There’s No Place in the World for Middle-aged Jews, Except Israel

Neri Livneh is lured by Berlin, but won't join the masses living there.

Three days from now I’m flying off to Berlin − just for a week though, unfortunately. Here is a list of the purchases I was asked to bring back: Virginia tobacco for rolling cigarettes (4 euros instead of NIS 65-70‏); cheeses like Camembert, Roquefort, Gouda, Gruyere and Saint Mor ‏(average price 2.4 euros, compared to NIS 40-NIS 50 here‏); honey ‏(1.80 euros for a half-kilo jar‏); thick and delicious Turkish yogurt ( ‏3 euros per liter‏); and as many bottles of arak as I can carry (1.5 euros each).

In Berlin, I eat out every day, sometimes twice a day, without suffering a minor heart attack when the check comes. Also, I’m overcome by waves of envy and anger whenever I go into a supermarket − not just because of the cheap prices but because of the invariably polite and friendly cashiers who wish each and every customer a good morning or good evening, and thank them for paying, thus inducing a similar show of manners from the clientele. Whenever I come back from Berlin, I make the mistake, out of habit, of offering a warm greeting to the cashier at my local supermarket, a gesture that usually meets with a glassy, perplexed stare.

But anyone who’s read my columns knows that it’s not the cheap prices, the superb public transportation, the polite people, the abundance of museums, the beautiful parks, the terrific murals and myriad cultural attractions that really draw me to Berlin. Nor is it because of the chance to finally stride safely down the sidewalk without fear of being run down by a cyclist, as happened just a week ago to one of my girlfriends on Frishman Street in Tel Aviv. She needed surgery to set the arm that she fractured when she was knocked to the sidewalk.  In Berlin, as in other such civilized places, cyclists use special bike paths that have been created for them on the street, and would never dream of going up on the sidewalk where they are a menace to pedestrians − pedestrians like myself and all the other Tel Avivians who have to constantly look around in every direction in hopes of avoiding danger.

I’m going to Berlin because some of the people who are dearest to me in this world live there. I don’t know how long they’ll continue living there, but I know that if I were their age, I’d move there myself, or to some other country worthy of being called a democracy and in which there is a complete separation of religion and state. But at this point, I’ll remain in Israel, for as the German poet wrote: “You can make a new start, even with your last breath, but the water you have poured into the wine you cannot pour back out.”

I’ll stay in Israel even though I still have plenty of time ‏(or so I hope‏) until I draw my last breath. Because I’ve been here for too many years, because I don’t have the energy to make major changes in my life, and because all of my social ties are here. And, mainly, because I’m in love with the Hebrew language. Hebrew is my true home. I’ll stay in Israel because I’ve aged and because, like a foolish gambler in the stock market, I’m ready to spend more and more money to try to redeem the lost funds I already invested in a stock that turned out to be a failure.

Too many of my friends are doing the same thing. It’s easier for them than it is for me, because they’ve already learned the trick of creating for themselves a private bubble of political alienation, in which they sink deep into an internal exile. They’ve stopped reading newspapers and watching the news on television; they only get together with people who think like they do.

To enable themselves to feel they still maintain some control over their lives in a country that isn’t the one they prayed for when they were children and teenagers and young adults, these folks create all kinds of frameworks. They stop drinking milk or eating gluten, they do yoga or go to the gym − and above all, they keep planning their next trip to the airport, to the place that boasts the most beautiful view in Israel: the one on the other side of the passport control booths.

But I, as someone whose curiosity is going to kill her one of these days, can’t be like them. I read papers ‏(and write in them‏), watch the news and am terribly saddened to see that only one thing is sure: It’s going to get worse before it gets a lot worse. Not that I haven’t tried to change. I went to all the right demonstrations, I wrote all the right things, I voted the right way, I did my part, and like a good Zionist woman, I went to the army. I became an officer, I lost a horrifying number of classmates as well as a few relatives in the Yom Kippur War, I got married, I had three terrific sons, I made sure they wore their gas masks and sang them cheerful songs, I lived with them in Jerusalem in the heart of the area hit by terror attacks and, because they said it was important, I tried not to get hysterical.

And what did we get in the end? A country in which the only ones who can hope for something are those who believe in the morality of being an occupying nation or in the superiority of the Jews over all other peoples ‏(and there is overlap between the two groups‏), who want to live in a xenophobic theocracy, with a government in which the politicians − like Benjamin Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid − ask not what they can do for the citizenry but what the citizenry can do for the state. For themselves, in other words. And so the politicians get angry at anyone who dares to make the sober decision to leave this place, to announce that he doesn’t want to continue working in a failed enterprise whose goals are far from his own. Instead of trying to improve the working conditions in this place and altering its goals, they get mad at those people. As Lapid has kept saying: There’s no place else in the world for Jews.

There may not be anywhere else in the world for middle-aged Jews. Our ability to find employment abroad is very limited. But if I were a few decades younger I’d would go and try to start anew somewhere else, not because it’s a lot cheaper to live, necessarily, but mainly because there it is still possible to dream, to plan a better future for one’s children. I failed in that. I’m leaving my children a much worse country than the one my parents left me.

Avi Ofer