Israel, for better and for worse

Today, Monday, is the first day of the rest of my life, even though I arrived here three days ago. Friday was the eve of Rosh Hashana – the Jewish new year – and so I got a grace period during which I got to enjoy Jerusalem at its best.

And yet, as I sit here three days later, I feel as though I’ve been plucked out of North America and suddenly I find myself sitting in Aroma, a tasteful and tasty café, in the German Colony in Jerusalem. My sister in law Tania is sitting across from me at the table going through her ulpan notes. She’s going to study for her Hebrew exam that she has tomorrow and I will try to catch up here.

Oh, but what excitement in Jerusalem today! It is the day after Rosh Hashana, a two day holiday, and I am trying to figure out if the number of people sitting in the café and all along Emek Refa’im in the restaurants, is normal or exceptionally high because it’s the day after the whole country’s Jewish population celebrated our new year.

Where to start when I haven’t had the opportunity to write in so long. I guess I can start at the end. Today the café at the corner of our street is closed to business because they are filming Srugim there. I seriously think I’m convinced that much of what is going on in Israel since my arrival is in honour of my coming home. Srugim is a very popular Israeli TV show about the Orthodox community. From what I hear, it’s basically a soap opera religious style. It won a big Israeli award so it seems it’s popular in the general public, not only with religious people.

It takes place in Jerusalem but it’s very exciting to have our café in it! And now, Tania just got a call from a friend, asking her if she wanted to be an extra in the show tomorrow, when they film at the Botanical Gardens. How exciting!

My time in Toronto was really enjoyable. I got to spend lots of time with family and also saw a Vancouver friend, Jenny, while I was there. It was so interesting to see how at peace I felt about the move. It was no longer an inner struggle at all. It was just a matter of saying goodbye to people and saying goodbye to Canada. I was happy to be able to get a small taste of autumn – more in Vancouver than in Toronto – and, in general, a last taste of the beautiful Canadian nature. What an awesome country.

But by the time I left, it wasn’t heartbreaking. It wasn’t as if I felt withdrawal from the things I was leaving behind. I went through such an intense process leading up to my decision, where I worked through a virtual list of the things I was afraid about leaving and afraid about coming up against in Israel, that I’d come to terms with pretty much all of them, at least in theory. How I’ll deal with things now that I’m here, that we shall have to wait and see.

So I didn’t feel terribly sad about leaving the nature of northern North America behind. I just felt the need to officially part from it. What a wonderful country Canada is.

I’m amazed that while I wasn’t capable of considering moving back to Israel, I didn’t really connect to the nature here. It just seemed so barren and dry. But since I decided I wanted to come back, my feelings about it have changed. When we landed in Tel Aviv, I really found the landscape beautiful. It’s like it suddenly got much greener than the last time I was here and whatever isn’t green – if it’s brown or beige or grey – still seems pretty to me.

Speaking of dry, we had a very exciting blessing over Rosh Hashana. It poured! Again, I felt like it was in honour of my arrival. I know it’s silly. When I told my dad that I think it’s raining because I came back, he said that he thinks it rains every time he sneezes. :) I know it’s self-centred and strange, but that is how it feels to me. It’s as if I carried a bottle of the rainy-ness with me from Vancouver and threw it into the sky once I arrived here. No one I’ve spoken to, including myself, can remember it ever raining here on Rosh Hashana. The rain here is very powerful because it lives up to the saying, “When it rains, it pours.” It is so intense, falling in big raindrops, as if it’s trying to make a dent in the pavement. On Rosh Hashana it poured on and off for a couple of days.

After shul on the second day (Sunday), we had to stand by the doorway of the synagogue, waiting for it to let up. It did but we still had to cross the street which was a river from the few minutes of rain. Good thing I wore my flip-flops!

