Not an outsider anymore

‘When you step off the plane, you feel instantly rooted...’

(photo credit: FULLIE ZUCKER)
‘Holy Madness” is the title of a podcast started several months ago by American immigrants Tzvi Zucker and Meir-Simchah (Seth) Panzer. It has already gotten about 2,000 downloads and 200 followers on Facebook and is syndicated on the Jewish Coffee House podcast network.
Zucker, from a black-hat Brooklyn background, and Panzer, who grew up Reform in Virginia, describe their project as “a religion and spirituality podcast by two wise guys in Jerusalem that sifts through a mad world seeking wisdom, and occasionally sanity.” It’s geared to “out-of-the-box Jews, intellectual Catholics and Evangelical Christians of good humor.”
The two met at a Torah lecture and hit it off immediately.
“We both have the gift of gab and have the most wonderful conversations,” says Zucker. “We’re both knowledge addicts. We started recording our conversations and the podcast was born.”
Although Holy Madness conversations are held in English, Zucker has worked hard at perfecting his Hebrew since making aliya in the summer of 2013. A social worker, he spent the first two years working with English-speaking teens at risk through the Crossroads organization, mostly in Modi’in. But then he decided it was time to dive into the native culture and language.
“I felt it was self-defeating to be working in English.
Because of all my years of yeshiva education, my understanding of Hebrew was perfectly fine, but I couldn’t talk to anyone. I went to take a job in Hebrew where I’d break my teeth but eventually figure it out.”
The position he accepted involved home visits to check up on placements made by one of the agencies that supplies home health aides to elderly Israelis on behalf of the National Insurance Institute.
“I worked in a roving capacity, so I was in a different city every day, and that was great for learning Israeli geography. I must have visited 2,000 people over two years,” says Zucker, who now is building a private practice serving his preferred population, teens and young adults.
That a young man from a non-Zionist milieu ended up passionate about Israel is the result of a gap year spent at two yeshivot that no longer exist.
“My mother had come to Israel during college and fell in love with the place. I had a similar reaction and I decided to make my life here.”
Although he insists it’s impossible to explain why one falls in love, Zucker is quite eloquent about the feelings evoked by his year in Israel.
“It’s the first time you’re not an outsider,” he says.
There was the mundane moment when he realized he could eat in the (kosher) food court at the mall, and there was the sublime moment when he bought some Hasmonean-era coins in an antiquities store and felt electrified by “holding something that’s part of where you come from and part of who you are.”
Zucker’s paternal grandparents moved to the United States from Siberia.
“My father, although born in America, still has a sense of not being fully rooted there. But when you come to Israel, you feel instantly rooted when you step off the plane because the roots are already under your feet.”
The process of getting on that plane, however, took seven years. When he returned to Brooklyn after his gap year, Zucker learned in a yeshiva in the mornings, taught fifth grade in the afternoons and studied psychology in college at night. He also managed to find time to volunteer at a drop-in center for teens at risk in Brooklyn.
In the summer of 2009, a friend introduced him to Avigail, the woman he married that December. He was 22, she was 20.
They discussed aliya as soon as things turned serious.
The idea wasn’t a stretch for Avigail, as her mother was born in Israel and raised in France before coming to the US, and her grandparents had recently retired to Israel.
“We filled out our first aliya application while we were engaged, but my wife realized that since we’re both the oldest in our families, it wouldn’t be right to start having babies 6,000 miles away from our parents. We decided to wait a bit, and meanwhile I got a master’s in social work.”
In 2012, they came on a pilot trip and stayed in Beit Shemesh with Avigail’s grandparents. Zucker experienced another moment of inspiration on their porch as he reviewed the week’s haftara, which described how the biblical warrior-judge Samson was active between the towns of Tzora and Eshtaol. “It occurred to me that this was exactly where I was standing and I realized I was standing across time,” he says.
The Zuckers arrived with their two daughters the following year, eventually settling into the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot. He admits it was not easy to separate the girls from their grandparents, aunts and uncles, “but it’s far easier for the children to adjust when they’re younger.” Weddings and other life-cycle events present opportunities for visits in both directions.
“When we first moved here, our daughter Shoshana was three and if we asked her whether she wanted to go back, she would say yes, because she missed her grandparents. But we went back a year and a half later for my sister’s wedding and the day after we landed she said, ‘I don’t want to live here.’” Pressed by her father to explain why, she could only say, in Hebrew, that it just didn’t feel right. Zucker has come to the realization that his children are tourists in America.
“It’s amazing to see how they have flourished here.
Within six months, they were speaking Hebrew like natives. Their Israeli identity almost comes naturally.”
Shoshana, now seven, attends a new neighborhood experimental school where she is thriving. Maayan, five, is in kindergarten. Their youngest daughter, Yona, was born in Israel in November 2016.
Taking advantage of a special program offered to new immigrants, Avigail Zucker earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. She interns in a Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School brain-cancer research lab, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in pharmacology.
In addition to his career and his podcast, Zucker volunteers with the neighborhood citizen patrol and hopes to become an auxiliary police officer.
Reflecting on their accomplishments over the past four and a half years, he says, “You’re not only planting roots, but the fruits you harvest are far better than you could imagine.”