Opinion |

Israelis Who Move Back to America Gain in Money and Lose in Soul

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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New olim from North America arrive in Israel in 2015
New olim from North America arrive in Israel in 2015Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

Forty years ago today, on the 23rd of Av, 5741, of their own free will my parents and my five siblings disembarked from the plane that brought them to Israel from the United States. They left behind family, jobs that would have earned them much more money than they were paid here, more impressive careers and a house in the suburbs a few times the size of the stone building in Jerusalem where we settled.

Immigrating was traumatic. Uprooting a life and replanting it without knowing what would come of it. Outside, we were happy for the privilege to be in Israel, but inside, we missed our old home. We paid a price we wouldn’t have had to pay in America.

Israel is a country of immigrants where immigration is a taboo subject. You get a slap on the back and an Israeli ID at the airport and – yalla! – Israelis enthuse over your ability to speak a foreign language (at least if it’s a European one) and scorn your customs. Even 40 years later, you could fill the weekend magazine with stories about the encounter between the American rectitude and the Israeli corner-cutting, about the sense of foreignness and strangeness, about hypercriticism and Orientalism.

Still, there’s nothing like being in Israel. We were fortunate to come. There’s no place more natural for a Jew to live. Israel is home. Israel is the place and the destination. So natural. Israel isn’t a refuge from pogroms and the Holocaust. There are parts of Israel that are more dangerous than parts of Manhattan.

But that isn’t why we came. Israel is, first and foremost, a sense of belonging, of taking part in creating something. There’s no dual loyalty, no alienation. You don’t have to apologize for being Jewish. It’s the fulfillment of the vision of generation upon generation that my ancestors, unlike my parents, didn’t have the privilege to fulfill.

Israel is family. You feel a sense of closeness even with complete strangers. It’s oppressive, but also loving. It’s an investment. People give more of themselves to ensure that the experiment will be successful. Israel is friendship. Even the most venomous politicians couldn’t break the bonds between people, despite their efforts.

Israel is love. It stirs emotions. It causes joy in times of beauty and pain in times of darkness. In Israel, you’re a part of it: My parents were 50 percent, I’m 90 percent and my children are 100 percent Israeli. It’s a country that you live in, not alongside of. It’s developing. It’s a story that’s still being written, and everyone can write their own chapter.

Fifty percent of the immigrants from my parents’ generation returned to the United States, as did two of my siblings. Our neighborhood in Jerusalem, which in the ‘80s was mainly native English speakers, has slowly filled with immigrants from other places.

In the summer, when the olim who returned to the United States come to visit, the shame of failure is slowly replaced by the pride of success, of talk of how much better their life is in America than it was here. Guilt feelings are exchanged for a fat wallet. They pay half what we do for an iPhone, a river runs past their house, they have money in hedge funds, a summer home at Virginia Beach, and they eat bagels with lox and cream cheese at the annual conference of the JCC Association of North America.

So what? They’re right on the tactical level but they’re wrong on the strategic level. If I worked for The New York Times I’d earn 10 times what I do today. But I would be at The New York Times, not Haaretz. Money can buy a lot of things, but not soul and spirit.

To this day I haven’t met anyone who has returned to America and whose return has expanded his or her soul the way the soul expands when you lie in your bed at home in Israel. Or, as lovers say, quoting from Song of Songs: “When I found him whom my soul loves, I held on to him and would not let him go.” Here’s to 40 more years.

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