Veterans: ‘Five stages of assimilation’

Denis Weintraub, 66 From New York to Beersheba, 1973.

Veteran Denis Weintraub (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Veteran Denis Weintraub
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
‘Life plays tricks on you,” says Denis Weintraub. “In New York, I’d worked to stay in college, hoping to avoid being drafted for the Vietnam War. I was just finishing a degree when the head of the draft board, a friend of my father’s, called to warn us that my file was coming up. ‘Stay in college,’ he said, or I’d be drafted soon. I started hunting around for another postgraduate program I could still register for and found one studying university administration at New York University. Fine with me. All I wanted was to stay enrolled. What I didn’t expect was that after I’d made aliya, that master’s would be my most valuable degree.
I’ve spent my career in administration at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, including founding BGU’s School of Continuing Education as well as the research unit of the Faculty of Health Sciences,” he says.
Then life played another trick. “I made aliya in 1973, just weeks before the Yom Kippur War broke out. When I walked into the airport, the first paper they handed me was the infamous ‘greetings’ from the IDF, instructing me to report for my physical. I ended up serving almost 10 years with the IDF. It was an enormously valuable experience – not to mention that now, when other veterans start telling war stories, I can hold my own.”
“I grew up in Kerhonkson, New York, a town of about 500 people, counting dogs and cats. There weren’t any Jewish youth groups, but my parents were proud Jews – my father, one of 13 children, was a member of Hashomer Hatza’ir. Even so, like many other Americans in those days, Israel wasn’t a top priority. Not until I was in graduate school and met some Israeli friends did I really get interested in modern Israel.
“I came for the first time in 1968. As the plane landed in Tel Aviv, I started crying. Remember those old Yiddish movies, the tearjerkers, where the long-lost son is reunited with his mother? That’s how I felt. I was being reunited with my family. I stayed three weeks – it was marvelous.
After all, I had Diners Club, a Hertz rental car, and the Hilton Hotel. What could be bad about that?”
“I wasn’t thinking about aliya at the time, but I did want to learn as much about Israel as I could. My feeling at the time was that Israel was unpolished. It had everything, but it needed stucco on the buildings and paint on the walls. By the time I got home, I was seriously interested.
I came back the next year for postgraduate studies at Hebrew University. My first trip was emotional, the second was to learn.”
Then fate stepped in again. “I was teaching at CUNY and had told my students I was going to visit Israel again.
One student sort of sheepishly asked if I’d call her cousin in Israel who’d just finished a degree and would be coming to the US to visit soon. ‘Send her my greetings,’ she said. ‘Maybe she can show you Israel, and you can show her New York.’ “I can tell you I had no intention of telephoning some student’s cousin, but several family members here were dedicated to setting me up with other women, so I called her just to get away. Not long after, the cousin became my wife, Channah. She came to New York as planned, we went to the UN building and I proposed under the Israeli flag.”
“We delayed our return to Israel for a time because my father had passed away and my mother needed help. So when we came in 1973, we were a mixed family. I came as a new immigrant, Channah was a returning Israeli, and our nine-month-old son was the child of a returning Israeli. The paperwork was horrendous, so we were hoping to use some protektzia – Channah’s father – to get it done quickly. That did not work. We ended up being the very last ones to leave the airport.
“We first stayed with Channah’s family. We’d been able to bring more carry-on luggage than normal – family connections, again – and needed it because we were arriving with a baby. We’d stocked up on disposable diapers, which at that time were very expensive. We were so frugal with them, our son outgrew them before we used them up.”
“We sent a lift, which came into the port in Haifa. My father-in-law offered protektzia again, so when I needed to clear customs, he insisted that he had to come with me so one of his friends could handle it. Otherwise, he said, we’d be so frustrated, we’d leave. He came with me, and as soon as we arrived at the port, he went off to find his friend, leaving me standing alone outside. I suppose I started to look a little suspicious standing there by myself, so a guard came and asked me what I was doing. I said, ‘Ani olah hadasha!’ – Channah says I have a sex problem, but only in Hebrew. Anyway, he took pity on me and I cleared customs in 3.5 minutes. My father-in-law still hadn’t found the friend who was supposed to help.
“After a few weeks, we moved to a kibbutz that ran an absorption program to welcome new immigrants, introduce them to kibbutz life and learn Hebrew. We stayed about six months. Channah worked, and the kibbutz took care of our son, I studied Hebrew in the morning and worked in the afternoon doing things like drilling holes in wood for army trucks.”
During the war, and for some time thereafter, there were frustrations. “If I’d been in the States during that time, I’d have been doing PR for Israel, lecturing and drumming up support. But I was here – and there wasn’t much to do. Everyone else was in the army.
“I’d applied for a position as ‘project writer’ for the University of Haifa – not that I knew what a ‘project writer’ was, but I figured I could do it. I was disappointed when I didn’t get the position. Then I saw an ad for a dean of students at Beersheba’s University of the Negev. I applied and was interviewed by a high-level hiring committee.
One asked, ‘How are you going to be dean of students if you don’t speak Hebrew?’ I said I’d learn fast. Someone suggested I might be better qualified as assistant for academic liaison, where I’d help recruit faculty and help the new hirees integrate successfully. I accepted, and that’s where I stayed – BGU.”
“I guess the fact that I have to think about it so hard means I didn’t run into anything very difficult. The two years I spent as an emissary to South Africa might have been the most challenging, but even that had its benefits.
There are still some of my olim – people I recruited and whose paperwork I processed – living here in Beersheba.
That’s still a good feeling.”
“Seeing our three sons grow up here, attending some of the finest schools in the world and becoming successful Israelis in their own very diverse fields. That’s my biggest satisfaction.”
As an immigrant himself and as someone who spent decades working with immigrants, Weintraub developed his “Five Stages of Assimilation” chart.
Stage 1: “Fascination. The newspaper looks like a prayer book, the garbage collector looks like my grandfather – and can you believe everything is kosher?!”
Stage 2: “Hate. The bureaucracy is terrible! They don’t do it like this in America (England, South Africa, etc.)!”
Stage 3: “Acceptance. Learning to function in Hebrew.”
Stage 4: “Assimilation. An Israeli when you’re with Israelis, an American when with Americans.”
Stage 5: “Over-assimilation. When the immigrant becomes more Israeli than Israelis.”