On casting my lot: 10 life lessons about making aliyah, after a decade in Israel

I arrived here ten years ago today.

Ten years in Israel. A decade living here, a decade not living anywhere else.

A few years back, I shed the term ‘aliyah’ from my personal experience vocabulary. It wasn’t a conscious decision but it slowly crept through as I realized living here and making it here is way more than ‘aliyah’ as the word has come to be packaged and sold.

But I’m breaking out the a-word for this list I deserve to write after a decade of making it in Israel. For the pride I feel as a successful American expat, as a successful implant into the place I know as home.

Am I assuming I know so much and have so much wisdom to impart? Yes.

Or, as my Israeli persona might say it, pashut mageya li.

Ten Life Tips for Making It in Israel (according to me):

1. Dream big but manage expectations

In 2004, you know what I wanted to be when I’d grow up? Some sort of political savior, the bringer of peace and light, a lone voice of reason in the Middle East.

In 2015, you know what I want to be when I grow up? A seeing eye dog trainer.

Wanting to be a part of change in the world got me part of the way here. It wasn’t the only thing that got me here – adventure, ideology, travel, leaving home, the potential to build my adult life a little differently. A healthy dose of idealism is a good thing. A healthy dose of realism is a very good thing.

As long as it’s healthy, hold on to your idealism loosely enough to still realize you’re going to be taking buses and paying taxes on a daily basis.

2. It’s easier if you’re easygoing

Keep your options open. This is probably a piece of advice new olim get a lot and ignore the most. Or not, but I’ve definitely seen it around me over the years. People who are stuck on an idea, stuck to a career path, stuck to lifelong notions of what living in Israel means. Stuck to who they were, stuck to who they thought they’d be by now. Stuck to assumptions made by the time they were filling in immigration application forms.

It’s not just ‘life is more easygoing in the Middle East’ or some Mediterranean culture thing. It’s about making a big move in life and throwing as much flexibility at it as you can handle. Discomfort outside the box means you’re doing something right!

3. Let go of pride

It’s a tough one, even on the best of days. I had pride problems long before I moved to another country where just about everything is done differently. If we can master this one, we can have a great time getting through the everyday challenges of being a new immigrant. Learn from everyone. Learn from the old ladies at the bus stop. Learn from the sabra kids.

And speaking of hurt pride…

4. Speak Hebrew. Speak more Hebrew. Even on your worst Hebrew days.

Ten years in I still have bad Hebrew days. Like, really really bad Hebrew days. Like I’m not that hot to trot on a typical day – I’ll always sound like an immigrant – but there are those days you’re on the phone with some customer service rep and you’ll hear the wrong tense or male/female mistakes coming out of your mouth – really 101 stuff – and think, wtf?!

Blame the parenting exhaustion, blame the lack of TV, blame the circle of friends I keep.

I have this rule. The only professional I am allowed to ask to speak in English with is a medical one. And even there, I don’t use it all the time. For instance, I gave birth to my first and third kids in Hebrew.

But it happens. And even when I’m so fucking exhausted because the baby hasn’t slept in a week and we’re sitting at the doctor and I’m begging the Universe to just have him switch to English to relieve me of my personal hell, well… he doesn’t. And I keep going.

5. Come with a viable career path or create one

The last job I had in the States – after my university stints in journalism and activism – was totally utilitarian. Its purpose was to get me cash to get me as far as I could paying rent in Jerusalem. I was an English and Political Science major in university, and I had no freakin clue what my next job would be if I were to remain in the States. In fact, I hadn’t even given it a thought. I was going to be a political wunderkind in Israel, remember?

But I got here, and after arousing from a 6 month haze, I started job searching for real. I spent a month chipping away at job boards and submitting cvs every day. A few interviews. Then I threw my cv into the wind and I got super, but incredibly, but insanely lucky with the job I landed.

Funny thing – I was hired because of the journalism experience, as a… marketing manager at a startup.

I had no clue about startups. I was supposed to save the whales. I thought I was selling out. I thought I had no clue about marketing. But I was wrong – my timing was great for getting involved in online marketing, where the spirit of a college activist can really take flight in the hi tech world. And gaining these skills sets me on a path to help my causes in other ways, in my spare time and my current job.

Ten years later, I’m still here with a career. I got insanely lucky with the opportunity but see #2 above.

6. Not everyone is out to get you (or, complain but then stop complaining)

Ah, immigrant life. So much to laugh about. So much to scream about.

Israel – what a country, huh?!

