Who Would Really Move to Israel Now?

I stalked the family about to make aliyah from their comfortable lives in Manhattan: Did they realize the price of the 'belonging' they sought, joining the Israeli cauldron of sadness, violence and dissonance?

vered kellner
Vered Kellner
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A vigil in remembrance of three kidnapped Israeli boys in New York City, June 30, 2014.
A vigil in remembrance of three kidnapped Israeli boys in New York City, June 30, 2014.Credit: AFP
vered kellner
Vered Kellner

On Saturday afternoon, about a day after the Jewish world was flooded with the terrible news of the kidnapping of the three teens in Gush Etzion, several dozen people gathered in Manhattan’s Central Park to bid farewell to a member of their community — a father, mother and four children — who, later that week, packed up 15 suitcases and got on a plane to start a new life in Israel.

The phrase “new life” may sound like a flowery, pathos-filled phrase, but how else can one describe this decision by a family to whom life had given comfortable jobs, a renovated apartment in the heart of Manhattan, a lively Jewish community and kids in some of the best schools around to uproot itself from all this cushioned comfort and try to strike roots in the rocky, belligerent soil somewhere 20 minutes away from Tel Aviv (when there’s no traffic)?

In the weeks before they left, I could not take my eyes off them. I followed them on Facebook and peeked at them in the synagogue, trying to pick out from among their words and glances the reason why they were taking such a dramatic step. The fact that they appeared to be people who had a sober view of the world and a healthy measure of irony made me all the more engrossed by their decision. When I could no longer keep my curiosity in check, I decided simply to ask them directly: Why? The father responded to my email with alacrity. I assume the words had been forming in his mind for some time. Here’s the jist of what he wrote:

“I love NYC — NYC is in my blood and I’m a New Yorker through and through. Also, I love America. As a Jew, I’m particularly grateful for the freedom and opportunities America has offered the Jews.

All that being said, Israel is the home of the Jewish people. I think there’s something special about the Jewish people, and I think Israel is where the Jewish people can best realize their potential. Interestingly, I say this not as a true believer — I’m not particularly religious and my beliefs aren’t particularly strong — but based on the historical evidence. The Jews have contributed much good to humankind, and I’d like to think there’s much more to come. I want to be part of this process and I want my kids to participate as well. I also think that it’s a better place for kids to grow up. It’s not perfect — I’m very concerned about the schools — but I think the whole package will be better for the kids.

Finally, Israel is also an exciting place to live. I crave excitement. I would just die in an American suburb.”

As a veteran Israeli, seventh-generation to be exact, these reasons sounded almost like a personal compliment. They want to be part of something bigger, that same big something in which I grew up. They want their children to grow up in the charisma-filled Israeli cauldron — the one that generates new headlines every day, where there is never a dull moment, one that overflows with an abundance of existential panic. They want to live in a place where deep questions of identity assault its inhabitants, whether they like it or not, and make them ‘more rounded’ people. When we look at Israel from that angle, it sure looks particularly appealing.

During the days after they left, I continued following their posts on Facebook: Their first Shabbat in Israel, the morning run along a new route, the surfing course with the children, the first encounter with the neighbors’ habit of double-parking. I tried to figure out what this stirring and significant thing was that they wanted to be a part of. The Israeli drama with its endless acts, where you always think you have reached a lull only to be drenched in a flood of tears of belonging, a storm of unmediated intimacy bound up with the pain of alienation. All of it in one big mess.

If that is what they yearn for, then they landed in Israel during the right week. Right into the midst of the Israeli “we” that gathers for mass prayer, dives deeply into the terrible sadness and shared fate with the families of those three boys, whose fate was unknown for the first two weeks. It is not that there were no organized prayers in New York. There certainly were. But why settle for a seat in the balcony when you can have one in the orchestra? Where the cries of the kidnapped boys who were murdered still echo in the ears of those left behind?

Is this the imaginary “we” that they want to connect to? Is this the “there” I want to go back to with my family?

Yes: After two years in New York, I miss the Israeli pressure cooker. I miss those bipolar emotions that always got on my nerves. But I’m already addicted, a lost cause. I cannot exist without my daily dose of that craziness. But what about the new immigrants — the ones who choose it? Do they understand that the feelings of belonging they so yearn for are chains of steel that they can never break out of? Are they aware of the price?

I am not referring to the unfathomable price in blood, since it can lie in wait for anyone, anywhere. Rather, I am referring to a different kind of price: The possibility that alongside a life filled with meaning, they might also end up raising children who have been brainwashed and saturated with militarism. The sensitivities and nuances that are part of a delicate and deep discourse can easily be replaced by punchlines of unadulterated kitsch.

I am not arguing with the idea that an American suburb has the potential to be boring, but maybe I should have told them that living in the heart of this storm is not only exhausting but also liable to create people who, just from overstimulation of their “meaningfulness glands,” have developed a syndrome of apathy and dissonance that takes the form of compulsive viewing of “Game of Thrones” episodes while being shocked at the amount of violence that they see... violence always somewhere far, far off, away in the comfortably fictional kingdom of Westeros.

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York two years ago.

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