The first night of Rosh Hashana we had a big crowd of guests. We ate on our mirpeset, our very big balcony that overlooks some of the hilly neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. It was so beautiful and peaceful. This is one word that keeps popping into my head when I think about Israel. Amazing how a place that in the news is a place of stress, wars and missiles, in real life is a place of vibrancy, living life to its fullest, raw human interaction and, yes, peacefulness. How do Israelis succeed in doing this? Living in a country abundant with problems but yet still living and growing and trying to be all we can be? I’m deeply impressed and I want to understand it more.

How funny. At this moment I’m idealizing Israel big-time. It’s hard to consistently idealize this country because there are so many trials here, but it’s nice to see its beauty whenever possible. I hope that as I need to deal with day-to-day life here more and more, I’ll be able to continue seeing the beauty of the country and the people here.

Anyway, first night of Rosh Hashana. We had family friends over. These are people who went out of their way to befriend us immediately when we arrived in Israel in 1990. They have been caring friends ever since. During dessert I desperately had to go lie down on the couch because, with all the travelling and jetlag, I hadn’t slept normally in a few days. I lay down and Rachel, my little sister, came and lay down next to me. It was around 10:15pm on Friday and I was transported in my mind to exactly a week earlier. It was 12:15pm on Friday in Vancouver (with the 10-hour time difference) and I was sitting at lunch with the clients at L’Chaim. I told them that I was amazed by the idea that in exactly a week from that moment, I’d be sitting with my family at the Rosh Hashana table in Jerusalem. I remember getting teary-eyed from the thought. And now, it really was true!

Saturday morning, when I wished I was sleeping but my jetlag kept me awake, I heard the mu’ezin at around 4:30 in the morning. This is the Muslim call to prayer. I’ve always liked the sound of the mu’ezin. Sunday morning, I wasn’t up for the mu’ezin but I did get to hear the bells from the monastery in the park next to my parents’ house. And, of course, I could hear the prayers through the open windows of my bedroom from the Safardik synagogue one block down from our apartment. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, when it wasn’t Shabbat anymore, one could hear the shofars blowing all morning, into the early afternoon.

There is religious freedom under Jewish rule because no matter how religious a Jew is, we do not believe that anyone else needs to practice religion as we do. We expect the world to be moral but we don’t care if Muslims or Christians pray differently or believe in different things. As long as they are peaceful. Israel can never be what it is under the rule of any other religious group. Um, not that Jews are exactly a religious group. But that’s a whole other topic.

All of Rosh Hashana the streets were quiet besides people walking to and from shul and to and from holiday meals with family and friends. Especially immediately following services at the millions of synagogues in my neighbourhood, the streets were full with people walking. There was only the sporadic car. Did I mention peaceful?

Despite all the excitement and beauty I see around me, I’m scared. Last night, when the holiday ended, I felt like then was the real start to my new life in Israel. Then begins the building. I was able to hide behind Rosh Hashana and enjoy the quiet of the holiday. And yes, it is real, but now I need to start confronting real things like figuring out how I’m going to make a living and dealing with the things here that are difficult for me culturally.

I drove two of our guests to the central bus station last night after the holiday ended and I always find that when you drive here, you really connect to Israeli culture. Oy. :) I almost turned onto a street that was reserved for buses and taxis and so I stopped when I realized this, considering if I needed to back up in order to turn back into the regular traffic or if I had enough room to just manoeuvre my way back. Of course in the two seconds this took to contemplate, the taxi driver behind me honked at me.

I’ve had a few other typical Israeli experiences already, one even before my arrival in Israel!

While flying from Toronto to Tel Aviv on El Al, the Israeli airline, a flight attendant was walking by me and I stopped him to ask him a question. The personal lights kept turning off. So, I asked him, “Lama ha’orot ha’ishiyot nichba’ot kol hazman?” This means, “Why do the personal lights keep turning off?”

His answer? “Nichba’im.”

Instead of answering my question, he corrected my grammar. I spoke about “light” as if it’s feminine when indeed it’s masculine. Only once I repeated the proper conjugation did he answer the question. The especially amusing part of this story is that I have told this story to two Israelis and they both pointed out to me that the whole conjugation is wrong.  It’s not nichba’im but kabim. :) So, he was wrong anyway. I laughed to myself about this experience and decided that maybe El Al is more expensive because the flight attendants also function as Hebrew tutors. Tutoring can really add up!

