Anyone with a grounding in Hebrew will recognize, and smile, at the title of Aaron Leibel’s new book – Figs and Alligators.
He is clearly referring to one of the basic mistakes that anyone learning Hebrew endures during the early days. One classic is to confuse pants (or for English Anglos “trousers”) with spectacles (michnasayim and mishcafayim). In Leibel’s case he struggled to remember the difference between te’enim (figs) and taninim (alligators).
Figs and Alligators is Leibel’s account of the 16 years that he, his wife Bonnie and their three daughters spent in Israel before sheer poverty drove them back to the States in 1988. Leibel, who became a widely-published journalist during his time in Israel, writes this personal history as if chatting informally to a friend. In simple terms he tells his story of living and struggling in the Israel of the 1970s and 1980s ‒ a story that will evoke many a smile or sigh of remembrance in anyone who went through the same experience.
Here are the pleasures and pains of being an oleh (immigrant) in a reception ulpan (live-in Hebrew language unit), of ancient and bumpy Egged and Dan buses filled with screaming kids, of hopeful post-dated checks promising payments way into the murky future, of the strains and stresses of kibbutz life in a world that had outgrown the communist ideal, of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market before it had a roof, of the uncontrollable inflation that reached 445% in 1984, of a currency that changed from lira to shekels and then to New Israeli Shekels. Anyone who lived through those times will cherish Leibel’s recollections; anyone who did not will be grateful to learn about those years from his first-hand experience.
Aaron Leibel’s story would have been completely different had he not met and fallen in love with his wife, Bonnie. Now an Orthodox convert, she was born into a churchgoing Protestant family. Following their marriage in 1963, Bonnie became increasingly interested in Israel. It was the Six-Day War in 1967 that moved her to take a yearlong course of study leading to her conversion to Reform Judaism. As Leibel drew close to receiving his higher degree in 1972, it was Bonnie who suddenly suggested that they emigrate to Israel. Leibel’s first reaction was total rejection, but he slowly came round to the idea and in the fall of that year Leibel, Bonnie and their two daughters started on their great adventure.
And what an adventure it proved to be. Struggling to earn a living, both Aaron and Bonnie found work, but it was so poorly paid that they constantly needed additional income. Following the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Bonnie converted Orthodox ‒ an unpleasant experience that left Leibel with a bitter taste in his mouth. When the haredi rabbis insisted that, as a condition of her conversion, he must undertake to put on tefillin (phylacteries) every day, he agreed to do so, but with no intention of keeping his promise.
“Ironically,” he writes, “the lie that I told has now morphed into the truth, as I now go to synagogue every day and put on tefillin at appropriate times.”
He did military service in the Israel Defense Forces and was a reservist for the rest of his time in Israel. His account of bringing up a growing family in difficult circumstances (a third daughter was born in Israel), is set against Israel’s own story of triumphs and disasters ‒ the Yom Kippur War, the visit to Israel of Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Lebanon War, the First Intifada, and then Israel’s transformation into “the start-up nation” second only to the USA’s Silicon Valley in global hi-tech innovation.
And yet, in the final analysis, this is a story of yordim ‒ a family who came to Israel only to leave. Their change of status from respected olim was something that Leibel noted and regrets. They had gone to live in the Jewish state, in effect tying their fate to that of their people, but circumstances finally forced them to return to the States. He lists the many things about life in his 16 years in Israel that he loved.
“But,” he writes, “I hated the poverty, the inability to buy our children what they wanted and needed.”
It was the effort to develop professionally that let to their financial debacle. Bonnie enrolled on a course in systems analysis, but they had bitten off more financially than they could chew. Their overdraft soared, the family budget simply did not balance. A decision had to be made. Bonnie returned alone to the States to find a job that would support the family. They thought a few weeks would see a more sustainable income stream. In the end it took six months. Finally Leibel and the girls followed and the family was reunited.
They have made a happy life for themselves in America. All three of their girls married, and the Libels have seven grandchildren. Both Bonnie and Aaron are enjoying a happy and active retirement.
“Having said all that,” writes Leibel, “I still missed the feeling I had as a Jew in the Jewish state.”
FIGS AND ALLIGATORS
By Aaron Leibel
Chickadee Prince Books
136 pages; $12.99