Expat life and aliyah-versary

I can honestly say that the four and a half months traveling around Europe and the Middle East with my then husband was one of the best times of my life. On the flight home from Egypt, I nearly kissed the ground in Minneapolis and I wanted to hug everyone I met who spoke with that glorious Midwestern accent. But that feeling faded fast. Upon returning home to small-town Washington, I sank into a depression. Suddenly I was waking up in the same room every day seeing the same things and experiencing everything in English in an easy and familiar way.

One of the gifts from my mother is finding a way to be proactive and analyzing feelings to figure out what to do about them. So I went to the library and started researching how to live abroad. I decided that I would do whatever it took to live an expat life. I didn’t know where and I didn’t know when, but this was something that I would make happen.

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Could it be a lion in Zion?

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On the kibbutz, I met a guy from Uruguay. I barely knew where Uruguay was, but I could safely say it was in South America. I had nothing in common with him other than the fact that we were both Jews participating in a Hebrew immersion course in Israel. It was nearly Passover and somehow we had a deep, animated conversation about matza balls. His grandmother and my mother made them exactly the same: they were lead balls that sank in the soup and sat in your stomach for days. And suddenly I understood what the notion of a Jewish People means in the sense of a shared history, traditions, and culture. Meeting Jews in the US still allows us to connect as Americans. But what do I know about Uruguay? I was connected to this stranger in a way that I could never connect with strangers in the US. There a friendship starts at zero and builds. With this guy, we already started at two and grew from there.

I had found the place, Israel the ancestral homeland of the Jews. The when was sooner than I expected. I turned my life upside-down and was living in Israel ten months after this matza ball moment.

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Connection

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Moving to Israel is called “making aliyah” in English. The verb in Hebrew is “to go up” (l’allot). Sixteen years ago this week, I made aliyah. Many people who come to Israel look back on their lives here and conclude that they’ve “made a life” here and they have been uplifted. They usually mean that they found their soulmate, got married, had kids, bought a home, and became part of Israel in some way.

That traditional path didn’t work out for me in the US and it hasn’t work out for me here. And yet, I still choose to be in Israel because I ran to Israel, not away from the US.

Here I was able to discover myself and define who I am. It’s been a slow process. It was only a few years ago that I gathered the courage to go to Thailand to learn Thai massage. I was 42 and apparently finally had the answer to life, the universe, and everything. I came home, quit my stable job (that was draining my life energy), and became a massage therapist and copy editor. I wouldn’t have even thought to enter the field of copy editing if I hadn’t lived in Israel. Even when I have exhausting days and stress myself over deadlines, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What has been uplifting to me in Israel is giving myself permission to live an expat life and exploring what it means to me to be part of the Jewish People. And the most uplifting thing – my true aliyah – is my journey of self-discovery.

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Looking back at far how I’ve come already

A life well-lived

This week I had the privilege of attending a ceremony at the President’s House honoring a distinguished gentleman who I’ve indirectly worked with over the years, Smoky Simon.  He’s 97 years young and at the ceremony I finally had the chance to hear his life story.  I cannot do his story justice in a few lines, but I can provide a sketch. He and his wife came from South Africa as volunteers to fight in Israel’s War of Independence (1948-1949). He was part of the first group of soldiers that eventually became Israel’s Air Force.  After the war, he and his wife stayed on for another year and a half.  Then, since they were just young volunteers, they went home to South Africa to start their family and save money for aliyah.

They came to Israel in the 1960s. He built his business and they raised their family (that now includes 15 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren).  He became the president of the World Machal organization (Machal is a Hebrew acronym for “overseas volunteers”) and since 1993 he has been the treasurer of the Menachem Begin Heritage Foundation.  He was not a guy who did things for glory or accolades.  He did what he thought was right and just got to work.  In his speech, he shared the important parts of his life and only at the very end could you hear his voice shake with emotion as he thanked the president of the State of Israel for honoring him.

This post isn’t actually about Smoky.  But his story is important.

As we’re approaching the end of 2017, we might make resolutions to finally get to the gym or meditate more or finish writing that novel or manage money better or … We’re all just trying to be better people.

Then you hear a story like Smoky’s and the questions you ask yourself change:

  • Are you living a life based on your principles?
  • Are your choices reflective of your best self?
  • Are you having fun?
  • Does your life have meaning?
  • Do you have any regrets?

The key is to live so that your 97-year-old self will look back upon your life and say, “Indeed, it was a life well-lived!”

Happy New Year!

May 2018 be the best year yet!

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Aliyah-versary

On the day I arrived in Israel 15 years ago, February 8, 2002, I planted an almond tree in my aunt’s garden.

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There were some hard days for that tree and it seemed like it died.  But it didn’t.  It was busy digging into the land and strengthening its root system.

It rejuvenated itself, grew again, and began to thrive.


And now this tall, strong tree bears delicious fruit.

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*This story is brought to you by Metaphors-R-Us.

Tu B’Shvat Aliyah

In Hebrew aliyah translates literally as “ascend.”  It’s also the word used for immigrating to Israel.  For reasons unknown to me, the English is styled as “to make aliyah.”  I made aliyah (or I ascended) to Israel on February 8, 2002.  It wasn’t exactly Tu B’Shvat, but that year it had been the week before.

I was met at the airport by my aunt, my mother’s sister, who not only immigrated to Israel first and raised her children here, but also was in charge of bringing many more Jews to Israel in her various roles in the Jewish agency.  She took me to her house first where I showered and slept for a while.  It was a night flight and I was totally exhausted.

Later in the afternoon, my cousin arrived and we were all just sitting and catching up.  But then my aunt made an announcement:  We have to plant an almond tree before the sun sets.

My cousin and I set to digging and planted the tree.

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What do you do on your first day in Israel?  If it’s Tu B’Shvat and your name is Ilana, you plant a tree, of course!

Roots

And then something happened and that poor little tree died.  Well, you know, sometimes trees have a little difficulty adjusting to a new place.  The gardener said that was that and whattayagonnado?  So they cut it down.

And then something odd (miraculous?) happened.  It grew back.  Apparently, the roots had survived and it just rejuvenated itself from its own root system.

Birthday for the Trees

In last week’s post, I mentioned that Tu B’Shvat is the New Year for the Trees and that in Hebrew the holiday is called Chag L’Ilanot (Ilan is a tree; Ilana is the feminine version).  I make a special point of Tu B’Shvat because in 2002, it represented a new beginning for me – a new year for this Ilana.  Every year a new chapter unfolds in late January/early February; I’ve gained a year in Israel and I have a clean slate for the next year.

Even though my birthday is around the Jewish New Year and I like the feeling of January 1 as a definitive calendar page turn, I like Tu B’Shvat because I chose this new year and by the circumstance of my name, it chose me.

Epilogue

I don’t know if the tree in my aunt’s garden is still the rejuvenated one or if it was replaced.  But it actually doesn’t matter.  There is an almond tree in that corner of the garden.  Whether it is the one I planted with my own hands, the one that rejuvenated itself from its own roots, or a new tree altogether, the end result is that every version of that almond tree belongs in that place.