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Reflections on Aliyah

August 2011

I remember that day as if it were yesterday, and almost feel again those pains in my stomach and in my heart… the day we left America to move to Israel. At that point we had been living for a few weeks at my mother’s house, because the cargo lift with all our belongings had already been shipped so that it would get to Israel when we did. When we moved into my mother’s house, she and I laughed that with the mess and stress of grandmother, grandfather, mother, father and four children all living in one house, and after spending so much concentrated time together, we would be so sick of each other, we would be happy to be rid of each other by the time our Israel Aliyah date arrived!

It didn’t work. Those last few weeks in America only helped me realize how much I would be leaving behind. Until July 11th things were fine. But we woke up on July 12th to a house full of tension and pent-up emotions about what was about to happen. My mother and I didn’t manage to look each other in the eye that entire long long day. We avoided each other, making sure to never be in the same room together. If I was honest with myself I would have to admit, that if on that day, someone had offered me a way out of leaving—without having to explain—I would have taken it. It was just too hard. The scene at the airport, the moaning, the weeping and wailing… I’m embarrassed to say that the atmosphere was one of mourning. Our little girls were crying because we were crying and everyone was devastated.

Exactly one month ago, on July 13th, we celebrated our 19th Aliyah anniversary, of arriving in Israel. Today, I can’t imagine living or raising my children anywhere but in Israel. But getting here actually began a long time ago.

When I was 17, I spent a summer touring Israel and when I was 19, I spent a full year in Israel in a Bible School. I remember writing letters home announcing my intention to move to Israel at some future date. When Kuti and I were first introduced, we already knew that Aliyah—moving to Israel—was in both of our future plans. Both of us had decided independently to only date people planning on Aliyah. We got married, both of us still finishing up our university degrees. And then the babies started coming. It would have been easy to let the momentum keep us right where we were. But after Atara, our fourth child, was born, we made the decision. That upcoming summer of 1992, we were making Aliyah.

We started the process and kept moving towards our goal. We registered at the Jewish Agency and went for a couple of meetings to assist new immigrants as they make their plans. Sometimes the discussions at the meetings were laughable but they kept us on track, and all the logistics were a great distraction from the hugeness of what we had actually set in motion — leaving everything and everyone we know. That spring, Kuti took a “Pilot Trip” to Israel, to do some job interviews and find us a place to live. We originally considered an Absorption Center, to enjoy the support which comes from sharing mutual experiences with other new immigrants. But the Jewish Agency advised us that the Absorption Centers had become temporary homes for the massive influx of Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and we would be better off going straight to a regular apartment. So we decided to start off with family. Both of Kuti’s sisters had built homes in Karnei Shomron and while on the pilot trip, Kuti found a small rental apartment there. He also lined up a job which was a major relief.

As soon as we got on that El Al airplane, we took deep breaths and realized that the stomach aches had disappeared. We were on our way to realizing a dream. Landing was a bit lonely. Someone from the Aliyah Center met us with some snack bags and juice for the kids and pointed us in the direction of the office where we needed to register. When you make Aliyah you are each entitled to three pieces of luggage, so we collected our 24 pieces of luggage (!), including all our hand bags, and dragged our duffel bags, cartons, suitcases, backpacks and stroller out to Arrivals, butterflies fluttering around in our stomachs as we looked around for familiar faces. And then we saw them. Kuti’s sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews ran towards us, welcoming us with hugs and songs and smiles. And we were home. On the ride back from the airport I was exhausted but exhilarated, and half listened to the chattering around me. I remember being astounded at my 12 year old nephew who was talking about the Oslo Accords, and thinking to myself, ‘This is what twelve year olds talk about here?”

I glanced at my watch and saw it said 8:30 A.M. My watch was still on American time. It was actually 3:30 P.M. in Israel but I hadn’t made the change yet. When I saw that 8:30 A.M. my heart skipped an extra beat as I remembered that every day—EVERY DAY—at 8:30 in the morning, my mother and I called each other for our morning chat. I mentioned it out loud and my brother-in-law passed me his phone and said, “So call her.” I dialed that phone number, made unfamiliar with the extra country and city codes, and I heard ringing, picturing my mother answering. She said hello and I said hello and after that there was just crying! But it wasn’t all tears of pain. Throughout our process of Aliyah planning, my mother was incredible. Supportive and proud. When her friends would say to her, “Why aren’t you making Shira feel guilty for leaving you?” she would answer “But they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing… what we’re all supposed to be doing… what we taught them is the right thing to do.” I cannot even imagine the strength that took.

Until our cargo lift arrived, we lived in my sister-in-law’s basement, taking advantage of her generous hospitality and her babysitting as we ran off to banks and ports and Motor Vehicles and Aliyah agencies, filling out forms upon forms and encountering bureaucracy that we never had to deal with in America. Kuti had purposely told work that he would start in September and we spent the whole summer touring all over the country, hiking the mountains and splashing through riverbeds. It was time well spent, because by the time work and school and kindergarten started, we had wholly and undisputedly fallen in love with the land.

