If there’s one question I am constantly asked by Israelis, the most common by far is why I am here. Depending on the person on the other end of the question, I usually cater the answer to inspire/explain/just-get-someone-to-stop-asking-me-questions. The answer is always a variation of Zionism, religion, loving the land, and all the other platitudes that all of us olim can gush on about if given the chance in the right setting and the right mood.
But sometimes it’s not enough.
Zionism does not put money into my bank account. My faith does not help me navigate a world where I only barely understand the language. Loving this beautiful place does not replace the longing I feel for the family, friends, and the home I left behind. None of those helped me when I was in the hospital trying to regain my sanity. On the tough nights, the nights where my I can’t stop the rush of negative thoughts and emotions, I wonder if coming here was the right decision. I ask myself if leaving all of the support that I had back in the states was the smart move. If living in this place is really worth putting up with at least one problem a day because you’re an immigrant. If the isolation, the frustration, the sadness, the anger, and the desperation were worth moving across an ocean to a place where the only thing that ties me to it are ethereal and abstract.
It’s Hanukkah, and I’ve been struggling to really internalize the holiday. I light the hannukiah (menorah for my American friends), eat some donuts, and sit on my couch for half an hour near the flames to fulfill my obligations; but I haven’t felt anything. The Maccabees, the holy oil, the miracles, none of it has hit me like it usually does. I sit a few feet away from the hanukkiah, reading a book, just trying to get through another day.
Then I read an articles like this and I get reminded of why I’m here and why this holiday, and now, is so important. I think about the men, women, and children just like me. I think of the olim who fought to get here, and of those still coming to put their money where their mouths are.
I think about all of the people who gave up everything to come here, who risked it all, their lives included, to try and reach this holy soil. People from around the world with varying degrees of attachment to their Jewishness. People who had never heard the aleph-bet until their twenties to people who had been detached from world Jewry for centuries. People who fled with just a suitcase. People came from DP camps, numbers tattooed on their arms. I gave up my western comforts, but I never had someone pushing me away; and I always had a place to call home besides Israel.
I think about a man named Ziv, who I met at the local minimarket drinking beer with his friends and neighbors. He is an oleh like me, he’s from Ethiopia, and he asked me the why-are-you-here question. I told him that I came here because I am a Zionist, that I am religious, and that I believe. He just said an “ah” with the shared knowledge we both have of what it means to believe in a place like this. Later on, where he found out that I lived in the Krayot, a cluster of towns north of Haifa, he asked me what I thought about Netanya compared to the Krayot. I said to him, Netanya is a beautiful place with nice people, but that the people of the Krayot, which is known a bastion of immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, were emiti, they were real. He loved that response and couldn’t stop saying how right I was.
To me, those people felt so real because they knew what it meant to take action to come to this place. This is not meant to denigrate the good people that live here in this city, especially the French, Russian, and Ethiopian olim here, but something about the working-class vibe of the Krayot emphasized that we olim are doing things here; that we are helping build this country in a way that no one else can. The people there work hard and live in hard places, working everyday jobs and hard labor, living in buildings built around the founding of the state. They exemplify that aliyah is not an easy thing, but that it is amazingly beautiful in the truth that the land here flourishes when we are here. Even more, this country’s culture, faith, character, everything about it has changed because we continue to come here and make an impact. I get my greatest joys seeing Ethiopian grandmothers smiling and laughing with each other in the bus, Russian men sitting on benches and arguing politics, French bakeries giving me a taste of another world, and my fellow Anglos getting together just to share a beer. I love it only more when I see everyone together, sharing what we can get from this hard place, like when I see the guys from my neighborhood gather at the local minimarket to just talk and drink beer together. Their birthplaces span thousands of miles, but they are all here making life flourish in the holiest spot in the world.
I was not privileged to be born in the days of the first kibbutzim, to be one of the first settlers of the land; but I feel like I am still accomplishing the great mitzvah of yishuv haaretz, settling the land of Israel. My apartment existed long before I ever came here, but every day I spend here is another day that this place grows in Jewish pride and in its faith. When I pray here, I pray where G-d wants me to be and wants all of his people to be. When I put down roots here, I am making myself another tree in the forest of souls that make up the collective whole of this beautiful nation.
The Maccabees lived in a time where everything that Judaism stood for was under threat, and they decided to act. The few decided to fight the many. They lit the menorah to see it in its grandeur. knowing they didn’t have enough for tomorrow. Their actions found miracles, as I hope mine will. I think every oleh and olah that comes here knows that they are going to have rely on miracles to get by; but that’s what this land does. It is hard, and life is not easy, but you can see the miracles if you pause and look hard. They are obvious in the sight of a scattered people returned and a nation reborn, but they exist in the sparkle of the children running and speaking Hebrew in the first Jewish country in two millennia. They exist in the smiles of peoples from people who treat each other more like family than just fellow citizens. They exist in hearing that a great miracle happened here as children play. They exist in men standing for the Prayer for the State of Israel and for the IDF. They exist for me, that despite everything, I finally feel like I’m in a place that I never want to leave.
You cannot eat Zionism, you cannot pay your bills with faith, and you cannot save for the future simply by loving a piece of the earth, but you can build something with all of those. As an oleh, it may be harder, but I know that home I build will stand the test of time. May I be standing in it one day with the great menorah in a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash, and we can all celebrate this holiday together knowing our hard work and sacrifice made it happen.