Letter from Israel

Letter from Israel

A top 10 to celebrate 10 years

The sun rises gloriously over Ma’aleh Adumim.
The sun rises gloriously over Ma’aleh Adumim.

When we landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport from Teaneck very early on August 7, 2007, in the company of 210 other new immigrants to Israel, I felt exhausted and exhilarated, excited and terrified, optimistic and overwhelmed.

I was aware that I had an awful lot to learn — culturally, linguistically, logistically, and in many other ways — about my new surroundings.

There were new nine-digit ID and phone numbers to memorize, new driver’s license and credit cards in my wallet, unfamiliar roads and supermarkets to navigate, new healthcare and service providers to choose, new neighbors to meet, and a workweek where Friday is a day off and Sunday is not.

I usually succeeded in remaining positive and keeping my eyes on the prize — we felt immensely privileged to be able to live in our ancestral homeland — but inevitably there were moments of bewilderment and frustration while we were learning the ropes.

We look back now and marvel at how far we’ve come in 10 years, how comfortable we feel here, and how satisfying it is to impart our hard-earned wisdom to unsure newcomers as others generously imparted their wisdom to us.

Steve and Abby Leichman join their friends Barbara and Fred Casden, fellow Teaneck expats, at dinner.
Steve and Abby Leichman join their friends Barbara and Fred Casden, fellow Teaneck expats, at dinner.

In honor of our 10th year as Israeli citizens, here is a list of 10 important things I have learned.

1. I learned to appreciate stumbling blocks as learning opportunities; to celebrate small achievements (like getting money out of an ATM or ordering groceries online in Hebrew for the first time); and to turn today’s maddening incident into tomorrow’s hilarious dinner-table story to share with family and friends.

2. I learned how to tremp (hitchhike). It’s a legal and acceptable alternative to public transportation here, particularly in your own hometown. Once I got over my ingrained horror of accepting rides with strangers, let alone talking to them, I discovered a neat way to get around and get acquainted with my neighbors.

3. I learned how to make hummus and tahini from scratch. Sure, you can buy them in any store, but most self-respecting Israelis whip up these ubiquitous nourishing spreads at home on a near daily basis, sans preservatives. The taste is incomparable.

4. I learned that outward appearances aren’t necessarily indicative of religious sensibilities. Seeing a gym instructor with a big tattoo on her bare shoulder davening in the staff room, or tank-topped, short-shorted teenagers kissing the mezuzah on their way into mall stores, or a former chief rabbi going to jail for fraud, really drives home the point that you cannot judge a book by its cover.

5. I learned that I will never be a bargainer, even though stated prices for goods and services in the Middle East often are negotiable. Instead of feeling cheated, I view my probable overpayment as an act of tzedaka and a stimulant for the Israeli economy.

Once you can order groceries in Hebrew, they can be delivered to your door.
Once you can order groceries in Hebrew, they can be delivered to your door.

6. I learned that the proper response to “boker tov” (“good morning”) is “boker or” (“morning of light”), and the proper response to “Shabbat shalom” is “Shabbat shalom u’mevorach (“a peaceful and blessed Sabbath”).

7. I learned that teeny-tiny Israel encompasses myriad climate zones and topographies. A one-hour drive from our home in Ma’aleh Adumim to Tel Aviv takes us from brown desert hills through flat green farmlands and finally to wavy blue waters. Each landscape is stunningly beautiful in its own way.

8. I learned that when friends from the “old country” make aliyah they attain a certain soulmate status by virtue of the fact that they, too, took the 6,000-mile leap from the diaspora to the Promised Land. On our 10th aliyah anniversary we dined out with Fred and Barbara Casden, who arrived from Teaneck a week before us in 2007. We barely were acquainted in our Teaneck days and now we get together regularly.

9. I learned that the work pace slows to a crawl during August, September, and a bit of October. August is “chofesh hagadol” (“the big vacation”) for most Israelis, while in September the common refrain is “after the holidays,” as in “We won’t be able to process your insurance claim until after the holidays” or “Let’s schedule our business meeting for after the holidays.” The proliferation of fall holidays provides a perfect excuse to procrastinate, and because they are legal holidays, they don’t eat up any vacation days. (Anyway, you’ve already used them all for chofesh hagadol.)

10. I learned to look out my window every morning and watch the sun rise over the hills beyond Jericho — the very ones that the ancient Israelites climbed on their way home from Egypt — and to take a moment to ponder the miracle of our return.

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