In Genesis 12 the Scriptures read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And that’s what we did. My husband Kuti, my daughters Avigayil, age 7, Ahuva, age 4, Leora, age 2 and a half, and Atara, just 9 months old. Our Sages say that perhaps it would have been more appropriate to write the verse backwards. Go first from your father’s house, then from your people and only then from your country. It’s more logical that way. But that is not the nature of the heart of mankind. Because the closer something is to the heart of man, he will uproot last. First you actually do forget “your country”. Did I truly care that I was leaving the United States of America? Would I miss the glorious shopping centers? Would I feel strongly about the internal politics of Congress? No! But maybe it would be a bit harder to leave “your people”, my homeland where everyone knew me from way back then. It’s harder to leave the people who knew me by name, knew my sisters’ names, who would stop me on the street and say, “Aah, you’re Alvin Kamber’s daughter, right?” I had a history with these people… a past. But the hardest to leave—the hardest to forget– is “your father’s house”. That cup of coffee and cake with my mother at the round table in her kitchen, while my kids jumped on the couch cushions nearby, in the living room. The piano where my sisters and I learned to play duets together, the backyard where I always ran activities to celebrate Mother’s Day. To know that my mother will not just pop by my house for a minute to cut the kids nails for me, to bring me the cookies I like which she found on sale in the supermarket, or just to give and get a hug.

We didn’t just have to deal with leaving our personal lives. Kuti and I left great jobs. Both of us were advancing nicely, accumulating both experience and seniority in our professional fields. When we came to Israel, our salaries, in comparison were laughable, though not very funny when we stopped to think about our expenses. All the savings we had built up respectably in our bank accounts had disappeared in one big “poof”. I remember standing in the store in midtown Manhattan, which specialized in Israeli appliances, and in one fell swoop we ordered a refrigerator, oven, washer, dryer, microwave, toaster, and mixer. We stood there, looking around, pointing in every direction as we remembered more and more things that needed to be bought. By the time we came to Israel, our savings were just about gone and we had to start over.

The chapter in Genesis continues with “and I will bless you and make your name great.” When I arrived in Samaria, to my home in Karnei Shomron, I finally understand the need for a blessing of my name. Back in America, in New York, in my neighborhood of Queens, my name was known… in the local synagogues, the schools, the charity organizations I volunteered in. In Karnei Shomron I was starting fresh. My name was not known in the context of anything. It was a long time before I was able to call people without prefacing it with “Hi, my name is Shira. I’m new here.”

I’ve researched this extensively and it’s interesting. Aliyah is not a commandment in the Bible. Living in Israel is. But what new immigrants have to do in order to fulfill living in Israel is a process that people who didn’t go through it, cannot possibly understand. Israelis were born, fulfilling that commandment. They wake up every morning and they are already fulfilling that commandment. All Aliyah really is then, is a means to an end… a course of action that has to be taken in order to get to the step native Israelis don’t even have to think about! In a way, it makes me jealous. But in a way, I cherish having made Aliyah. I cherish the “Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” that Abraham, our forefather had to do. The result is the same. Living in Israel. But the road I took… The planning, the anticipation, the traumas, the motivation, the compliance, the passion, that dream always in the horizon, I believe makes me luckier, makes my living in Israel that much more cherished. I agree that not all our preparations were spiritual. Sometimes they were merely technical: Packing up a home, deciding what to take and what to leave, photocopying every official document in triplicate, buying Israeli newspapers to brush up on our Hebrew… But the technical was never merely technical. Even the good-bye parties from friends and family prepared us, physically and emotionally. It’s like the aspiration for the Redemption. Is there value in the waiting? I believe so. That overwhelming focus, that constant and steadiness of purpose all those months of Aliyah preparation that we were going to be gathered from the corners of the globe and live in Israel.

The searching and yearning is what Aliyah is about, and I believe the searching and yearning made Israel more beloved to us. Native Israelis don’t have this challenge; native Israelis don’t make the same concessions; but native Israelis don’t get to wake up everyday and say, “I made this choice and it was a wonderful, life-enhancing choice.” I get to do that. And I do wake up every day saying that. Sometimes it hurts. I remember a few years back when my mother was undergoing brain surgery. Feeling very far away, I called the hospital to find out her status. It was the middle of the night there and I couldn’t call my sleeping sisters for an update. The nurse in the ward answered and said, “I’m sorry Ma’am. I’m only authorized to give out information to immediate family members and as far as I know, Mrs. Nordlicht only has two daughters. Good night.” Sometimes it’s sad… when my sisters send pictures of their kids and grandchildren on Snapfish and my kids look over my shoulder and need reminding what some of their cousins’ names are. I know my children have seen friends and neighbors, victims of terror, buried. I know my children were in the Neve Dekalim synagogue, dragged out by soldiers on the day of the Expulsion of Gush Katif. I know my children have taken gas masks to kindergarten! Has our Aliyah traumatized them? I think not.

I think our Aliyah gave them values, a richness, an independence and a maturity they would never have received growing up elsewhere. They can learn chapter and verse in Bible class and not have to ask their teachers why they live abroad when the Torah commands us to live in Israel. They could read of Beer Sheva and Hebron in the Torah Portion of the Week and take a bus there the next day! Instead of browsing the Christmas-decorated shop windows on Fifth Avenue, they smell the Hanukah donuts in the air. Instead of visiting the Statue of Liberty on a school trip, they are crawling through the caves from the time of the Bar Kohba Rebellion. Our garden gives forth citron fruits during the exact season that the Bible tells us to pick them for the Feast of Tabernacles.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities