PEOPLE AND PLACES: The man who collected voices

A drum player finds his way from the US to Israel via West Africa.

Akiva Gersh  (photo credit: TAMAR FIELD-GERSH)
Akiva Gersh
(photo credit: TAMAR FIELD-GERSH)
Sure, most new immigrants to Israel experience a welter of dramatic experiences, hilarious events, strange sensations and deep reflections when they pick up and move to this country. And many say to themselves, “Someday I’m going to sit down and write a book about all of this!” A few even manage to do so.
But no one, as far as anyone knows, has assumed the daunting task of collecting a bunch of different experiences from a lot of new immigrants and anthologizing them into a book.
No one, that is, until now. Former American and now Israeli Akiva Gersh has been there and done that, and the local book world is now richer for the appearance of Becoming Israeli: The Hysterical, Inspiring and Challenging Sides of Making Aliyah. The book, consisting of more than 50 blog entries and short essays by 40 English speaking olim, begins with a dedication that reads, “To the Land of Israel. For never doubting that we would return home.”
The road that has led Gersh to Israel, and now to edit this important new book, has been, as they say, ‘long, with many a winding turn.’ Gersh, now 41, grew up in New City, a suburb of New York. He describes his early years as a “fairly typical American Jewish suburban lifestyle.” It was Jewish, he says, more in a cultural than a religious sense.
“I didn’t have a very strong connection with Judaism growing up, and no connection at all with Israel.” By the time he went off to college at the Ivy League Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he says, “I was done with Judaism – not my thing, not for me.”
But like many young people in late 20th century America, Gersh felt there was something missing in his life. He recalls finishing college “feeling like I wanted something more in my life spiritually, culturally. I embarked on a spiritual journey that lasted a few years, which took me to many places to meet different kinds of people and have many different kinds of experiences.”
After backpacking around the United States, Gersh made his way to West Africa.
A drum-playing musician, he had studied African drumming styles while in college and decided to visit some of the people who produced them. He spent two months in Ghana and Senegal, and was tempted to stay longer and deepen his studies. But, he says, “My soul was pointing me toward Israel.”
“And to my shock and surprise, I came back full circle to Judaism, and a new appreciation and understanding of Judaism and Jewish traditions.” After a couple of months of backpacking around Israel, Gersh found himself in Safed. “I discovered a yeshiva there, and I realized that the time had come for me to learn about what it means to be a Jew and what the Jewish people is about.”
Having “embarked on a spiritual journey,” Gersh decided that he had found what he was looking for, and it turned out to be Judaism and Israel. After five months of study at Yeshivat Shalom Rav, Gersh returned to the States, newly religious. He continued his yeshiva studies for half a day in Monsey, New York, and worked in Jewish education for the rest of each day, all the while determined to return to Israel.
“Literally within the first days of being in Israel that first trip, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Israel.
Once I got back to America, it was all about when and how. So eventually, five years later, I made aliya with my wife. We got married in 2003 and made aliya in 2004. And we’ve been here ever since. We thank God we have four children, all of whom were born in Israel.”
Since his arrival here, Gersh has been involved with Jewish education.
He teaches at the Alexander Muss High School in Hod Hasharon, a study abroad learning experience for Diaspora Jewish youth. An inveterate blogger, he became the editor of a book which has taken him more than two years to produce.
Asked why the book was born, he replies, “Ever since I made aliya I’ve been infatuated and a bit obsessed with the whole experience of aliya, with the whole idea of Jews coming back home, and the whole experience of acclimatizing.
Even though it’s the ‘homeland,’ it’s still a foreign country on some level.
So people need to acclimate to the new norms and culture, and the language of course. It’s about realizing, ‘Oh, Israel is in the Middle East, and that’s very different from America!’ So that is essentially what inspired this book.
“It’s an idea I’ve been thinking about for many years. I’ve had this infatuation with these ‘only in Israel’ kinds of experiences. And I kept thinking there should be some kind of a book of what olim go through on a day-to-day basis – the highs, the lows, the happiness, the frustrations. My first vision was kind of a ‘best of’ only in Israel experiences collection.
My wife helped me shape the book in a very different way. It’s a collection of essays and personal stories.”
Gersh spent two years rounding up contributors to the book by searching for them online. He says, “I looked at blogs, websites, finding them, reading them, loving them, being in touch with the writers, telling them about the project, asking them for permission to use their blog in the book.” All but one, he says, were happy to oblige.
And every time he thought he was done, that he had all of the stories he needed for the book, he would surf the Internet and find more. This went on, he says, until he decided enough was enough and that it was time to close, edit and publish Becoming Israeli.
“I looked online when I started the project to see whether anyone had written a book like this. I saw individuals who had written books about their own individual experiences. But what I wanted to do had not yet happened: a collection of voices telling their stories from many different vantage points.
“As people will see in the book, there are all kinds of olim. Most are Americans, with one or two from Australia.
But there’s religious, not religious, rightwing, left-wing, people who live in the settlements, people who would never live in the settlements, and as a result of this I feel you get this real collective voice. Some are hysterically laugh-outloud.
Others are so intense you want to cry. I feel that this collection of voices really gives a collective voice to aliya that has not yet been presented.”
Of the 40 contributors to the book, some – like stand-up comic Benji Lovitt and writer Sarah Tuttle-Singer – are more or less well-known figures in Israel’s blogosphere. The voices are indeed diverse, but if Gersh is guilty of any kind of ‘sampling error,’ it is that all of the contributors are relatively young. Asked why this is so, he replies that most bloggers are young. This imbalance is offset somewhat by a very sensitive foreword by author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi.
So what’s next for Akiva Gersh, as far as book production is concerned? “My next book, which I actually started working on before this one, will be about my spiritual journey, about spiritual journeys in general, and spirituality in Judaism – if my wife lets me – because this last book was a very time intensive project.”