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Neither here nor there

It is odd to be spending the two-year anniversary of our aliyah in New Jersey, sleeping in the same house where we did for the period two years ago when we were “homeless.”

I miss being home.

It is great to see our family and friends in the United States, but it is clear to me that we’ve left for a different kind of life. I have a hard time verbalizing exactly what it is that is so “apart” about Israel, but it really is just not the same. (No judgements about those who choose to move there or choose to stay put. It’s not right for everyone.)

Of course, the truly bad part of being in the United States for over a month is what it is doing to my Hebrew language skills. They are atrophying. Or did, within 72 hours of our arrival.

The reason I know this is because I no longer feel like I have oncoming dementia.

At home, I would often be in the middle of a sentence and come upon a noun that I needed to verbalize. I would be able to picture the object accurately but not come up with the word for several, countable seconds. (All of this in ENGLISH, my mother tongue.)

I really, really hoped that it wasn’t some sort of dire brain issue, but could rather be blamed on a) my constant state of fatigue or b) processing two languages. And by processing two languages, I mean 90% English and 10% Hebrew.

I have given up sleeping while in America for real-time Twitter snark, yet my word recall has returned. So I have to conclude that I am, after all, a bear of little brain, and the small amount of Hebrew bouncing around in there was gumming up the works.

Which is fine for now, but will really be terrible in two weeks, when I once again have to squint at school forms, make conversation with kindergarteners, give directions to Tel Aviv, and–worst of all–receive phone calls.

(AM, meanwhile, seems to have improved his English recall but is still talking in his sleep in Hebrew. I would totally hate him were he not so completely adorable and snuggly.)

So, in sum: Life in Israel: good. It’s home. Hebrew language skills: bad for me, fine for everyone else. Never having to discuss day school tuition again: priceless. Also priceless: not being demented.

Last year’s video is still appropriate–but this year my kids know all the words.

 

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On returning

Being back in America isn’t strange, as I feared it might be. The cars seem enormous (and the parking spaces even moreso), but non-stop AM radio news and English-only signage don’t feel unusual. As I explained to someone yesterday, although I am Israeli—feeling Israeli waxes and wanes—America was my home base for 34 years. I can’t forget it, even if I wanted to!

I do wonder what Americans think of us, though. I have realized that my kids are more Israeli than American—language aside. They’re loud and boisterous (though rarely thoroughly obnoxious, and polite and respectful when we demand it). They expect that many adults they don’t know—flight attendants, cashiers, fellow plane passengers—will interact with them because that is what they have become accustomed to.

They have achieved certain levels of independence. They go to the bathroom alone at semi-public venues, like the pool. They run to the end of the block without hesitation.

They range away from us to play; we let them, as long as they’re in sight. Vaguely. Ish. When they tussled at the Atlanta airport and AM banged his head, other adults looked around frantically for us. Many Israeli parents would have tended to him first, before looking for his keeper.

I don’t look at this as toughening up for the army, but rather just allowing them to spread their wings. Israel is a pretty safe place to do this. Kids are everywhere and are well integrated into society’s fabric. The cashier at the grocery store is happy to talk to them, probably because packing up my groceries is my job, not hers. I can send them into the makolet to buy a bag of milk, knowing that they’ll be fine, they’ll learn about money, and they’ll learn how to look at expiration dates on dairy products. And if they do that errand “for me” then I can order my takeaway coffee without a constant barrage of “Can I have one?” at the ruggelach counter.

As with other aspects of aliyah and the post-aliyah integration, the kids are leading us. We, the adults, could easily slip back into America without much thought—except for happy exclamations over the low price of school supplies—but the kids are already stepping away from it. They have absorbed the attitudes and expectations as much as the language.

I will continue to struggle with my half-half life. They will not.

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Aliyah: The next step

1. Israel: No One Belongs Here More Than You leads to

2. Aliyah: It’s A Process, Stupid

Like I’ve said before, moving your life from there to here has multiple approaches.