When we arrived at the airport, we all stood in line for passport control. Really this is not a fascinating story. All I know is that the woman was about as miserable as they come. She didn’t make eye contact, first totally ignored me, while she finished having a little conversation with her friend in the booth next door, and then when she finally took my passport and stamped it, without looking up, she said, “Lechi.” That just means, “Go.” I cannot say it doesn’t irk me at all but it’s OK.

Another experience, or lack of experience (because it was all about my own perception) was when I arrived in shul on the first day of Rosh Hashana. I came very late and I could swear I was getting dirty looks from the women sitting there. But then I realized that it wasn’t necessarily dirty looks. It’s just that from Vancouver I’m used to everyone smiling at me. If I’d walked into shul in Vancouver, anyone who made eye contact with me would have given me a smile, whether they knew me or not. Here, that is totally unaccepted. If they look up to see who you are, there is absolutely no reason for them to smile at you if they don’t know you. So they look up and then just look back down. To me, that felt sort of rude until I realized it meant nothing at all. It’s just cultural.

Also, I must say there is something way easier about that. In Vancouver you always have to be ready to interact with people. Even on the street or the bus, with strangers, you will very possibly have to say hello and give a smile. It’s very hard to just let yourself go into yourself and be in your own world. Here, if you need to squeeze through a space in the café and someone else needs to get through the same space coming in the opposite direction, it doesn’t have to be a joint experience. No need to say a word, no need to try to be extra courteous. It’s really just not a big deal.

Someone dropped something on the floor while I’ve been sitting here in the café, and it didn’t matter. Who cares? So something dropped. In Vancouver I imagine that becoming a topic of conversation for a couple of minutes between the strangers in the café. How wasteful!

The culture here is at once separated, like when it comes to mundane interactions, but at the same time so connected. Especially this time of year when people don’t have their air conditioners on anymore, it’s amazing how you can sit in your bedroom and listen to other people’s lives out your window. Kids running by talking loudly to each other, adults conversing in English and Hebrew; you don’t feel like things are so segregated. I don’t know if I’d get sick of it but right now I find it nice. We’re living similar lives. In Vancouver it’s so polite that it feels very separate. I have loved living the polite life of Vancouver. It can be stressful but for the most part it’s just nice to know what to expect from people and, specifically, that you can expect people to treat each other nicely. But I hope I’ll be able to appreciate the togetherness and intensity of Israel.

There are a few specific goals I have here. I want to study Arabic, krav maga (an Israeli self defence) and learn a ton about Israelis and Israeli culture – the way we act with each other and the actual arts, especially Israeli music. Oh, I also want to work on my Hebrew.

But I wonder if I’m an intruder. From spending a substantial amount of time outside of Israel, I’ve been able to give myself a new perspective. I was so caught up in the culture before I left, feeling angry and hurt by so many things here. I am yet to see how it is truly being part of it again – I am terrified I’ll find myself again just angry and hurt. I hope I am strong and mature enough to feel much better here than I did three and a half years ago.

As much as I feel somewhat like an outsider looking in, I also feel very at home. I have noticed that I haven’t been disoriented at all since I arrived. You know how when you travel to a different place, especially when it’s in a different time zone (let alone 10 time zones away), you sometimes forget where you are? This just isn’t happening to me here! It’s so natural for me to be back here. It’s crazy but natural.

I barely prayed on Rosh Hashana. It was extremely uninspiring for me at the Shtibelach, but in general I’m really praying that I’ll be able to bring good things to this country which, it seems, I care about so deeply. When it rained on Rosh Hashana, it felt like a blessing. According to Jewish tradition, if it rains in Israel before Sukkot it is some kind of curse. It almost never rains until after Sukkot. But I don’t care. I think that the rain this year was a sweet message, a communication with us, from “above,” that we’re being blessed. And the fact that you don’t actually have to go to shul because you can hear everything out your window while lying in bed, now that’s a blessing!


