A (confused) Yankee in Abraham’s desert

Lesson 1: Israelis don’t need you as much as you think.

Eisenbud's jogging route in the Negev Desert (photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
Eisenbud's jogging route in the Negev Desert
(photo credit: DANIEL K. EISENBUD)
Like many Americans who make aliya, I was under the distinct impression that upon setting foot in the Holy Land, I would be met with open arms by the many excited sabras eagerly awaiting my arrival. Who could blame them? After all: I was an American. From New York City! In my mind, the combination would prove intoxicating to the long-suffering people of Israel, who inhabited a desert, ate rudimentary pastes made by some guy named Baba Ganoosh (Ali Baba?), probably rode camels in their spare time, and read everything backward. They needed all the help they could get. Especially from an enlightened New Yorker like me.
Look, I watched CNN and read The New York Times – Israelis lived in a war zone, for God’s sake. Sure, they could cross-pollinate a tomato with a cherry, grow oranges as big as basketballs, create triage units more efficient than a Swiss Army knife, and shoot an M-16 with disturbing precision, but could they deal with the pressure of riding in an extremely crowded subway during rush hour while mentally keeping a perfect beat to an excellent song on their iPod, processing guilt about the various homeless men on the train, and spotting every attractive woman within a 20-foot radius – all without missing their stop – like me? I seriously doubted it.
No, I clearly had much to teach these tough but kind desert-dwellers. They needed someone to tell them the many harrowing stories of “modern” life. It’s a good thing I came when I did, I thought...
OF COURSE, as it turned out, nothing could be farther from the truth. When I arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport last July, I immediately knew something was off. Instead of flocking to me like the rock star I deluded myself into believing I would be (or even holding a “Welcome to Israel” sign), Israelis showed about as much interest in me as Paul, George and Ringo probably showed in Yoko. There was no doubt in my mind that I was about as relevant to these people as ABBA. Maybe even less.
Don’t get me wrong – whenever I told someone I had made aliya, the information was warmly received. However, invariably, the follow- up question was: “Where did you come from?” And when I answered New York City – fully expecting an excited, animated response – a look of bewilderment came over their faces, as if they were staring at an escaped mental patient.
Then the final sentence of the conversation: “Are you crazy?” It was as reliable as clockwork.
Israelis seemed to want to embrace me about as much as I wanted to embrace a tax audit.
Without a doubt, my real Israeli education began shortly after I arrived at the kibbutz where I would be living and studying Hebrew for the next six months – in the Negev Desert. A place where Abraham once roamed. A place with more goats, camels, cows and chickens than people. A place as diametrically opposed to my old life as possible. A place where I was almost entirely ignored by the hundreds of kibbutzniks who inhabited my new home.
So, since I was an avid jogger, I decided that to help warm up my icy new neighbors and acclimate myself to desert life, I would run around the kibbutz (roughly 3.5 km. a lap) three times every day. This, I told myself, would help me become a familiar face, keep me in shape and learn the lay of the land. Problem solved.
I’LL NEVER forget my first run. During a particularly popular walking time on my third day at the kibbutz, I excitedly strapped on my running shoes, strolled over to the dirt path around the grounds, and began a slow trot – during which I eagerly waved and smiled at every man, woman and child I passed.
To my shock, not one of them waved back.
Even their dogs ignored me. This went on for several weeks. No matter how enthusiastically I smiled or waved, I was disregarded. As the days turned into weeks, I began to relate all too well to Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, who relived the same miserable 24 hours, day after day after day.
Soon, I began to feel as if I were engaged in a some strange form of brinksmanship, where the first person to give in (me, by giving up; them, by being friendly to me) would “lose.”
In my mind, as a new immigrant with no family or friends in Israel to speak of, the stakes were too high to throw in the towel. A loss would mean acceptance of isolation. So I ran harder and harder every day – and kept waving (sans irony) at each now-familiar face, every lap.
After two months of being ignored – and no doubt being perceived as a massive oddity – something different finally happened. I noticed a few of the people I passed begin to nod at me. Nothing special, just simple acknowledgment. But for me, it was a breakthrough.
By the third month, the nods began to transform into waves – sometimes even sprinkled with slight smiles.
Finally, after four months of running nearly every day in the stifling desert heat, virtually every person I passed either waved at me with a big grin, or pumped their fist in the air and shouted, “Kol hakavod!” (“Bravo!”) or “Metzuyan!” (“Excellent!”). Some of the once-coldest members of the community even learned my name, and shouted it out as I chugged along. Even the dogs warmed up to me.
I had never felt so proud.
When my Hebrew improved enough to make small talk, my hard-earned friends eventually explained to me that they had seen countless olim (immigrants) come and go – many arriving with delusions of grandeur, who ended up going back where they came from. With me, they said, they were pretty sure I wasn’t going anywhere – and had heart to boot.
Ultimately the sabras taught me an invaluable – and much-needed – lesson: In this country, friendship and respect don’t come easy. No one will embrace you just because you made aliya. Nothing is given to you – and nothing is taken for granted – except, of course, chutzpa.
Take it from me, Israelis don’t need you as much as you think. Even if you’re an “enlightened” New Yorker like me. But if your heart’s really with this place – and your actions speak louder than your words – they’ll warm to you in the end.
The writer is on the editorial staff of The Jerusalem Post. He is a multiple award-winning magazine editor from Hearst Magazines, former New York City Government spokesperson and reporter. He made aliya from New York City in July 2010, and currently resides in Jerusalem.