Fulfilling a 40-year dream

Fulfilling a 40-year dream

Teaneck educator, on verge of making aliyah, tells why she’s doing it, what she’s leaving, where she’s going

Leah stands with her husband, Avi. (Photos courtesy Leah Herzog)
Leah stands with her husband, Avi. (Photos courtesy Leah Herzog)

I am a passionate and unapologetic Zionist. My aliyah dream was conceived with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and it was born, fully formed, almost 40 years ago. If you nourish a dream, it will live, and it will continue to nourish you.

I grew up in the leafy, quiet, integrated suburb of Teaneck. Mine was the classic American Jewish childhood: we didn’t eat pork but we didn’t keep kosher, I went trick-or-treating and gave Valentine’s Day cards to my classmates. The High Holy Days meant many boring hours in synagogue; Chanukah meant presents; and Passover meant taking matzah and cream cheese to eat in the school cafeteria. Being Jewish was my ethnic pride.

In 1973, I was a fourth grader enrolled in my synagogue’s Hebrew school. As we watched the grainy television footage, my teacher told us about the Yom Kippur War and how Israel was in grave danger. I was infuriated at the thought that MY country, my little country, was imperiled. As the child of Holocaust survivors, I knew from as early as I can remember that the only safe haven for Jews was Israel. My mother, a fourth-generation upper-middle-class Viennese who fled Austria in 1938 and landed with her sister and parents in Chile in 1941, penniless but alive, and in America in 1961, instilled in me the knowledge that Jews were really safe only in Israel. We were immeasurably grateful to America, but we were only truly secure in the country with a Jewish government, Jewish police, and a Jewish army.

The child of two musicians, I learned piano from my German grandmother when I was 5 and began flute lessons at 9. The soundtrack of my house was classical music: live, on records, on the radio. As a child of the late 1960s and early ’70s, I loved folk music, and I taught myself to play guitar from a book. Along with Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver, Billy Joel, and the Beatles, I listened to the Israeli and Chassidic Song Festival albums, learning words I didn’t really understand. By ninth grade I was in day school, assiduously trying to master Hebrew. Naomi Shemer was a wonderful teacher, and I looked up almost every word to every song. The first song I composed and wrote in Hebrew was about my fervent desire to go to my land, where my people were born, and which no longer was just a dream.

As I became religious, history and Torah merged. Israel was the place where the patriarchs walked and the Haganah fought. As far as I was concerned, every square inch of the land was holy. In my mind, the sky was always Mediterranean blue, the air perfumed with citrus, and the people bristly but genuine. When I finally arrived in Israel for the first time in 1981, I kissed the ground and fell deeply in love. I was high with spiritual excitement, and even the steepest and rockiest pre-dawn climb was bliss. The lone oak — the alon — became my personal totem; I was the child who was returning to my ancient borders. Six weeks later, eyes puffy and nose red from crying, I had to be pushed onto the plane.

Getting back to Israel the second time was much harder. My father felt that I had learned enough Jewish texts, my mother did not want me so far away, and so I began college. In the middle of my freshman year, I was diagnosed with a progressive retinal disease and told I could be blind before I was 23. My parents relented.

For nine months, I swam in the sea of Torah at Michlalah in Jerusalem, rode the sunflower-seed-littered Egged busses, shopped in the dusty, loud Machane Yehuda, and cherished every view from every hilltop. I felt blessed; I was living Rav Kook’s dream: learning the Torah of Israel in the Land of Israel among the people of Israel. I finished off my year working on a moshav in the Golan. They invited me to stay and to teach elementary school. Getting back on the bus to Jerusalem felt physically wrenching. I desperately, hopelessly did not want to return to America. But my rosh yeshiva and mentor, Rabbi Yehudah Copperman ob”m, told me that because my parents were survivors and I was a “bat z’kunim” — the daughter of older parents — that I was more obligated in kibbud horim than yishuv ha’aretz — that it was more important that I fulfill the mitzvah of honoring my parents than that of making aliyah to the land of Israel. So I returned, and I graduated from college.

When my husband and I married in 1986, we made a 10-year aliyah plan. We would have some children, I would finish my Ph.D., and then we’d go.

Leah’s flanked by her daughter, Eliana, and her son, Reuven.

Six years into the 10-year plan, my father died. Two years after that, almost nine years after we were married, we had our first child. My mother had only one other grandchild from my three older siblings. I felt strongly that it would be betraying my father’s memory and a travesty to move to Israel then, taking my mother’s precious, named-for-my-father grandson with us. When I asked if she would consider moving with us she said, “I have moved enough in my life. I have started over and learned a new language enough times. I am not moving again.” We moved to New Jersey, raised our two children, and served our communities as Jewish educators. My mother passed away at the age of 95, in 2016.

I can now, finally, fulfill a 45-year-old dream.

We plan to move to Givat Ze’ev, a small suburb north of Yerushalayim. It is an inclusive community—secular, religious, Ashkenaz, Sephard, yeshivish, and chassidish all live there and get along. My son, now a college graduate, will stay in the United States for now, following his own path and deciding which dreams he wants to fulfill when. This is the one thing that gives me pause: the precious, named-for-my-father son will stay in America, at least for now.

In Israel, we have close friends eagerly awaiting us, who will help us with the socio-emotional and practical transition that we know awaits us. Our daughter finished her IDF service as a lone soldier and lives there. My husband’s parents, brother, sister and brother-in-law, nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews are there.

I vacillate between jumping for joy and jumping out of my skin. I am more excited and more terrified than I ever have been.

Naïve romantic illusions of what it means to live the Zionist dream have dissolved under the weight of Kafkaesque bureaucracy and scenarios more absurd than Beckett’s plays. The wars between Israelis and Palestinians, religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Sephardim are different only in the amount of blood that is spilled, not in the depth of trauma. The start-up nation can’t run a fast train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. The incubator of medical breakthroughs makes a mother clean up her child’s post-surgical vomit. Websites don’t work, appointments aren’t kept, and driving is nightmarish.

And yet…

Every step I will take will mirror my ancestors’ footfalls. The Tanach that I love and teach will come alive on every hill and valley, in every olive tree and date palm. The national calendar is MY calendar. Lights are strung in sukkot, costumes are worn on Purim, and donuts are from the bakeries at Chanukah rather than from Dunkin’ every day. Even the Friday night television lineup is referred to as “leil Shabbat.” Would Yirmiyahu the prophet howl at the materialism and secularism, or would he rejoice because the hills resonate with the sound of Torah and the music of weddings?

One of my favorite sounds is the whroo-whroo of the turtledoves, one of my favorite scents is the climbing bougainvillea, one of my favorite colors is the specific shade of glowing mauve reflecting off of limestone as the sun sets. The same woman who growls at you on the bus will throw herself in front of your child to protect her, the same swaggering and obnoxious adolescent with the rifle will lay down his life for you. It is a very flawed place, but it is my place. It is a dysfunctional family, but it is my family. It is a fraught existence, but it is home.

It has been an evolving, delayed dream for too long. With the help of Nefesh b’Nefesh, government agencies and the Creator of All, it will soon be a dream fulfilled.

Leah V. Herzog, M.Ed., of Teaneck is co-director of Israel guidance and teaches Tanach at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

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