17 thoughts on “Israel, for better and for worse

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  1. Lovely post.

    However this:

    “In Vancouver you always have to be ready to interact with people. Even on the street or the bus, with strangers, you will very possibly have to say hello and give a smile.”

    is something I never experienced in Vancouver. I did notice people were less pushy and laid back then folks in Montreal or Toronto. But I didn’t feel emotionally taxed because of it.

    Oddly enough, I’ve heard people lament that Vancouverites are cold and aloof.

    Perhaps the impressions we have about a city/people have more to do with who WE are than the folks we’re encountering.

    Wishing you health and good things for the new year, and new chapter of your life.

    1. Avrum, either our experiences are more about us than about the cities or they are random. But I know that in Vancouver people were always smiling at me. Also, btw, a friend pointed out that people are more open towards women than men. So that might be a factor in explaining our different experiences. A wonderful new year to you too!

  2. Deena, it seems you’re adjusting well to your new life (or to the beginning of the rest of your life) in Israel!
    Your “Israeli experiences” were so funny and I could totally relate ;)
    One time I wanted to buy a train ticket, so I came up to the girl in the booth and she said “ken, ma at rotsa?” (“what do you want?”) in a not-so-nice tone hehe…

    But at the same time I also felt relaxed in Israel that I didn’t have to make eye contact or be nice and polite all the time.

    Anyway I really hope to see you soon :)

  3. hahahaha…..yeah I remember those “looks” in shul at on the bus. I actually feel a lot of pressure in Canada to be “polite” and I don’t like it….

    Sounds like you’re settling in nicely overall!;-) I’m glad your R”H was nice. I’m jealous you can hear all of those beautiful things right outside your window!

    If you learn some Arabic then maybe we can practice sometime! I also want to keep up with the bit I know.

  4. great writing deens! thx for forcing me to read it :) seems you’ve gone through a long and important process. may the process continue and bring you to good places.

  5. Well done. The Jewish people are better for your move here. No kidding. Each additional Jew that moves here makes us stronger. And especially a Jew that is planning on adding so much to the country.

    Good Luck!

  6. you captured so much here. and left a big huge lump in my throat- for various reasons!!

    just face it, you have two homes… (joking you!)

    despite everything you say and all your nervousness… you sound complete in a big way.

    missing you!

    1. Danya Danya Danya… No, YOU have two homes. Anyway, I am sorry for helping create that lump! :( But I will not allow you to spread such rumours that I am complete. Puleez! Thanks so much for reading this!

  7. “Today, … , is the first day of the rest of my life” – I hope this is true of everyday. Enjoy Israel while you are there now.

    You make it sound like you can never leave again to visit Canada. It is just a plane ride or 2 away. Hey you could even visit the U.S.

    Enjoy the “honeymoon” and let’s figure out how to get writing again.



    1. Yes, lets! It’s not that North America is far away. It’s that I “don’t know when I’ll be back again.” (like from the song leaving on a jetplane)

  8. Nice article! I recall your mentioning that something I’d said helped you make the decision to return to Israel. I guess I’m glad to have helped. It sounds like you’re home now! All the best for the New Year!

  9. Essentially, I’d said that whether you decided to stay in Vancouver or return to Israel depended in large part on the reasons you came to Vancouver in the first place, and if those reasons remained important or not. For instance, I said, if your family is important, and they all reside in Israel, then perhaps being present in Israel is important. If you like hot weather, Israel wins…. If you like four seasons including lots of rain, Vancouver wins… It depended on what you felt was important and if you’d achieved those things that initially brought you to Vancouver. I think you then concluded that you’d accomplished in Vancouver what you’d come for, family was more important than weather, and so it was time to return. You timed it well for the High Holidays ;-)

  10. Deena,

    I am truly at ease that you are at peace with your decision about moving to Israel. I had an “itch”that it was the right thing for you to do. I am happy to see you happy!


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