‘I love how you make things normal,’ my sister-in-law informed me the other day on the phone. Was it a broad, euphemistic hint for me to stop whinging and whining? Being that I love my sister-in-law I apologised for my latest rant. To which she replied, ‘No you make what I feel normal. When I’m having a bad day I think to myself, ‘Sarah felt that and so what I’m experiencing is normal.’
I couldn’t have been happier. This is my mission as a writer – to mirror experiences, feelings and stories and normalise life as much as I can in a world that is full of contradictions, hidden truths and tears.
Whinging, whining and complaining about the ups and downs of Aliyah is normal. Once you move to Israel the romantic, white mesh, zionist curtain is rudely drawn back to reveal real life with all its daily travails, big and small.
Two and a half years in we’re dancing in the naked truth of being immigrants, and that is, living in Israel is wonderful and, close your eyes if you don’t want to read this, terrible. Terribly challenging that is to say. And I’m reaching the conclusion that perhaps you can’t have one without the other.
Being an immigrant is by definition challenging. The older you are the harder it is. And moving with a family is complicated. Each person is now an immigrant and dealing with the difficulty of being new.
You would think after two and a half year that we would cease being new. But things are always new and that can be exhausting. Once you’ve conquered the process of a high school application you move on to the next trial, such as figuring out a child’s developmental assessment form, again, in Hebrew. The learning loop is perpetual. It frays and flays your nerves over time.
Hebrew is the hardest aspect of Aliyah, besides the laundry. You don’t ‘pick’ up Hebrew like a common cold or a stray kitten off a Jerusalem alley. You work hard at it. The children go to school and learn it eventually. But it takes them longer to master it than ‘by Chanukah’ as everyone promises. It may take a couple of Chanukahs for them to ‘pick up’ fluent, school level Hebrew. The older they are the harder it is.
There’s no escaping that learning a new language is difficult. Only through sheer perseverance and actively breaking your teeth on Hebrew verbs will you learn to communicate in Hebrew. Sure you can get around big Israeli cities in English, but to keep up with school correspondence, school meetings with teachers who only speak Hebrew, and to have deeper relationships with Israelis, you need Hebrew. It’s worth breaking every tooth in your mouth for it, but it takes time, effort and most of all self kindness.
Be kind, be kind, be kind. This is what I say to myself and my family. But not often enough. The low grade stress of dealing with the new every day taxes relationships. I think the moment you get off your Aliyah flight you should be handed a comprehensive list of emergency help numbers. One of the first contacts should be someone who can help translate your bills so that you don’t end up paying double fines. (It’s too easy to ignore bills in Hebrew.) The second set of contacts should be a comprehensive list of therapists to consult when the stress accumulates in your marriage, with your kids and teens. Any issues that existed before you make Aliyah multiplies and have babies. There is no such thing as a perfect family. My husband and I have had more tiffs in the last two years than the rest of our marriage combined, and I’m not the only Oleh to say so. Aliyah tests the gravelly grit of your relationships as nothing else can.
Prevention is the best cure. It’s better to nip any issues that crop up at the very beginning of Aliyah, than ignore them away. The only problem is that when you make Aliyah it’s so overwhelming that you don’t always know who to ask or what to do. In many ways it’s a sink or swim situation. And you want to swim, swim very very hard.
Of course you’re allowed sinking days. And looking back maybe I should have allowed myself more of those days. Family sink days, where we all sit around and have a crying fest of what we miss and what’s hard for us. Of course I didn’t allow that. In my psyche I swim, and swim, and swim and only when I’m on the other side of the river can I look back and wipe my sweaty brow and say, ‘Boy was I in survival mode.’
Am I on the other side? I don’t think there is another side. I think that I’ll always be swimming. Sure some days I enjoy lazily floating on my back with the view of the wide, azure, Jerusalem sky before me. There are days and there are days. I think the main thing with Aliyah is to keep swimming, but know that if you’re thrashing it’s okay, it’s normal. Many days I too am thrashing upstream, as my sister in law, and now you, know all too well.