Dear Travel Mates,
You know what feels crazier than packing up your life and taking the kids around the country in a van for a year?
Moving to another country for a year.
I mean, it was a bold move to leave our workplaces and schools, in the midst of COVID, during a polarized election, and drive through the middle of the United States. But this feels much more extreme. I have a newfound empathy for all the families who step off the plane and start a life in New York or anywhere else. The bureaucracy alone can drive a mama insane.
We know Israel well. After all, it’s where my husband spent his whole childhood and I spent half of mine. But it still feels foreign. Experiencing it now as a mom is much different than as an art student listening to Nirvana on my way to the beach, or as an adult swooping in for short visits to karaoke with friends and dinner with the family.
We’ve been here for a little over a month now and we’re probably not even halfway through the hazing. The language is different, the culture is different, the landscape, the economy, the weather, the religion. Over the last month each of these has felt like a pitfall in the ground that we’ve stumbled into, nonchalantly stepping right onto the covering branches.
Here’s what I mean:
It’s HOT. Crossing the street feels like cutting through warm slime with your body. It’s inescapable. In the shade, in the car, even at the beach. When we were in Arizona people told us they spent most of the summer indoors. We get it now. Of all the places we went to last year, Arizona and San Diego felt the most like Israel. A desert perched on the coast.
But this month held little air conditioning for us. We spent full days racing to 4 or 5 apartment listings, following ads for second hand stuff and trudging from office to office filling out endless forms.
My Israeli friends who escaped to NY from Israel all say the same thing – “Life is tough in Israel.” We get it now. People here earn in Shekels, which is a third of the value of the dollar. And yet, prices on housing and food are comparable to New York. And then there are the things that are so much MORE expensive here – electronics, furniture, restaurants, gas, clothes. How do people do it? We have no idea.
When we were searching for an apartment we naively thought we would be able to find something cute, affordable, furnished. Ha! Forget furnished, most apartments don’t even come with an oven! Or a fridge, or a dishwasher or laundry machine.
Oh and did I mention you pay for the water here too? (I’m actually on board with that one. In the US we’re way too wasteful with water).
Needless to say, we’re feeling like students in our bare bones apartment with whatever appliances and furniture we could scrape together. Somehow we thought we’d be taking a step up in our living condition from NY. Israel says “Cha Cha” (how they write haha in texts.)
Israeli culture can be described with two words – “Freier” and “Tachles.”. Freier basically means ‘sucker’. And Israelis will do anything not to be one.
Imagine this scene: My kids are on line for a slide at the water park. Isareli kids keep cutting in front of them, one after another. They are so quick, so sly, and used to going after what they want. My kids are used to waiting obediently online. Eventually they give up and walk away.
Disregard for authority and rules is built into Isareli culture. If you’re an Israli kid and your group was just called out of the water park you naturally disregard the announcement and continue playing. If you’re an American kid you dutifully start to move toward the gate.
But Israelis are also a straight-shooting authentic group. Tachles basically means concrete and direct. There is a sense of getting to the meaningful stuff right off the bat without extra pretense. It’s a relief coming from the US where emotions are sometimes masked in passive aggressive behavior. You save lots of time and energy when you can figure out friend or fo immediately.
The other day we were walking through a street fair and my son asked if the machine-gun-looking water guns were real. I guess he was thinking that in a country where 18 year old soldiers stroll the city with a rifle slung over their shoulder anything is possible, even guns being sold in a street fair, laid out on a sheet.
A few months ago there was a serious war here. After years of Israelis feeling relatively safe, rockets hit Tel Aviv and people spent nights in bomb shelters. My friends here still wake up in cold sweats, jump at every siren, and feel distracted in their work.
Living in a country surrounded by enemies is not for the faint of heart. The inherent risk of living here is palpable. Long term plans like the enormous 10 year underground subway project feel utterly optimistic. And yet, the innovation and progress in Israel are born out of a desire to survive, improve the land, the country, the quality of life, and the world.
In some ways Israel politics feels akin to US politics. The country is extremely divided and every election comes as a shock to each side who can’t fathom that the other half of the country is completely insane.
I think we did pretty well choosing the kids’ school. We desperately wanted to find a place that would give them a softish landing and we found it in a small Montessori school. Pat on the back to the parents! But no matter how much individual attention the teachers give or how project oriented the work is, it’s all in Hebrew.
During this last month we’ve realized that the Hebrew we speak with the kids at home only really consists of about 30 words. They can understand food, sleep, and daily tasks, but that’s about it. Understanding DJs on the radio or people on TV, or even other Israelis who speak a mile a minute feels impossible.
My younger two have already improved immensely, although it will take time to feel fully comfortable. My eldest refuses to adhere and is intent on handing in assignments in English and speaking minimally. I get it, I did the same transition when I was his age. It’s a nightmare for a tween even without the language barrier.
The language trap is hard for me too. How can I be my normal hilarious and charming self when I spend so much time worrying about the gender of a word or my accent which has slipped over the years?
Remember how I said that Israelis are not fond of following rules? Well that spells disaster when it comes to COVID.
My kids and maybe two others are the only ones who wear masks in their classrooms. Mind you, this is a private school. These are the kids of high tech parents and successful professionals. Most are liberal in their politics and are happily vaccinated. They just don’t see the point in masks.
Their feeling is that Corona can’t be contained anyway and there’s no point in making the kids suffer. They accept that we’re headed toward more quarantines. They’re realistic to a fault and are not flexible in their thinking.
For us that’s been extremely challenging. New York trained us to be vigilant mask wearers. But after only a few days at school my youngest asked me if she could take hers off because no one else is wearing one.
I could go on about how beautiful this school is, how insightful and thoughtful the teachers are. But this issue stumps me and cancels out the magic. I’m feeling like a true foreigner looking around in disbelief at my fellow parents – “doesn’t anyone else care?”
The main reason we’re here this year is to spend time with our parents. We couldn’t live with the idea that soon the kids will be too old to do something like this. They’ll be deep into highschool and we’ll have less say over what they do and where they go. This feels like our final window and we wanted it for ourselves and for our kids.
Last night we drove 20 minutes from our apartment to be with our parents for the holiday. It felt so right. For the last 27 (!) years I haven’t been able to do that.
At the same time being with family is never simple. As much as I want to be here for this, it will take some getting used to. I’ll have to figure out how to maintain my boundary now that we don’t have 6000 miles of boundary between us.
So we’ve got a ways to go in getting used to this country. In a few months we won’t be as surprised to spend 25 minutes leaving the parking lot of the beach after sunset during a weekday, or that kids as young as 8 have phones. I will have learned how to keep the swarm of huge bees who flew in at 6am while I was doing yoga out.
But for now you’ll find us with the windows wide open during the day and a breeze blowing through the apartment from the East to the West. We’ll be here doing dishes all day long (I really miss a dishwasher,) collecting our dirty clothes for a weekly laundry trip to the parents, and driving any car friends can spare until we have our own.
We’re immigrants, no matter how Israeli we are.