This week I will celebrate my aliya anniversary. The past four years have been the most educational of my life – I learned how to distinguish orange melon from green, how to enter the jungle of Israeli bureaucracy and come out with health insurance and many other stamped documents whose purpose I am still in the process of trying to clarify. I learned how to bargain for a taxi and how to avoid hearing the driver's life story, where the best used book stores in town are and how to get a haircut in Hebrew. I found myself a cheese guy and a million ways to look up bus times. I've learned that I can hide my American reish if I talk really quickly and there's only one that needs to be pronounced per sentence. I am not afraid of the Israeli brand toothpaste anymore and I willingly buy Dr. Fischer hair products.
When choosing eggs in the supermarket, I shamelessly exchange the dirty ones for the less dirty among cartons. I have forgotten what American celery is, but have developed a love for kolrabi. I have learned to interpret Israeli directions into concrete instructions by following up the usual “yashar, yashar, yashar
” with “and then what?” In daily conversation, I now know to exchange hi-tech as the preferred Jewish profession in place of doctor or lawyer. I can recognize the faces of most Israeli politicians, and some of the celebrities as well. I understand the concept of eating chumus as a meal, and not a condiment. I have a storage place for my gas mask
and I no longer speak in biblical Hebrew
But the most important lesson I have learned is to seize every opportunity. Four years ago, I sat at the Shabbat table of Rav Yehoshua Weisberg, the director of the program I was studying in, and listened to him explain a passage from Song of Songs:
I sleep, but my heart is awake. My beloved is knocking, saying, open to me my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled, for my head is filled with dew and my locks with the drops of the night. I have put off my coat, how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet, how shall I soil them? My beloved put in his hand by the latchet of the door, and my heart was thrilled for him. I rose up to open to my beloved, and my hands dropped with myrhh, and my fingers with flowing myrhh, upon the handles of the lock. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed when he spoke. (4:2-6, translation from the Koren Jerusalem Bible with minor changes)
The passage tells the story of a woman sleeping in bed when she hears her beloved knock on the door. Rav Yehoshua aptly compared the situation to the sensation one feels when s/he is drifting in and out of sleep and is vaguely conscious of the events around him/her – as if the body is still sleeping but the “heart is awake.” The woman hesitates before opening the door, she has already undressed for bed and is reluctant to put her coat back on. She's washed her feet and wonders how she can dirty them again. By the time she opens the door, her beloved is gone and her soul has “failed” her.
Fresh out of high school and about to start our first year abroad, the story was an appropriate metaphor for leaving your comfort zone. The rabbi advised us to never let an opportunity get away or allow ourselves to be defeated by concerns and anxieties. We could never let our souls fail us, hold us back from opening the door to our “beloved,” or it would be too late.
I was so impressed by the analogy, I did what any American seminary girl does – I took the first verse to Hodaya to have it engraved on silver jewelery (the teardrop necklace, for those who'd like to compare experiences).
It feels like a million years since I walked out of Hodaya with the words fastened around my neck. I have only now begun to understand them. “I sleep, but my heart is awake” – isn't that what it feels like to be confronted with a social event filled with Hebrew-speakers? The desire to meet people and to laugh and be happy, held back by the anxiety and uncertainty of a language barrier? Isn't that what it feels like to do your bachelor's degree in a foreign language, or to date an Israeli person? Isn't that the same sensation you are overcome with when you are demonstrating for a cause, but are too afraid to speak into the megaphone yourself? Or how you search for jobs that only require “conversational” Hebrew? The feeling that your heart is stirring, but you body, your tongue, are holding you back.
The message is true for all interactions and all people, but especially for immigrants. Olim are experts in this kind of indecision, we know how it feels when the soul disappoints – we want to integrate, to jump in, but we are always half asleep when the opportunity arises.
My mother tells me the essence of the matter is being able to receive. A person needs to believe that they are worthy, prepared, deserving and able to receive the good as it comes. We need to remember that life isn't only about giving, aliya isn't only about giving, but about being open to embrace the "beloved" – the people and the opportunities we hear knocking on our door.
It's not an exact science. It's hard to know when our concerns are well-founded and when they are not. But these four years have taught me to always be ready for action regardless. To stop categorizing myself as an American and everyone else as Israeli and to trust in my ability to express myself in Hebrew. To trust that the people around me are good, that I have a place among them. And to always open the door to love, in whatever form it takes.
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