What It's Like to Be a Jew in Israel vs. Abroad, According to a French Immigrant

A French mom talks about moving to Israel with three young kids and no partner; two Israeli childhood friends describe their joint midlife crisis

Milena Sidon and Lilian Stein.
Tomer Appelbaum

Milena Sidon, 27, and Lilian Stein, 56, from Tel Aviv; Lilian is flying to Paris

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in France?

Lilian: I’m going to visit my mother. She’s 82 and she’s Israeli, but now she lives in Paris.

Where are you from originally?

Lilian: I’m French; I came to Israel 20 years ago from Canada. I lived in Montreal, but only for a decade. I went to Montreal from France and I’m going to France now. Full circle.

Tomer (the photographer): You seem to play a lot of musical chairs in the family.

Lilian: Yes, but it’s not clear to what music.

What did you do in Canada?

Lilian: We immigrated there 30 years ago, by chance.

Who is “we”?

Lilian: I was married. We were supposed to go for only a year, but in the end we stayed 10 years and had three children there.

Why did you leave?

Lilian: It’s a bit complicated. Basically, I got divorced and then I came to Israel.

I’m all for complicated.

Milena: What my mother isn’t mentioning is that she’s a lesbian. From her point of view, that’s just an integral part of what she is, like being Jewish/French/Canadian/Israeli.

Okay, that sounds simple. When did you immigrate to Israel?

Milena: In 1996, when I was in the first grade, to Jerusalem. We lived in the Talpiot neighborhood. My mother enrolled me in a religious primary school and afterward in a religious high school, even though we weren’t observant at home.

What was the reason?

Milena: I think it’s because in Canada we had been in Jewish schools. In fact, in Canada we were more closely connected to our Jewish identity, because when you’re a minority you care more. For example, our French relatives are very much connected to religion, it’s really important for them. When we resist observing Shabbat and things like that, they don’t understand that here religion is more a political thing.

Lilian: Here you have to choose sides, you can’t just be plain traditionalist, you have to decide.

Decide what?

Lilian: For example, whether to observe the holidays or not. Abroad no one asks. Everyone does it.

Are you happy you came here?

Milena: A year before we came to Israel, [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated. I don’t understand how anyone can immigrate to a country where a prime minister is murdered. It sounds so unstable.

Lilian: Well, I myself wasn’t all that stable at the time. But I had really good memories from the past in Israel, and my sister was in Jerusalem, so we lived there. I didn’t know exactly how things work here, otherwise I would have gone to Tel Aviv.

Milena: My mother moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv just a few months ago.

Lilian: That’s a serious migration, too.

Lilian, what will you do in Tel Aviv?

Lilian: I’m an editor and translator, but I’m going to teach in a very good school. It’s an international school where 20 percent of the students are Palestinians, 20 percent are Jews and the rest are from all over the world.

What about you, Milena?

Milena: I’m doing a master’s degree in gender studies at Tel Aviv University, and now I am looking for subjects for the thesis. My topic is a bit niche-oriented.

In what direction?

Milena: I started in gender and I got into Judith Butler. I’m also thinking of going back to school in Canada. The gender programs there are more developed.

And you obviously have Canadian citizenship.

Milena: I have French, Canadian and Israeli citizenships. Maybe I have to do something with that, but it requires courage.

I would say you have courage in your genes – after all, your mother came here with three small children.

Lilian: You might think it took courage, but I just did it. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. In the last second before we left, I submitted my doctoral thesis.

Milena: It was divorce, doctorate, move to Israel.

Real efficiency.

Milena: I remember that during the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, when buses blew up, I would ask, “Mom, if there’s a real war, will we go back?”

Lilian: And I would say that if there was a real war we would go back, but it’s sometimes hard to know whether you should go or not. It’s not always clear when it’s a real war.

Meir Maloul and Dudu Sasson.
Tomer Appelbaum

Meir Maloul, 39, from Moshav Nahalal, and Dudu Sasson, 40, from Eilat; arriving from Tbilisi, Georgia

Hello, can I ask where you know each other from?

Meir: We’re childhood friends, from seventh grade in Migdal Ha’emek. We’ve been close ever since.

Dudu: We were in a basketball group together. He passed, I scored a basket and it went on from there.

Where to?

Dudu: Our paths split. After the army, I went to Eilat to take a subsidized job for discharged soldiers and I stayed because of the sea. It’s really calm. Eilat really is a bubble.

What do you do?

Dudu: I’ve worked for the Isrotel hotel chain for 20 years, and I also freelance as an organizer of birthday parties for children. I am “Dudu Agadudu.”

Meir: I’m married and have four children, and I have a company that treats sewage for industrial use.

So tell me: How’s the water in the taps?

Meir: The water is perfectly fine. I drink tap water and I believe that children should drink it, too, so their body will learn how to accommodate all the dreck.

How was your trip?

Meir: We knew we were going in the off-season, and when we got there we discovered that the weather was not in our favor.

Dudu: At first it was cold and rainy, so we rented a jeep. Then we got used to the weather and even did treks in the rain. It was a pleasure.

Where did you sleep?

Meir: When you travel in Georgia, you go to homes. We took a tent with us, but you just sleep in a family’s home, next to the kid’s room. They adore Israelis and they take 30 shekels [about $8.50] a night, and some people will host you for free.

Dudu: The cost of living there is incredibly cheap. In Tbilisi we ate amazing meals for 60 shekels.

Meir: What you get for your money in Georgia is totally disproportionate to anything.

How long were you there?

Meir: We only had eight days, so we focused on two areas, Kazbegi and Svaneti. Svaneti is the most popular tourist trek in Georgia and it’s amazing, out of this world. The snow-covered mountains, the clouds, water flowing in every direction – you can’t stop being thrilled. You feel like you’re seeing things beyond three dimensions.

Dudu: On the way there, we stopped every five minutes to take pictures, because every new bend looks completely different. There’s also an iceberg that we climbed. The truth is that it was a crappy route.

Why crappy?

Dudu: Unfortunately for us, the iceberg was covered by clouds and fog, but we didn’t give up. The way there was terrific, the problem was when we came back in total darkness.

Dudu: We got back wet, wearing head-lamps, and we held axes in case some animal surprised us.

Were you afraid?

Dudu: There, yes.

Meir: It’s an unpleasant situation, dark and cold; you try not to stumble.

What do you do when things get scary?

Meir: Speed up.

Dudu: Hold hands.

That’s sweet. Do you travel a lot together?

Meir and Dudu: This was the “age-40 crisis” trip.

Meir: When I was young I remember hearing Ehud Banai’s song “The Boy Is 30,” and I thought, He’s really old. Now I say that I wish I were 30.

What does the crisis include?

Meir: I went to learn guitar playing, I did a transcendental meditation workshop.

Dudu: You want to make sure you try things, get out of the routine.

Meir: You want to do a reset or restart, and suddenly things that were hidden appear. It’s important for me to feel at a peak now, mentally and physically. That I’m not getting weaker or slowing down. Not to say, “Wow, I’m 40, I won’t be picked for the soccer team.” It’s fighting against time, doing things that fly in the face of time. Suddenly I want a tattoo, I bought a new car, but those are only attempts to calm down. The trip was also a kind of instant solution.

I know what you mean. Do you think it will ever calm down?

Meir: In the end, it passes because it passes. It’s a kind of dimension that grows stronger, but you learn to ignore it. And we lead very happy lives.

Dudu: And now it’ll cost us a trip with the wives.