With most of my articles focusing on harsh aspects of life in Israel, and with Israel’s 63d birthday falling on Tuesday, it might be appropriate to mention some of why I love living here. This is a personal statement of an immigrant, though much of what I describe doesn’t necessarily pertain to immigrants.
1. Learning a new language. I moved here at 30, knowing very little Hebrew. There’s something hugely elating about gradually learning a different language in midlife; finding out how a language is a world, something I didn’t understand when I knew only one language. There are many beautiful Israeli songs, and getting to understand the words of one of them is always a delicate revelation. I became a translator here, an activity I greatly enjoy.
Although needing to learn a new language is hardly unique to immigrating to Israel, in this case it’s a recovery of a very old possession.
2. Being in the Land of Israel. Though a mostly nonobservant Jew, the Land of Israel archetype lies very deep in me. And now it’s not only an ideal, a vision, but a tangible reality all around me. It’s a varied, beautiful, and sacred land; it exudes sacredness. It’s fused with the Jewish calendar, the Jewish holidays, in a way that can only be experienced here. I even know the names of some of its birds and flowers.
3. Always having something to write about. It’s possible to write about Israel from abroad and there are people who do it well; but writing about Israel in Israel has special valence and immediacy.
4. The “we-ness.” It’s a small country, and the sense of collective experiences and feelings is intense. Yes, there are divisions as in any society; the more extreme Left is mainly outside of the “we” and inimical to it. Also, many of the collective experiences, and the feelings they instill, are harsh ones. Still, they’re undergone “together,” at a high level of social mutuality—whether manifested in the common watching of TV shows or in the looks and words that people exchange in the streets and shops.
And of course many of the collective experiences are not harsh ones but uplifting ones that stir great pride. A recent case in point was the Iron Dome air-defense system’s successful downing of Gaza-fired rockets. Others, since I moved here, have included Natan Sharansky’s arrival in the country, the second airlift of Ethiopian Jews, and the winning of Nobel Prizes by five Israeli academics since 2002. The young state is still on a rollercoaster ride with deep lows and dizzying highs.
5. The Zionist layer plus the Jewish layer. Zionism is an ideology going back to the mid- to late 19th century; Judaism is a religion and culture going back over three thousand years. Zionism is now old enough that it constitutes a tradition, a heritage, within the state of Israel. For instance, the first kibbutz—Deganya, on the shore of Lake Kinneret—recently celebrated its 100th birthday (Israel, as mentioned, is celebrating its 63d). Driving and hiking in the upper Galilee, mostly still pristine countryside, one sees small settlements nestled beside green hills and gets a sense of time travel, of gazing back into the early days of Zionism.
Israel is also, of course, very rich in ancient Jewish sites, like the deservedly famous Western Wall and Masada. The Zionist and the Jewish layers are distinct, yet flow together; the former would not exist without the latter. That is, the ideological Zionists came here because the Jewish “layer” was already here. The modern Israeli is fed by both the Zionist and Jewish streams, both separately and in their convergence. It’s a strong brew.
6. The spring holidays. As alluded to, there are holiday experiences here all year round, but there is a particularly potent succession of holidays in spring, both ancient Jewish ones and modern Israeli ones. The former: Passover, Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and the more minor Lag B’Omer; the latter: Holocaust Day, Remembrance Day (for fallen soldiers), and Independence Day (along with Jerusalem Day celebrated mainly in that city).
What is notable is that these holidays are taken seriously and related to authentically. Holocaust Day and Remembrance Day touch an abyss of mourning; Passover, Shavuot, and Independence Day are tremendously joyous. Especially in the spring Israel is an ideological community in the best sense; people do not live only as atomized selves but as part of larger memories and purposes. It’s perhaps what I was most seeking in coming to the old-new land; it’s very much to be found.
7. Jerusalem is here. I used to live in it, don’t anymore, but whenever I think of its name (Jerusalem, Yerushalayim), there’s a heart-fluttering sensation. It becomes the center of one’s dreams and sentiments. Perhaps it can be that, too, outside of Israel, but it’s different when one has known its stones and cypresses for years. To me, it exudes holiness with the same undeniable, indeed sensuous immediacy that its stones exude soft light.