Why I’m not making Aliyah

January 29, 2009 by

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Le-an atah nose’a? (To where are you traveling?), asks the automated ticket machine at the train station. The choices are not Tel Aviv, Rishon Le-Tzion, or Haifa. On the list I find my destination, Penn Station, NYC. I am standing at the Long Island Railroad train station in Hewlett, NY. One of a dozen stations where Hebrew is an option for ticket buyers. In other neighborhoods, you might find Russian or Korean. The LIRR bases its language placement on census data.

Prior to arriving at the station, I had dinner with my mother at the Jerusalem transplanted Burgers Bar, where the behind the counter, banter in Hebrew and accented English is no different than what one hears at the main branch on Emek Refaim in Jerusalem: Bli Batzal o im batzal? Eem chips o bli? (With or without onions or fries?). Burgers Bar is doing a great business in the Five Towns of Long Island, where Modern Orthodox Jews and their children go back and forth between Israel on a regular basis, and apparently according to census data, Hebrew is a spoken language in many households.

According to a Ha’aretz video report last year, little Israels exist in major areas of North America. Coincidentally (or maybe not), I lived in the three highlighted ones: Rockville, MD, Silicon Valley and NY. Of course, NY…. Where in Soho’s Café Aroma Israelis can enjoy an “Israeli breakfast” Saturday morning. But in Rockville, I have ordered coffee in Hebrew from a Starbucks barrista, while outside an Israeli-born hevre gathers for their daily schmooz. And in a vegetable store in Mountain View, CA, home of Google, I often thought I was in the Carmel Market because customers are asking each other Ha-im zeh kuzbara o petrozilia? (Cilantro or Parsley?)

As I probe my thoughts more deeply, I know that my love of Israel, my need to be in Israel frequently and for extended periods, stems from the inspiration I draw from Israel as described in Ahad Ha’am’s vision of it as a spiritual center. And, although I want to be more than a bystander in the critical debates of Israeli society, I am more at home politically in America, whose values and norms are ingrained in my worldview. Let’s not declare the American dream as victorious over the Zionist dream in my case. Instead, let’s say I am the perfect candidate for the new “flex aliyah” plan being touted by the Israeli government. Sign me up.

Culturally, Israel is now easier to access in the US than ever before. Israeli films are in film festivals or obtainable through Netflix. Satellite dishes or the internet bring Israel TV directly into your living room. For those of us who have considered aliyah at various points in our lives, having some of the best of Israel “without having to ever leave home” removes some of the desire to actualize that Zionist dream.

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