Tuesday, July 05, 2011


Spend a year in Israel, and you encounter many questions from curious Israelis and Americans. As we prepare to fly back to Baltimore tonight, let me take some time to answer the most frequently asked questions.

Are you going to stay in Israel?
This surprising question was the most common one asked by Israelis. They must be used to Americans who make aliya (move to Israel) because our response was often greeted with disbelief. Many Israelis whom we barely met resorted to arguments and bribes in an effort to persuade us to move here permanently. For example, the bike shop owner who rented us our bikes for the year offered that we could keep the bikes for another year at no charge if we stay. The bookstore owner where be bought the kids' school books promised us that we would be back and that we would stay for good the next time we returned. And many of the teachers at the children's school and the parents of their friends cajoled us with the good life that is to be had in Israel.

After almost a year in this country, I now expect some comment about staying in Israel when I meet someone, and it is the unusual Israeli who does not broach this subject. In fact, at this point, I am insulted when I meet someone and they do not ask me to stay. "What's the matter, you don't want me here? You don't like me?"

We had a great year; we learned a lot; we made great friends and spent time with old friends, but this country is not our home. I expect that we will visit many more times, and that we will perhaps have another extended stay some day. But our permanent home is in the United States, and we can't wait to get back there.

What were the highlights of your year?
There were so many incredible experiences that it is hard to limit this answer to just a few. Here is a summary of the most memorable aspects of our time here:

  • Passover Seder at the Gevas: We sat outside in a beautiful tent and shared the Seder with 31 friends and relatives of the Gevas. It was a traditional Seder in the deepest sense, and I gave our hosts the ultimate compliment when I told them that my father would have loved it. We had all of the customary foods, games for the kids, four questions, stimulating discussions, a major power outage, delicious food in outrageous quantities, amazing desserts, afikoman, and singing late into the night.
  • Negev trip: We took several long trips this year, and none as interesting, exciting and fun as our weeklong trip to the Negev and Eilat. We visited Timna National Park, one of the most wondrous places I've ever been; slept in a Bedouin tent village; rode camels; hiked Ein Avdat, with its harrowing trails; toured Sde Boker, the burial place of Ben Gurion; drove through Mitzpeh Ramon with breathtaking views and colorful sand; and of course stayed in Eilat, one of the most gorgeous and fun places on Earth. We snorkeled, took an underwater boat ride through coral reefs, ate amazing meals, and celebrated Hanukkah each night, lighting candles at various sites that we visited and in our hotels.
  • Trip up North: The week before Pesach, we went North to the Upper Galilee. These were some of the most gorgeous hikes I've ever experienced. My favorite was Tel Dan, which I liked even more than the most popular Banas. We visited Fort Nimrod, Mount Hermon, and many other beautiful natural wonders.
  • Yehuda Poliker and David Broza concerts: These two artists have been among my favorite lifetime musicians. We had the good fortune of seeing Poliker at the intimate Zappa club where we set 2 meters from the stage and listened to almost three hours of him belting out old favorites while I and the rest of the crowd sang along. Yom Shishi At Yoda'at was unbelievable, and I got goose bumps during Kshetigdal. We then saw David Broza in concert with the Israel Philharmanic at the new Cultural Center auditorium downtown by the Opera building. A memorable evening.
  • Ari's Bar Mitzvah: My newphew had his Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel. My entire family except for Tova's branch came to Jerusalem, and we spend several days together wining, dining and celebrating in honor of Ari. Then, my sister Rachel and her family stayed in Tel Aviv for a week, and we got to spend a lot of time with them.
  • Receiving visitors: One of the mot enjoyable aspects of living in Israel is that many of our friends visited. Getting together in Israel is particularly special. I enjoyed spending time here with the Bellovins, Blavits, Getz, Whitemans, Malkin, Boneh, Leshinskys, Glazer, Greenberg, the Fortify gang, Jacob and Liz, and others as they came through Israel. The best part was spending six weeks with my parents. The kids really got to know their Bube and Zayde, and we enjoyed seeing them just about every day while they were here.
  • The Tayelet: The 11 km boardwalk along the West Coast of Israel spans from Yaffo to Tel Baruch beach, which is right near our apartment. During most of our stay, I biked on the tayelet several times a week. The views are breathtaking. Every Friday morning, Ann and I biked to the Namal (the port) and bought items at the market for that evening's Shabbat dinner, a ritual that I will sorely miss.
  • Chopping the top three spots in a big poker tournament: It took me a while, but I finally broke into the poker scene in Tel Aviv. I had a blast getting to know the game in Israel, playing at least once a week and sharing first place in my only tournament this year. I made some great friends at my regular games, and I plan on getting together with them again to play cards whenever I'm in Tel Aviv again.
  • Soccer at the Yarkon Park: Most Sunday mornings, I played soccer with a group from the US embassy. The game was fun and friendly, and hopefully kept me in decent shape to return to my regular games back in Baltimore.
What do you miss the most from back home?
You don't realize just how great life is in the United States until you spend significant time somewhere else. Perhaps the most difficult part of living in another country is the feeling that you do not understand how things work. The bureaucracy and the laws have subtle differences that place you in awkward situations, exacerbated  by the language barrier. I miss knowing how to get things done, realizing what resources are available, and being able to manage myself comfortably in most situations.

Are you glad that you did this?
Yes. This was one of the best years of my life, and one of the most important ones for my family.

How was the year in Israel for the kids?
I think the kids will appreciate this year more when they look back on it than they did while they were here. It is very difficult for a 12 year old to adjust to a completely new environment, a different language, and a set of classmates who are all new to her. Elana handled it like a champion, and although the first several months were very challenging, I believe she would agree that she is a better and stronger person for the experience. She now has a greater appreciation of the world and of her lot in life, and I believe being away helped her forge even stronger ties with her best friends back home. 

The twins had a much easier adjustment. Eight year olds accept new kids much more readily than twelve year olds, and there was at least one English speaking kid in each of their classes. Tamara and Benny each found a "best friend" here, and in fact, the separation as we head home is hard for them.

All three of our kids learned Hebrew and can now speak, understand, read and write fluently. This was one of our primary objectives in coming here, and I could not be more proud. Elana declared that she is going to speak Hebrew to her children so that they will have an easier time learning it than she did.

How would you summarize your experience?
Leaving home for this much time is not easy. We took a big risk, and as a result, we experience a year of immeasurable value. All five of us improved our Hebrew language skills. Ann studied at an Ulpan and can now understand any simple conversation and can communicate the basics when speaking. I feel entirely fluent, and the kids have a very good grasp of the language. 

Israel is a unique and wonderful place. But, it is full of cultural, religious, and racial tensions. There is a persistent terrorist threat, and the people of Israel have as much trouble getting along with each other as they do with their neighbors. It is sometimes easy to forget that all of the Jews in Israel share a heritage. The country is at the same time divided and yet more united than any other place. When missiles fly in from Gaza or Lebanon and when neighboring armies threaten to invade, people unite as though family.

It will take a long time to fully process this experience. I will miss many aspects of living in Israel, while at the same time, I am relieved to head home, back to our normal lives in the States.