Friday, October 30, 2009

The honeymoon

It's been nearly 8 weeks since I got to Israel, and I am still enjoying the "honeymoon period". I have been reminded by a very awesome guy (mush!) to always be aware that I get a very extended honeymoon period on my aliyah (yes, I am biting the bullet) because of the good fortune of having generous and wonderful parents and grandparents who have endowed me with a very soft landing here for my first year or so.

I want them to know that not a moment goes by here where I do not remember how lucky I am to be here on these terms, and I will be eternally thankful to them.

I look around me at people also just arriving (in some cases really crash-landing), and I see the many stresses and fears they have, their lives one endless stream of struggles with language, accommodation, employment, finance, bureaucracy and distance from loved ones. I feel awful that perhaps they do not have the same opportunity to luxuriate in everything that makes moving here momentous. All I can do is try and take advantage of the fact that out here I have the three key features olim hadashim require - chutzpah, protectsia and savlanut, and maybe try to give people a hand where possible. Perhaps this is one country where you really can and should "pay it forward".

On a wider level, one of my ambitions is to eventually set about improving the aliyah experience for people who choose to come here. It sounds odd that those are the ones that need the help, but actually the state does an adequate job looking after those who have no other choice, and in the longer term, Israel needs to attract the best and brightest of the Diaspora. For them to come here voluntarily and put down roots requires material compromise, so they have to be given a chance to experience something meaningful that replaces the loss of earnings that is almost inevitable.

Because Western olim by and large have the safety net of going back, it takes something quite powerful and profound to continue to anchor them here. In the words of one of my new friends (Polo), he is "earning what I did in London 12 years ago, in a position of seniority I had 7 years ago... but in lifestyle terms, back in the UK I wouldn't be at this level for another 10 years."

How can this be translated into spiritual, emotional and intellectual advancement, not just a statement about career, social and material change?

When I tell some of the little anecdotes of coincidences and moments that have happened to me here, something clearly resonates with native Israelis and both recent and settled olim. But whilst some people do have their own stories to tell, so many just don't have the time and cannot find the mental and emotional space to be open to these things, because of the aforementioned draining process of getting here and getting settled.

There is a reason why this place is like nowhere else, and it is because there is a unique quality to the people and a special atmosphere to every inch of the land that is so hard to describe, and indeed is perhaps unique to each of us. Everyone who has been here and felt a moment of love for this noisy, hot, dusty, dishevelled place knows what I am talking about. It could be the waft of hyssop and jasmine when out on a kibbutz, the unique Tel Aviv beach sounds of clip-clopping matkot and the ice-cream guy shouting "artic, artic", or the moment your ears pop when a very fast taxi driver takes you up into the hills between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (I always think this moment marks the spiritual crossing-point, like some higher being clearing your ears so you can hear a different tone and quality of sound that echoes from those white stones).

Now I am learning not to be too pompous or self-important with all these thoughts and what I write here, and perhaps I don't always succeed, but what I hope is that by trying in my own way to express them and tell my stories, maybe the odd visitor or olah hadashah will just be a bit more open to these experiences for themselves. Not just having them, but being willing to recognise and explore them, without seeming weird or religious. It doesn't help physically with the chores and pressures of being here, but mentally I think it changes the experience completely.

But how to channel this into something practical? This being Israel, everyone has their ideas. I enjoyed a fabulous meal out with T&T (mazel tov on your engagement!) and their lovely friends last night, and we had some discussion about this.

One of the great assets of Israel is the heavily subsidised ulpan system to ensure that anyone who wants to learn Hebrew for any reason and any period of time can do so at a very affordable price. Despite this being a fantastic attraction for many young Jews who want to "try before they buy" - I was one of them - I was horrified to learn that the government are cutting ulpan budgets, and this will have the effect of raising prices or losing classes, or both. This is tragic, short-sighted and counter-productive. Having an accessible ulpan is just as important as Birthright or Masa. Write to the Knesset immediately!

We also talked about ways to improve the city using private money, to create new quarters in the way that Neve Tzedek, anchored by a resplendent Suzanne Dallal Centre, has been transformed. There are many neighbourhoods where a similar process would reap benefits. The key is to make this city proud of itself and try to get the residents to look past the end of their noses.

Israel is a funny place with an inverted value chain of civic pride and public behaviour. In the UK, people hold the door open for you, queue politely, generally don't litter, and obey the no smoking sign. Here, the opposite is true - in fact, they almost relish the barging. But here, if you stumbled on the street, people would rush to check if you were okay, whilst in the UK, people might well politely step over you on their way to the Tube. I know which I would rather have.