Laugh, cry, tell jokes, complain once in a while… just don’t overdo it. It’ll eat you up. I see threads in anglo groups on Facebook bitching out living here and I think, really? You’re going to let it eat you up?

People are people. Maybe it’s because I come from NYC. Everyone is out to get you, no one is out to get you. There are assholes taking advantage of people every where in the world.

Some people here try to take advantage of you. Some people elsewhere try, too. And most people are just looking out for #1 – including, well, me and you.

Have a sigh, have a laugh, have a cry and move on.

7. It’s not really only ‘making aliyah’; it’s also becoming an expat

Every immigrant has multiple personalities. You have your native one while in your native country, you have your immigrant one in your new country. You have your ‘Old Country’ one while hanging with your buddies from the Old Country in your new country.

Embrace it. We get to be a lot of things to different people. We are by default somewhat worldly. We have a level of life experience.

When all those taxi drivers ask why the hell you moved here when you’re from New York, for instance, they have no clue. You had another life. You have reasons. You have dreams. Proudly answer him. Represent your whole identity.

8. Be true to yourself: don’t lose yourself but lose yourself a little bit

I like to joke, except I’m not joking, that in English, I’m Liz, in my 30s, with a couple university degrees and world travel behind me, with life experience, with an opinion to share. In Hebrew, I’m Elisheva, a five-year-old in kindergarten who needs speech therapy.

But over the years, overcoming my pride, I’ve learned to embrace it. It is what it is. I am worth more than the quality of my second language, of my lack of native childhood, of my working hard to make it work here.

There’s a lot to me. I’m ok with all those sides. I’m not going to be anything that I’m not – I’m not gonna fake it, pretend I can roll my resh (huuuge pet peeve and I’m not alone here), be more sassy than I am, blow up at people because I’m trying to be ‘Israeli.’

I know many shy, quiet Israelis, by the way.

Be yourself. Sometimes, be a spicy version of yourself. Enjoy yourself. Let other people enjoy who you are.

9. Maintain various immigrant lifelines

Build friendships with all kinds of people, but speaking of the immigrant community specifically, all kinds of other immigrants. Have a few vatikim in your pocket, ranging from ‘got here last year’ to ‘got here five years ago’ to ‘holy crap how many wars have you lived through?!’

Ask, take and give advice. When you’ve been here long enough, be the vatik to a good number of off-the-boats.

10. Take it one fucking day at a time

To my fellow expats, my fellow olim, my fellow vatikim – how awesome is this? How insane are we, to pick up and travel somewhere and label it home? To go in the way that many many humans have throughout history? To live where we choose to live? To defy our birth country, our mother tongue?

We all have something in common, we made a choice to take a chance. And it may work out for you and me – and may not work out for either of us, whether after a year, five, ten or 50.

We’re all mad here – we’re all laughing till we cry, crying till we laugh, rolling our eyes at how corrupt our government is, trying to be heard, trying to make a decent living wage, balking at the price of cottage cheese one day, praising our tight-knit relationship to the cab driver the next. We’re angry, we’re ecstatic, we’re depressed. We’re running to bomb shelters, we’re dancing in public streets holding a Torah.

We’re now Israeli. We were something else. But each of us, one way or another, have cast our lot with this crazy place, the gathering of the Jewish people, Israel.

lizrael update: the expat-makes-a-visit edition

Living in Israel (and probably many other countries as an American expat) is an exercise in being happy with what you have, and I feel lucky to have even scratched the surface of that sentiment.

Occasionally the conversation comes up with fellow expats here and I’m no longer surprised to admit that I’m happier here than I imagine I would be in the States.

Last week I returned with the kids from a trip to the US where we mainly visited with family, which is actually the sole serious issue I have with living far away from the place I grew up. The family aspect was lovely. It’s soaking in as much familiarity and nostalgia and new memories as I can in as little time as two weeks out of the year.

Each time I go back for a visit, I feel a certainty that I made the right choice, which I think is so incredibly valuable when you’ve made a life-altering decision. This time, it barely even crossed my mind to contemplate it; it was a given.

Some of the time, I view America the way lots of people who don’t live there view it. The politics creep me out. The culture shocks me. The values confuse me.

And when I’m in New York, I’m overwhelmed. The supermarkets are heavy. The malls are filled with stuff for sale that makes me sad. The maternity and daycare situation is dismal. The nightly news is frightening. I’m looking over my shoulder. I’m filled with mistrust.

I think maybe I was always overwhelmed until I left. Surely not every born New Yorker has a New York soul. Not every American feels at home. A lot of the reasons people cite for what’s great about living in the States don’t compel me.

I’m happy to be lucky to be happy with what I have.