1. Ditch everything and bring two suitcases and a laptop.

2. Ditch nothing and bring a 40-foot shipping container…even (if you are truly nuts) a car

3. Edit, bring some, (1-2 years later) find that it’s way too much, and wish you had brought less

I am deep in the midst of number three right now. In the past I wrote about clothes. Still true. I haven’t managed to gather the strength to re-jigger my wardrobe. My attitude towards winter clothes has basically been: we have a washer and a dryer; nobody cares if I wear the same four things over and over (right, Gila?); I am putting a sweatshirt or fleece over it anyway; and I still can’t figure out what size I am here. (32?)

In another few weeks it will be hot again.

I need to lie down.

And I brought too many shoes. Someone–I wish I could remember who–told me that in Israel you need a pair of sandals, a pair of  boots, and a pair of sneakers (read: something to hike in). This is 100% fact. If you want to be stylish, I recommend two pairs of sandals (it’s a long season), dress boots, rain boots, sneakers, and casual flats. This means I have a dozen pairs too many. Too many = every shabbat I look at them, don’t wear them, and instead wear my boots (in winter) or my dressy sandals (in summer).

So that is my first Aliyah ProTip: BRING FEWER PAIRS OF SHOES. FOR REAL. (I just totally reaffirmed Shanna’s assertion that she is never moving here. Reason #2, after Original Reason: The Summer Heat. You can thank me later, Shanna.)

But our bigger issue right now is our dining room table. In my heart, I am glad we brought it. In my head, I am very unsure.

Ironically, this is as we are looking for a place to buy, which will absolutely be bigger than our 107 square meter rental. But during every real estate visit, we think of The Table. Where will The Table go? What if The Table is sporting an extra leaf? Or both extra leaves? Will The Table block the way out of the living room, like it does in our current apartment?

In some places we’ve seen, the current owners don’t even appear to have a dining room table, just stools pulled up to an island or shelf in the kitchen. This isn’t a way I can fathom living. But, at the same time, I harbor brief fantasies of owning an Israeli dining table. They are like piece of wood origami, unfolding this way and that, revealing leaves and hidden cutlery drawers. Our beautiful cherry-wood table seems clunky in comparison, and too big (seating for six, not four) in its downsized state.

Two years ago, as we were preparing to come, a friend who came as a newlywed suggested we bring as little as possible. In my head, I know she was–and is–totally right. In my heart, I can’t shake 10 years worth of Shabbat meals, birthday celebrations, and important discussions we had there. The Table…we are going to have to figure you out.

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I can guarantee you that the kids, when it comes to living in Israel, are not thinking about the Jewish continuum and their place on it.

They know they get to spend time with their cousins. (Although the six days a week of school makes it tricky.) And Taxman’s parents.

They notice their fluency in Hebrew versus my struggles. And then point them out to…whomever. Really. Their teachers, their friends, librarians, waitresses, supermarket workers. One day, 10-15-20 years from now, I hope they will be kinder about it.

Because we moved them at such a young age, they did not have the kind of roots in America that we did. Miss M missed her friends, but had no attachment to, say, an oven (sigh), or a sushi restaurant (sigh), or the way the leaves turn in the fall.

As I explained, my own awareness for their experience is dawning. But from their perspective? It’s like landing in a gan songbook.


Rakefet

Shkedia (Here’s a nice one with an approximate English translation.)

Nachlieli

(Would you believe that I cannot find a decent YouTube video of this CLASSIC? Would you also believe my children are suddenly shy about singing it for a recording device? Sheesh. The song immortalizes this cutie-pie bird, with its long and pretty tail, who runs. Instead of doing something more bird-like…flying, for example. The nachlieli is immortalized in blog here. I hereby apologize to the universe for mocking the nachlieli. They are awfully cute, they run like sandpipers, and once you’ve lived through an Israeli summer, you will take any sign of fall that you get.)

Plus:

There is always something old to climb on!

There’s the beach!

There are in-jokes involving palm trees and the beach! (I won’t repeat them because they are only funny to the kids. Trust me.)

There are caves!

There is shoko b’sakit! (Read this; you won’t be sorry./understatement…because it’s brilliant and hilarious, as usual)

So…they are fine. They are becoming the people they were meant to be. They are just doing it in Hebrew at school and English at home.

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If you’ve been following along in the U.S. day school tuition debacle (summary: it is completely unsustainable for average people to pay $10K, $20K, $30K per child per year for preschool/elementary school/high school), in every post on this topic, someone has to mention that in Israel, you can get a religious education FOR FREE.

