A question of belonging

In chronicling the lives of 3 US Jewish families who made aliya, Liel Leibovitz tackles the thorny issues of identity in the Diaspora.

aliya book 88 298 (photo credit: )
aliya book 88 298
(photo credit: )
ALIYA: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel By Liel Leibovitz St. Martin's Press 288pp., $24.95 Liel Leibovitz's stirring book brought me in touch with my dead father - at least the part of him that always longed for Israel. Before our family metastasized into bits and pieces shredded amidst the American continent, he would sit at our family dinner table in Long Island arguing with my mother about some of our neighbors who were contemplating making aliya; he was smitten with the idea, she frightened to death of it. He would show us pictures of Israeli soldiers, tall and tan, their faces smiling, and his emotionally fevered pitch would escalate as he tried to imagine the emergence of the young Jewish state and its brave new warriors. My father's fervor soon cooled, but mine didn't, and I remember feeling the first pangs of alienation from my own country, wondering where exactly I belonged. Perhaps this question of belonging is one all of us have to answer; it is a nagging quagmire for most American Jews who often feel as if they are straddling two separate realities. American life requires a constant division between our public and private selves, and being an American Jew involves an intricate and continual internal negotiation with ourselves and others. Often, many of us are pushing away longings we don't even understand. Leibovitz, the cultural editor of the Jewish Week in Manhattan and a native of Israel where his family has lived for multiple generations, tackles the thorny issues of identity and place and how they are fused in the Jewish imagination. He chronicles the lives of three American Jewish families who made aliya to Israel in 1947, 1969 and 2001, respectively. These moving biographical essays are not fairy-tales; they are often gritty retellings of the physical, emotional and cultural obstacles each family faced in order to become Israelis. Leibovitz believes the decision to make aliya is an emotional one, a chance to relish the exuberance one feels when "one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one's ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago. It is present when one experiences the depth of spirituality in Israel, the sort of spirituality that relies less on texts and ceremonies and prayers, and more on the air and the sea." HIS FIRST story is the most compelling. Marlin Levin had returned home to Pennsylvania in 1946 after serving in the Intelligence Corps as a cryptographer. He had seen a tremendous amount of combat and was an eyewitness to the liberation of the concentration camps. Soon after returning home he found himself listless and depressed, uncertain about his future. His only obsession was to read all he could get his hands on about the struggling Jewish community in Palestine. Fighting a growing lethargy that threatened to overtake him, Levin asked himself how he could "go to war with Germany and Japan, to fight for an ephemeral and enticing idea, freedom, yet not budge when his own people were standing trial? How could he, who had listened to his grandmother haltingly tell stories of pogroms in her native Russia, he who had witnessed the aftermath of the Holocaust, not join the struggle to ensure that such atrocities were never committed again against the Jewish people?" Levin soon left with his young wife for Palestine in 1947, where he immediately found work as a journalist and assisted the Haganah in breaking codes - the same kind of work he had done during the Second World War. Levin, now in his 80s, can still recall the difficulties and thrills of his early years in Israel, and the joy he felt in being part of the creation of the Jewish State. In the second essay, Leibovitz tells us about the Ginsberg family, who made aliya to a kibbutz in Israel in 1962. Mike Ginsberg's father had died suddenly, and his mother had brought him and his three brothers there in order to start a new life. Feeling ill at ease at first, the family slowly adjusted to the new customs and language. Before he married and raised three sons, Mike Ginsberg would serve in the Israeli Army, where he remains in charge of security near the Lebanese border to this day. Ginsberg came to Israel over 40 years ago, when he was still in his teens, yet he can remember his early and intense infatuation with the Israeli Army. He remembers watching the Independence Day Parade in Haifa shortly after his arrival in Israel, thinking, "Here were Jews who could handle guns better than Bugsy Siegel and were even braver than Sandy Koufax. Here were warriors." The third story is about Sharon and Danny Kalker and their four children. The Kalkers, an Orthodox family from Queens, arrived in 2001 to live in Hashmonaim, a small community just a few miles east of the Green Line. Marital tensions and career disappointments threatened their family's adjustment at first, but eventually each member of the family slowly learned to find their own way. Leibovitz is a fine writer and is able to leap easily into the consciousness of another. He is not an invisible narrator; his presence and passion are felt throughout these pages. One senses he is still on his own personal journey; he is a truth-seeker, a romantic, and an Israeli perched upon a rooftop in New York trying to answer for himself the question his three families have already mastered: "Where do I really belong?"