About Israelis’ love affair with overseas

October 12, 2008 by

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Just got back from a week in Australia – an English-speaking land where I heard only Hebrew. It felt like the whole Jewish professional world there was made of ex-Israelis (except when they were ex-South Africans). The foreword of a leading book on the Ozzie Jewish community, New Under the Sun, marvels at the fact that there are more Israelis in Australia than there are Australians in Israel. Come to think of it, I bet that’s the case in the UK and in the States as well. Ex-pat Israelis are the secret influx to Jewish communities around the world.

On pondering this, I was reminded of the time I once found myself in an Israeli business meeting. I knew it was an Israeli business meeting, because at some point we both of us – complete strangers up until that point – had pulled out photos of our kids. He said to me: “Why do you think Israeli children are so beautiful? Because they’re only produced for export…” It was one of those painful jokes that only Israelis can tell to each other. We know, it’s a tough place to choose to continue to live.

But the tales of those leaving Israel for a year, for five, for good – they are never quite so clear-cut as statistics show. All anecdotal evidence (an oxymoron, I know, but this is Israel) suggests that even Israelis living abroad for more than ten years still have plans to return. For some, this is just an old joke. I have been recited the Hagashash Hahiver sketch so many times, I’ve begun to believe I made it up:

– We’re definitely going back to Israel. Any minute. We’re sitting on our suitcases. We’ll be back. Just as soon as the kid finishes college.

– How old is he?

– Three years old…

But sometimes this ‘planning to return’ is just another expression of the deep sadness Israelis tend to take with them when they leave this place. A sadness that in the end, draws them home. A great new Israeli pop song by Alma Zohar has taken up residence on the radio stations. It talks of a woman receiving a phone call in the middle of the night from the forgotten lover she met on her travels. Miguel, with whom she shared teepees and canoes, sings to her in broken English of his love for her.

She sadly admits that her affair with Miguel was “only possible in a faraway land”. She had left Miguel to return to Israel, and to her old lover. Her affectionate yet resigned description of her relationship with her lover – like a scratch on a disc, or a rut that she’s been stuck in for years – could equally describe her relationship with Israel in general. She asks exasperatedly, how can she explain to a Native American what it means to be bound to wars, to recessions, to unbearably hot desert winds?

The character in Zohar’s song has only recently returned to Israel from her long travels. She’s still disorientated, hasn’t fully landed though she’s been in the country for months. All she knows is that her love affair with abroad, with ‘outside the land’ as the Hebrew has it, is something that while enchanting, is not deep or complex or dark enough to satisfy her soul.

It would be nice to think that our wandering youths will return to Israel because they miss their mother’s cooking, or the spires of Jerusalem’s towers (as Yehoram Gaon once sang, and was later souped-up by Shaygets), but I guess a longing, a painful, complicated tug on their souls might be the best we can expect right now.

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