But it is not enough. If it can be transformed into a wider civic pride, combined with better care of surroundings, for example not just accepting the unkempt appearance of 80% of the buildings here because they look fine from the inside, perhaps we can have the best of both worlds.

We have to start small - and the advantage of being here is that sense of ownership. The other day, I was on a station platform in Netanya, and saw two kids in army uniform. One took out the last ciggie from his packet, and flicked the empty box at the bin. It missed, and he left it lying on the floor. I went up, said in my bastard Hebrew "you're in uniform, set an example and show some respect", picked up the box and dropped it in the trash.

The kid was completely stunned, probably because people here usually let this sort of sloppy behaviour slide. But I think along the lines of "broken windows theory" - you have to fix the small ills in society before going after the big prizes. And today that kid is chucking a fag-packet, but tomorrow he could be holed up in some Palestinian's house in Gaza, showing the same contempt for their home as for the station platform, or he could be letting his dog crap somewhere on Ruppin so Freedmansister is guaranteed to put her foot in it on the way back from the beach.

I think it is incumbent on Israelis and olim to keep trying to inspire and exhort each other to stay here, even when the going gets tough. This is a pioneering country whose frontiers remain unsecured and undefined, 60 years after creation. It is not an easy place to survive, let alone thrive in, and whilst the cliché of the Israeli Sabra (hard and prickly exterior, soft and sweet inside) is true, some people are disillusioned by the barbs that stick in the hand and craw, and never get as far as scooping out the lush fruit within.

An example: last night I was out for birthday drinks of an old friend at the Dancing Camel Brewery, and ran into Arik Bradshaw, a friend from ulpan. We ended up taking a little walk along the seafront and up to Ben Yehuda, just as the heavens were opening, and she told me how she was struggling financially and therefore physically and mentally, to make a go of it here. Her Hebrew was improving at a dazzling pace thanks to a fun but poorly-paid cafe job, but she felt homesick and to some extent thought Tel Aviv lacked certain things she had been relying upon to make the experience worthwhile and complete.

One of the main things she emphasised was that she had expected this to be a city full of live music culture, and that she was learning the violin. I pointed out that there were plenty of places to go, if she knew where to look, but this clearly was not enough to inspire her. Then, just as we walked down Ruppin to the end of the alley that runs down to Ben Yehuda, we suddenly heard the strains of violins and an accordion, playing Jewish or Central European music.

As a light drizzle turned into a full-scale downpour, complete with the crashing cymbals and drums of thunder and lightning, we ducked into the little pitzutzia at the foot of the alley, where half a dozen people were sitting under the awning at 1am, as three guys from Slovakia or somewhere nearby were playing merrily. The Bulgarian shopkeep merrily handed out pints of Czech draught beer, and gradually more and more people passing by, running to get out of the rain, came and huddled in this little corner shop.

The three men played for a solid hour and by the end, maybe 20 people were squeezed in under the shelter, clapping and singing. Arik was delighted and clearly reinvigorated, not least when one of the players let her play a few bars on his violin.

Only an hour or so earlier, when had just been trying to explain that this kind of small miracle makes up my daily experience here, she appreciated it and felt glad for me, but perhaps couldn't really grasp it for herself. Now, she seemed a different person, her eyes shining, a big beaming smile on her face.

And all of this in the rain! It's amazing how that first deluge of autumn doesn't actually dampen people's spirits here but seems to raise them. There is a sense of camaraderie when everyone is caught outside without coats and umbrellas, and a feeling of common sacrifice that although we may not get to have our 158th consecutive day on the beach, this country needs the water. It never lasts too long, as the novelty washes off, but it is delightful to read all the positive Facebook and Twitter updates from olim hadashim about that first moment of British weather.

I hope the forecast 4 days of solid rain will at least focus my mind on actually making a living and doing some work - to everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven, right? The glorious weather has put a wonderful gloss on my first few weeks here, but now to knuckle down and make a living, and see if the honeymoon lasts.

Now I am off to make some fresh baklava (almond and orange-blossom this week). Shabbat shalom!

Glossary for the uninitiated (ie uncircumcised)

Ulpan - intensive Hebrew language school
Aliyah - Jewish immigration to Israel
Pitzutzia - little corner shop that always has something random for sale
Savlanut - patience
Chutzpah - blarney/cheek
Protectsia - network of useful people for any problem
Olim hadashim - new immigrants
Matkot - beach bat and ball game

1 comment:

Louise Yaros said...

Ah... your blog reminds me of my 5 months in Israel in 2002. Memories...!

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