Well, it’s not exactly for free, but it’s much, much cheaper.

Unfortunately, it’s not in a vacuum, so if you move here for the inexpensive religious education, I personally think you will be woefully disappointed.

On the financial front, Israel is an expensive country in which to live. Housing near the center of the country (Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa triangle), where most of the industry is and the bulk of the population lives: pricey. Cars and everything about them: expensive. Food: no cheaper than what you’re paying now. Salaries, if you work for an Israeli company: lower. A lot.

And that practically free religious education? Comes in classes that are probably 1.5 to 2.5 as large as what your kids are in now. With all the good and bad of public school.

Another reason that people give for making aliyah: Israel is where Jews should live. Period.

Yeah, I don’t buy that either. Jews have lived outside of this area since the destruction of the First Temple. Some people argue it’s a less fulfilling life outside of these borders. That’s probably not going to change anyone’s mind, though. People eke out a Jewish existence in all kinds of far-flung places. Who am I to judge?

We had a nice life in New York, friends, a community we liked, an apartment we liked, a pricey-but-wonderful school we liked. So aside from the emotional pull to Israel (family), what did it for me?

It was a feeling that my kids would live a more integrated Jewish life in Israel.

The Jewish life they had in New York was fine. Miss M learned all kinds of great things, Jewish things, in school. We never felt discriminated against; we never had trouble.

But here, the seasons fit with the cycle of the holidays. During Sukkot it’s not too cold to sit outside. During Pesach, no matter how “early” it falls on the secular calendar, the weather is pleasant and befits “chag ha’aviv” (the holiday of spring). Tu b’Shvat was a couple of weeks ago, the almond trees are blooming, and spring is on the way. How’s it looking in New York? Still frozen?

The language of gan and school is the language of prayer and the language of the Torah. Perhaps the language is a little more old-fashioned, because they didn’t telephone and SMS and Facebook when the prayers were arranged, but there are tens of thousands of familiar words. Their learning, at least for the first several years, will be almost seamless.

They meet Jews whose roots are from all over the world. Not as much as I would like, in this little expensive patch of suburbia, but it’s more diverse than what we left.

Every hike has history, Jewish history, underneath. Every hill has a story to tell that is relevant to my children, and how they got to this place and this time.

These are things that cannot be experienced in New York, Chicago, Alaska, London, Hong Kong, Paris, or thousands of other places on Earth.

It’s taken me time to figure it out, but my hunches are proving true. The old ad campaign, “Israel: No One Belongs Here More Than You,” is the lifestyle we chose…and we’re living it.

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Fact: You will run out of checks.

Fact: You will be completely befuddled that you have run out of checks. In a country where electronic banking is king, where online bill pay is a way of life, how is it possible that three books of 30 checks each disappear overnight?

Fact: We can blame THIS on the kids also!

It is the post-dated checks. They kill you. Unlike in America, where you are supposed to put down deposits on things like clubs and classes and pay the rest by the date of the first class, in Israel it is assumed that nobody will have the money for 10 months’ worth of anything in the bank. So you write out post-dated checks, signifying you are good for the money, but only on the first or the tenth of each month, not in a single go.

Between Miss M and AM we had to write out four five sets of post-dated checks this school year. And this is just for TWO kids. Plus our rent checks (collected in advance, natch) and checks for various other things that are collected in a clump of three or six.

And, well, we’re out. Again. So my helpful aliyah tip is: Immediately after you pick up your new checks from the bank, order a new set. Via your internet banking portal, because of course, silly!

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So I have been doing some interviewing. For jobs. Yes, I know. (Please hold your snark until the end.)

It has been a while since I have done that. My circumstances have changed.

As in: I have two children. They are young enough that they figure prominently in my life. Sometimes they need me.

(On the up side, they provide excellent blog fodder.)

(My freelance contracts, of varying length, are through people I know personally, so I never had to shy away from it.)

This is a huge difference between job searching here and job searching in America, where it is illegal for people to ask your marital status, about your family, about your future. I assume, as the job searcher, that you don’t want to reveal your hand, either, in case it could be held against you.  

