Back in 1971, when I made my first trip to Israel as a teenager to tour the country and work on a kibbutz, I remember how much I loved what I saw and enjoyed speaking Hebrew, which I had learned in Jewish day school. I also recall people asking me, “So, when are you going to make Aliyah?” My answer was, “I don’t know.”
I was being diplomatic. As connected as I felt to the land, at that point, I was 16, a year away from graduating from a waspy prep school. Going to college in the States was foremost in my mind. Israel was a great place to visit, but I didn’t want to live there. Upon graduating from college, when I decided to become an actor in New York City, the idea of pursuing such a career in Israel didn’t even cross my mind.
Ten years later, having given up a life in the theater for journalism, I returned to Israel, again to tour the land and work on a kibbutz. This time I served a youth group leader. Visiting relatives and meeting soldiers who had fought in the Lebanon War strengthened the pull of the land on me. However, it was my brother, having become more religiously observant, who made aliyah. As I visited him over the years, enjoying a deepening attachment to the country through him and his family, my answer to the inevitable question about emigrating evolved to “Probably some day.”
Marrying Judith, and visiting the land with our children, led to our spending half a year in Jerusalem in 1998 when Judith took a sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin where she was a professor. By then, I was a freelance writer, publishing plays and children’s books and visiting schools as a storyteller. Eventually, I returned to school to earn an education degree and become a full-time teacher. Though my Hebrew was adequate for touring and visiting relatives, I did not see myself making a go of it as an English-speaking writer/teacher in Israel. My “Some day” was still a nebulous time in the future.
Following in their uncle’s footsteps, my son Jacob, and then my daughter Louisa, next made aliyah, in 2013. By then, Judith I were in our late 50s and both contemplating retirement, or, should I say, encore careers. For Judith this meant returning to school to become a nurse; for me it meant turning a part-time pursuit as a music video director/producer at my elementary school into a full-time occupation as a filmmaker.
Flash forward three years to 2016 when Judith and I decided to spend a year in Tel Aviv to live near Jacob and Louisa. We loved getting to know their friends and hosting them for regular Shabbat dinners, strolling to the beach whenever we pleased, and feeling like we were part of the city’s vibe, rather than just passing through. While Judith worked on a master’s degree in public health and disaster and emergency management, I explored different neighborhoods of the city with my camera to produce short documentaries for a web series that told stories we in the States don’t usually get from traditional news sources (www.http://refugefilms.net/rock-regga/). I also traveled around Jerusalem and Gush Etzion to produce two longer documentaries that tell stories not many Israelis would choose to track down (http://refugefilms.net/jerusalem-voices/ ).
By the time we were ready to return to the US, Judith and I agreed that Israel was no longer a great place to visit; it had become a home where we wanted to live. Now, when someone asks me when I’m making Aliyah, I have a new answer: “Now.”
My first trip to Israel wasn’t until I was an adult, but I have been back numerous times since, for visits, for conferences, for family. The first more extended period, as Marc said, was a semester sabbatical at Hebrew University in the Spring of 1998. I was a professor of Russian Literature and of Religious Studies, with a specialty in Russian religious thought and Russian Orthodoxy, plus some side publications on Russian Jewry. What better project to pursue in Israel, then, but a book about Russian Jews who chose baptism in the Orthodox Church in the late Soviet Period? Alas, I conducted most of my interviews in Russian, and my Hebrew didn’t improve as much as I would have wanted. But I did love my hours in ulpan each week, and the non-work hours of each day when I impersonated a Jerusalemite, walking my daughter to gan, shopping at the makolet, and attending events at the Jerusalem Theater.
We waited almost 20 years for our next extended stay, from 2016-2017, this time in Tel Aviv. Our kindergartener was now in her mid-twenties, working and playing for her 3rd year as an Israeli citizen as she wrote her graduate school applications. Our 30-year-old son had, gasp, a “real” job in, what else, high tech. Both of us had retired, Marc now making films, and me a hospice nurse. But the stars aligned, and it looked like this would be the last year (for some time, at least), when all members of our immediate family could be in the same city together. So we packed up and rented a place in the city center, 10 minutes walk from the apartment where our daughter and son were living together. With Clyde. The cat. To keep myself busy that year, I enrolled in a master’s program at Tel Aviv University. But what was my real purpose? Hanging out with my family, making new friends (especially our kids’ friends), finding just that perfect fish stall in the shuk, going to the Mediterranean almost every day, and feeling like a real Tel Avivian. So much so, that one day while Marc and I fantasized about buying an apartment for ourselves, it felt just right.
What do I love about Israel? Almost everything: the energy, the cosmopolitanism, the history, the language, the warmth, the sea and the desert, the greenery clinging to the hills for dear life.. We have many friends in Israel, both sabras and olim, and family on both sides. Marc’s brother and his six children and their families live in Israel, and I rediscovered a second cousin and her family, with whom I felt immediately at home. Most of all, our children are now Israelis, and they have welcomed us into their new lives to the extent that even their friends see us as substitute parents. We want to be with all of them for the rest of our lives.
What did we do after we realized that we didn’t need to wait for grandchildren to spoil in Israel, and that we could move right away? Well, we did buy that apartment, but not without seeing lots of over-priced and run-down options, lacking elevators for our old age, no parking for our non-existent car or, more importantly, for guests, or with uncertain futures for renovations and earthquake stability. We agonized over how best to send money to Israel. We met with a lawyer. And ultimately, we had our son sign the papers for the apartment, taking advantage of his oleh privileges.
Then we came back to the States and began our own process of aliyah. We checked out the Nefesh b’Nefesh website. We talked to friends who had just completed the process, and we started to gather our documents. Who knew, after 30 years as a university professor, I would encounter a new word: apostille. I had to google it to find out how it is pronounced. It turned out the copies of our birth certificates and marriage certificate weren’t “kosher” enough. So we wrote away for new ones. We asked a rabbi we knew to write a letter attesting to our Jewishness. That one took two tries before we got the wording correctly. We filled out health forms. We made “supporting statements” and asked a friend/colleague in town to write a “recommendation” for us. And we worried that we would miss some detail.
Finally, we met with a representative of the Jewish Agency.
What still keeps us up at night? We don’t really know yet how to open a banking account. Or navigate Israeli health care (which kupat cholim to choose? Which particular clinic? Which doctors?). Or deal with health insurance back in the States? Social Security? Medicare? What about taxes? And will we be able to/want to work in Israel? Can Judith get certified as a nurse and find part-time work that she likes? Or should she really retire this time around? Will Marc find an audience for his films. Or maybe he can go back to his early career as an actor? Someone has to play the American in all those Israeli TV shows, no?
And what continues to make us smile? The thought of living in our new apartment in Tel Aviv (or will it be too small?), going to the beach, and hanging with our family and friends in the Land.