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January 24, 2013 By:
Casting a First Ballot in Israel: A Reflection
Our lives are spent as members of the nation of Israel, but this week, I cast my first ballot as a citizen of the state of Israel. As a traditionally apolitical person, I have not been passionate about right- or left-wing politics in Israel. But after making aliyah from Philadelphia five months ago, that has changed.
Since receiving our official citizenship ID cards, we’ve had many experiences that have, like casting a vote, made us feel patriotic, connected or simply grateful to have this incredible opportunity.
Moving is never easy, and this move was no exception. While my husband and I try to navigate our new lives in Jerusalem, it is amazing to see how quickly our three children have acclimated, especially to the Israeli school system, which is quite different from what we’re used to in the Keystone State.
The public school teachers really know our children and are able to give them what they need in order to not only integrate as new immigrants, but also to succeed. We’ve marveled at our kids’ quick mastery of the Hebrew language. Their math workbooks are all in Hebrew, they learn science in on-site greenhouses, and they learn the weekly Torah portion by heart.
Unlike most people who make aliyah without employment lined up, we were fortunate in that we both found work right away. My husband works for an Israeli company called JerusalemOnlineU, where he directs films and creates dynamic Jewish and Israel-based curriculum. I am freelancing as a curriculum writer for an educational website based in the United States. The fact that we are both employed reduces the initial stress of “making it all work.”
As a new immigrant, or olah chadashah, I have felt a deep connection these past months with my great-grandmother, for whom I am named. When she came to America from Russia, she was intent upon not only learning English, but learning it well. One hundred years later, and thousands of miles away, I, too, am an immigrant committed to mastering a new language. I attend four hours of intensive Hebrew ulpan every day, which is part of the package of benefits given to new immigrants to help in the absorption process. My class consists of immigrants from Ethiopia, France, Russia, Argentina, Thailand and more.
We learn the constructs of the language both by studying the technicalities as well as through stories with biblical, historical or cultural ties. As difficult as this study has been, I feel much more confident in my ability to express myself in daily interactions, and know that my integration will be easier because of it.
The everyday life here often throws curve balls at us, but we try to find the humor, irony and love in our daily interactions. Among the many things I marvel at:
• The barber, of all people, recently asked my first-grader what the parshah was. My son knew the answer.
• My husband’s “commute” involves walking down to Sultan’s Pool, past Yemin Moshe and then up Har Tzion to an office in the Old City. How cool is that?
• My kids already correct my Hebrew.
• We live within walking distance of over 50 different types of synagogues: Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Sephardi, Ethiopian and much more.
• The problem with eating out at cool, delicious kosher restaurants? Too many to choose from!
There are incredible aspects of living here, but life isn’t perfect. It is difficult to be so far away from our families. Three months after our arrival, we had to deal with sirens, missiles and retreating to our safe room during the conflict with Hamas. But this is a part of life here, and we can’t pick and choose. We deal with these things as they happen, we explain them as best we can to our children, and we look to our friends and neighbors for support.
This experience is a gift we’ve always wanted to give to ourselves and to our children. It’s a gift we’re unwrapping slowly, both with a bit of apprehension (and sometimes confusion) but also with the desire to savor each moment. We’re learning all the time — about the culture, the language and more.
In the process, we’re finding out more about ourselves, our homeland and our nation. Having a voice here in Israel, be it at the ballot box, the bus station or while helping our children explore their identity is truly humbling and an honor I am grateful for each day. l
Aliza Zeff, a former teacher at the Perelman Jewish Day School, made aliyah with her family last summer.