As of today, I've been in Israel for 10 years. When I tell people that the first 7 were the toughest, they laugh. But I am so not kidding.
This is a hard place to get used to. Especially when you arrive with no linguistic, historical or cultural knowledge, and get pregnant within 4 minutes. Then you find yourself alone in an Arab-Jewish neighborhood (I wanted to be open minded) with a screaming newborn (maternal instinct triumphs over sleep deprivation, right?) I was wrong on both counts.
My 6 figure career got me nowhere, as limited liability lectures and union negotiations were worthless in the framework of an entirely different legal system.
My flippant humor was suddenly inconsequential as it's hard to be charismatic when your Wisconsin Hebrew school language skills amount to "Notebook. Pencil. My teacher is pretty." (Thanks, Mrs. Schwartz.)
My chameleonic ability to make friends anywhere and everywhere was effectively tossed aside when I realized that Anglo Jerusalemites categorize potential friends in one of several different boxes: bandana, wig, scarf, jean skirt, egalitarian minyan. Treif is not one of the boxes, however, so even my million dollar smile didn't earn me a community.
So why did I stay through 7 years of difficulty, and how did I come out happy on the other side?
Those are two entirely separate questions. First, why did I stay? Anyone who has met my husband knows about The Dimple Factor. Picture Vin Diesel with dimples the size of nails. He also happens to be one of the most upstanding people I've ever met, and I was in HR for 10 years. I've met a lot of people.
He wanted to be here, and I wanted him to be happy. It's not necessarily the decision everyone would make, but when his company tried to relocate us to New Jersey two years ago (all expenses paid + a promotion) I was the one who declined. Pirate's Booty and Target just didn't make the cut.
We were initially here for a year, on a trial basis. I was the only one on the Nefesh B Nefesh flight who shed tears of hand-wringing anxiety rather than of joy. The first year was an emotional roller coaster of ulpan, pregnancy, struggling through an emergency cesarean and the feeling of failure surrounding both the natural birth I had envisioned and the ideal newborn mother I had anticipated being.
Those first five years showed small wins:
We bought an apartment. It was in a Moroccan/Kurdish neighborhood because that's what we could afford. Considering we had moved from Abu Tor, where rocks were thrown at my stroller, puppies were tortured behind my building, two robberies rocked our sense of security and Hamas flags were paraded regularly through the neighborhood at 4am, this was an improvement. One of the local women helped me make kube. She also stopped by with meat every time we turned on the BBQ, telling us she'd be back in 30 minutes and not to burn it. Ah, Katamonim.
Never having been required to cook before (I lived in Manhattan and worked 60 hours/week! Two words: Take. Out.) I learned how to cook in earnest. And bake pie. One handed. (After the first newborn came two more, and I was getting the hang of things.) I learned that the artistry which struck my grandmother and my sister but had conspicuously skipped me, much to my disappointment, could manifest itself through food. I began making elaborate meals and struggled to invite guests to dine in our non-kosher home. Fail.
I began working in an industry where I flourished. I was promoted. Several times. Within three years, I was a major ingredient in the financial success of the company and co-workers and colleagues alike began to know my name. Professionally, I was growing and things were looking up.
My beg list (things I begged people to bring from the States) gradually got shorter. I got used to Osem ketchup and no longer shelled out the extra shekels for Heinz. I began to go to the grocery store alone, after a year or two of dragging my beloved with me to battle what I called "the white stuff section" (I still don't know the difference between labaneh and eshel, and I don't care.)
My oldest started first grade at the most wonderful school. I fought tooth and nail to get her accepted, and at the culmination of that process, I was not only triumphant, I understood that in Israel, "No" simply means "Not yet." And freshly baked cookies go a long way toward moving from "not yet" to "maybe soon" and finally to "OK. Just stop stalking us. Bring more cookies."
That year, we determined that living in a heavily religious (and growing more extreme by the minute) city with 3 kids in a 2 bedroom apartment was not viable long term. Go ahead, though, and attempt to sell an 80 meter apartment that is 40 meters on paper. What in the world does that mean? It took me a while to understand, but it seems that the legalities normally attributed to building or expanding a property didn't apply to the "metzukah" (poor) neighborhood of the Katamonim until we wanted to sell our apartment. Then they applied. We spent over a year legalizing the expansions done on our apartment before we bought it, and another year getting permission from our neighbors (ok, going around our neighbors’ blockages in court) to build an extra room. We finally sold and effectively bought our ticket out of the city.
Enter my favorite two hashtags: #MoshavLife and #BackyardPoultry. Go ahead. Facebook them. We moved to a very small, reasonably quaint, mixed (religious and secular) moshav about half an hour from Jerusalem. I couldn't walk to buy milk, but I could see wildlife from my deck (and I had a deck!)
I began to find local friends who didn't care where I went to shul, or if I went to shul. They didn't care whether or how I covered my hair, or how treify my kitchen was. These were English speakers who identified with my "Jerusalem Refugee" status.
I started to notice other things as well. Although I've lived for significant periods in New York, San Francisco and Boston (never live in Boston. I repeat: Never. Live there.) I am a small town girl at heart, hailing from a Milwaukee suburb. Yes, there are Jews in Milwaukee.
Where I grew up, about half a mile from our house sits the local elementary school. Around the school is a curved, tree lined street which guides visitors and residents alike into our mostly hidden, working class neighborhood. Every Fall, the trees on that street sway in the wind and turn golden, and then vibrantly orange. It's really a trademark of the neighborhood and long after I'd left the area for college and Wisconsin altogether to begin my career, I returned every Thanksgiving to the awaiting trees, welcoming me home as the last leg of my journey. Those trees always represented home for me; the feeling of wholeness acceptance, and being rooted.
My tiny moshav is across the highway from a (slightly) larger community, where the local (ridiculously overpriced) supermarket sits, as well as the elementary school. I hosted 25 guests this year on Thanksgiving, like I always do, for traditional turkey, fixings, and pie. This year, as I was heading to pick up my kids from school on Thanksgiving Day (can you imagine the audacity of these teachers, holding school on Thanksgiving?) I noticed that the entrance to the community is lined with trees. The road curves. The leaves rustled in the breeze. And they were yellowing with the season.
I stopped my car.
I've lived here for three years. Why had I never noticed the identical characteristics of this road to my childhood landmark? As unexplained, unannounced tears fell from my face, it hit me. It wasn't the trees that triggered this response. It was the feeling. I felt at home. It was only now I noticed the parallel because my emotional compass had been missing the feeling of belonging for so long. After 10 years, 3 kids, 2 jobs and a community I cannot live without......I am welcome. And I am home.
Happy Aliya-versary to me.