When I was relatively newly wedded (<1 year), I went to job interviews wearing a fall. Not that anyone who interviewed me would have known what that meant–I didn’t hide my wedding band and engagement ring, which seems to be a more obvious tip off.

So what do you talk about, in America? How you do make small talk? How do you explain why you’ve been freelancing for 5 years without making it sound shady or criminal? Or that the interviewer won’t assume anyway? (“My circumstances changed, and I chose to work freelance.”)

I’ve yet to have anyone be nosy. The people who have interviewed me have been uniformly nice and welcoming–tell people you’ve been here “only” 15 months and they fall over themselves to congratulate you on your aliyah. (When does that go away, by the way?)

I’ve covered my hair in obvious ways, spoken freely of my kids, and indicated that less than full-time work (60-80%) is my ideal. None of this seems to be working against me. For all of its faults, Israel is a child-friendly country. Women work really hard, they don’t get equal pay (ah, the devaluation of women the world over), but I don’t see that anyone is going to penalize you for having children. (I could be wrong, of course.)

But I’m curious. How do mothers in the U.S. interview? Just talk about the weather?

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Part of the aliyah “process,” I think, is coming to terms with the fact that things are not what they once were. Sometimes Israel and America are as different as apples and oranges (schools), so don’t try to compare; you’ll just get frustrated. (Taxman and I argue about this all the time. In public, even. He says that aliyah is the answer to the day school tuition “crisis.” I say not so fast; the school experiences are too different, so it’s not a fair statement.)

But sometimes there are things that you think should be universal. Like shopping in a supermarket. Once you get over the “Why is there no Yoplait vanilla yogurt? Oh wait, there it is! But now it’s gone! (Poor Miss M!) And now Mueller has vanilla? For how long? (No matter; Miss M is happy. For the moment),” shouldn’t supermarket experiences be mostly the same?

Well, yes. And also no. It’s not apples and oranges. Perhaps grapefruit and oranges. Close, but with appreciable differences. Oh, just read this. And this.

Or how about 10-digit phone numbers? What? Isn’t a phone number…a phone number? Well, yes. But also no. Read this.

My question is: do Israelis in America have the same kind of amusing mini-adjustments? Do they have trouble with phone numbers? Do they have trouble doing all their shopping in one go and staying with their cart at all times?

Fill me in. I’ve only done this in one direction.

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You can say it in English

I have reached the point where I try to have conversations in Hebrew. (I know! Good for me!)

I can order food at a cafe, check out library books, and make my way through the supermarket in Hebrew.

I can make doctor’s appointments, have short meaningless small-talk conversations with other parents, and give my phone number in Hebrew.

I can fumble my way through life. Today I forgot my membership card to the gym and managed to explain that I had left it in another bag and could I check in without it? It wasn’t pretty, but I got my point across.

I always, always have conversations with AM’s teachers in Hebrew, even though they must know he’s an English speaker. I mean, it’s nursery school, so really nothing earth-shattering is happening there. Elementary school is a much bigger deal to me.

Admittedly, there are things I try to have conversations about in English, mostly where finances or my kids’ health/schooling is concerned. So we see English-speaking doctors and dentists and have English-speaking insurance agents and accountants. Miss M’s teacher this year was raised in an English-speaking household, and I cannot express how huge a relief this is to me. This year really feels like a watershed year, from which we will determine the course of the rest of our lives (and I exaggerate only a smidge), and to be able to check in on her education in my native language…well, two thumbs up. I had been hoping to keep that information from Miss M (that her teacher speaks English), but I was busted on the first day of school. No matter; they speak Hebrew to each other at school and that’s what counts.

Of course, sometimes I feel like an idiot, and I usually have a hard time sustaining a conversation for more than about 90 seconds, but I try.

Feeling like an idiot is not as discouraging as it used to be. I must be growing.

But you know what I hate? People who interrupt me and say, “You can say it in English.”

Sometimes I am speaking very haltingly, or trying to explain something complicated (directions to Tel Aviv happens to me a lot–not hard, once you get out of Modiin, but Modiin itself can be confusing), and then I could legitimately use the assistance.

