] existed, I just never thought I would experience it in such a way that it made my life significantly improve to leave my home country and move to Israel. I am incredibly grateful to have had a country to go to, despite post office incidents and time dedicated to the Israeli postal service.
“I love Israel, and I have always been a Zionist. And I believe that the State of Israel is necessary and it should exist. Even in the last few years in New York, I have experienced some antisemitism in a really unpleasant way, which to me was shocking, absolutely shocking.”
Neal was unable to further explain the incidents of antisemitism that she experienced in New York, as legal action is being taken, but she described the incidents as “detrimental” to her life.
How has it been to make aliyah at a time of national and international divide?
Neal was reluctant to render her opinion on specific issues, as she felt she was not entrenched enough in Israeli society to give an informed answer. However, she did say that she felt that Israel’s situation nationally and in the Middle East didn’t disturb her.
“It is a very different thing when you are here and on the ground. I always loved being politically active. I always believed citizens need to be civically involved, but I don’t presume to know anything about a country I have just landed in.”
Neal said there was a significant difference in the political divide in the United States and Israel. She said that in Israel, despite any conflict that has arisen or might arise, there is a constant sense of camaraderie that the US lacks.
“It is one of these fascinating things. I ran as an independent specifically because after Trump got into office, factionalism started becoming rife. Something I am very familiar with was the incredible tribalism and factionalism among people of the same country; so by dropping my lifelong political affiliation, it was an attempt to say, ‘Hey! We need to put country before party.’ You can’t ask other people to do that without doing it yourself. You always have to put your money where your mouth is; that is something I really believe in. It is a very interesting thing and an incredible learning experience. It absolutely terrified me to see how self-centered people in politics are; they don’t actually believe in public service – which I find horrifying.
“The interesting thing here is that, yeah, things are super crazy right now, and a lot seems existential. It’s interesting because wherever you fit on the spectrum, to you this is the most important thing in the world. I don’t think being here as a brand new person, jumping into the fray is a good idea, until you find out everything you can find out about the situation and what you can do to help. Most of what you can do to help is bridge the gap. That’s how everything stays stable, and it has. It is wild here, and there is a lot going on.
“The truth is, life is crazy everywhere. You have Russia-Ukraine. Iran has always been working toward getting to this 90% [uranium] enrichment for so long and trading with North Korea for missiles that can deliver fissile nuclear material. The world is a crazy place. So, yeah, it is pretty nuts here, but it’s pretty nuts everywhere. I think part of it is you choose your nuts, choose the place you want to be, accepting that level of crazy, challenging or difficult, learning all you can and jumping in to help any way you are able to.”
Reactions to Neal’s aliyah
Neal described a wide range of reactions to her decision to move to Israel. Her Jewish friends and family expressed joy and excitement at her announcement. Her non-Jewish friends, while happy for her, seemed to be confused about the decision. As for her fan base, Neal said that she found the reactions shocking.
After she made the announcement, some of her followers lost their admiration for her. She said that many claimed that her move to Israel meant that she hated Palestinians, a take that Neal described as lacking nuanced thought.
Additionally, some responders said that they lost admiration for her after finding out that she was Jewish. Neal said that this proved the ongoing existence of antisemitism and the need for Israel.
An ongoing battle: How has Neal’s Israel experience been?
Neal seemed to be embracing the balagan (chaos/mess) of Israel well. She detailed her months-long battle to obtain her package from Israel Post, a battle many olim have been through.
Neal had been at a post office the morning of the interview, in what she described as a “multi-hour ordeal.” She showed up for her appointment at the accepted 15 minutes before, only to wait three hours to be seen. In the spirit of Israeli salesman culture, the clerk told her that she couldn’t continue helping her unless she bought a percussive massager.
Despite having kept her appointment and having purchased a massager, Neal’s quest for her package continues.
Neal’s positive attitude toward Israel’s quirks was expressed in her simple statement, “The post office cracks me up, man. You just go with it. You go with what is happening.”
Neal has yet to become conversant in Hebrew and has had to make great use of Google Translate.
“I am not superstitious, but I had this thing: If I begin to learn Hebrew, I am not going to get my citizenship. If I don’t learn Hebrew, I definitely would get my citizenship. So even now, I am waiting to get my ulpan vouchers.
Like, it’s hilarious. There are so many things I haven’t been able to get an appointment for, especially with all the holidays.”
Israel: The land of milk and peanut butter
Neal spent Passover in Israel’s North, where she was exposed to some of the harsher realities of living in Israel – with some of the time spent in her cousin’s safe room, “learning what the different sirens meant” during the barrage of rocket fire from Lebanon. This experience did not deter her. She said she didn’t feel afraid, just like she was accepting a new reality of what is normal.
“I wasn’t freaked out at all,” she said about the experience. “It is going to be part of life here.”
As part of that new reality, Neal was exposed to the delights of Israeli food. “It was funny; I was like, wow, I recognize everything by sight but not by taste.”
When asked what her favorite thing about Israel has been, she detailed the simple pleasures like the taste of milk and peanut butter in Israel. She said that she is not used to having to taste things, like teriyaki sauce, before cooking because everything here tastes a little different.
Neal, who has worn many hats, said that her next role would be finding a position that benefits Israel. She is currently taking a government course, where she is learning about cybersecurity.
Now Neal is eagerly awaiting the arrival of her dog and cat and is expecting her mother to make aliyah soon. So far, she has braved this new journey alone.
Joanie Margulies contributed to this report.