But when the receptionist from the dentist’s office calls to ask if I want to move up AM’s appointment and I say I can’t do it on the date being offered,* why interrupt me? I didn’t ask to switch to English. I wasn’t confused or hesitant. I may have used clunky Hebrew, but this wasn’t a complicated conversation.

Now I feel like a frustrated idiot. Which is discouraging.

I kind of appreciate the opportunity to muck around and make mistakes with gendered nouns and prepositions. I usually manage to express the idea that I have intended to express. For longer conversations I will often default to English because of the whole “sounding like an idiot when I don’t think I am” problem (Hebrew being spoken to me; I just can’t translate my thoughts in my head fast enough to speak at normal speed).

Certain people are more sympathetic…longer-term immigrants, for one. I spoke to a neighbor the other day, who turned out to be here 13 years, originally from Brazil. And I stumbled along in Hebrew as she nodded and smiled and reassured me that such a huge move is easier for the kids and harder for the adults and we’d all be fine.

I don’t buy the idea what people here want to improve their English so therefore want to speak English to Anglos. All they have to do is watch TV or listen to pop music, which is lousy with English from native speakers. Really, I think they’re not willing to spend an extra minute on me. And now I’m annoyed.

* For instance. But it also happens when clothes shopping, at security, etc, etc.

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First grade is a very big deal in Israel. It is the focus of newspaper articles all through August; there are special sales in the stores; this coming Shabbat there will be a little tekes (ceremony) for all the first graders at our synagogue.

I understand the focus and the hysteria. It is, I am theorizing, the equivalent of sending your baby off to kindergarten in the United States. First time in a big school building. First time mixing with bigger kids. First time with a lot of responsibility–for themselves and their stuff and their work.

But knowing Miss M, me worrying about this, even talking about it with her a lot ahead of time, isn’t going to come close to her (and my) experience of it. We need to pass it through her headspace together. Hopefully with the cooperation of her teacher.

And furthermore, I refuse to get worked up about things because she is not nervous. At all. Unlike last year, when she was (understandably) a basket case over new house! new school! new teacher! new language! new people! new life!, this year she is walking into a classroom with familiar faces and friends. Hebrew is, from my perspective, not rolling off her tongue with ease, exactly, but it does not seem to bother her. Therefore, I? Am not getting worked up.

She is so excited to go to first grade, to pack her backpack, to wear her shirts with the school logo on them. “Ema,” she says, breathlessly, about 12 times a day, “did you know that I am going to primary school?” (Readers, did you know that she has spent the summer memorizing the key words of the Ramona oeuvre? “AM, are you cross?” she asks all the time. “That means,” she continues in a stage whisper, “are you angry?”)

I have my worries about her deportment in school in general, how she will manage to SIT and PAY ATTENTION and NOT INTERRUPT, but that is not specific to first grade or a new school/new teacher. (We are slowly trying to figure out where to go with that. I foresee future posts.)

And just to prove that the world getting a little smaller, the allergy questions have appeared here too.* Two of Miss M’s classmates have severe dairy allergies (in addition to her friend who just can’t eat it–these two can’t touch it). They are instituting a school-wide “wash hands after snack” policy, and children in Miss M’s class are not allowed to bring any dairy items in their mid-morning snack. (The ripple that went through the meeting when the principal announced this was more like a tidal wave. Taxman and I just looked at each other and shrugged, thinking we’d have swap cheese sandwiches for cucumber sandwiches.)

Miss M, who tends to eat avocado sandwiches during their season and cheese sandwiches when they’re not around, accepted this decree with surprising equanimity. “I’m lucky I’m not allergic to any food,” she said. “I’ll try peanut butter again. But I’m sad I can’t take cheese sandwiches to school.” I explained how even touching cheese could make two of her new classmates very sick, but she could still have it at home. (“Pita pizzas!” she exclaimed.) And that she was going to have to wash her hands with soap after breakfast to help keep everyone safe. “And I’ll drink a big glass of water to wash away the milk from my cereal,” she added. I thought that was kind of sweet.

I guess we’ll see if I crumble like a slab of halvah when I see my baby dressed in her school shirt for the first time. (I did get a little misty when we were at the store, watching them press on that logo.) Stay tuned.

* If you haven’t read Persephone’s posts about school policies and food and allergies and parenting, you really should.

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