Confessions of a Returning Israeli*

Back in the 1960’s, especially after the six-day war in 1967, many Israelis left Israel, due to a very severe economic depression. In those days, nobody dared criticize the Jewish homeland and they all left for “just a couple of years and would then go back.”  During that time, there was such a wave of emigration, people would say “Last one out, turn out the light.”  I still have vague memories of that war and on June 29th we sailed to New York on the Greek Liner, The Queen Anna Maria.

In New York, my father trained to be an electrician and my mother of blessed memory, who refused to speak a word of English for the first two years in the United States in passive aggressive protest, was a homemaker.  My parents, along with their circle of family and friends, made up of other Israelis, spoke Hebrew among themselves and held onto Israeli memories and culture, getting together in one another’s homes and listening to Hebrew music and, whenever possible, enjoying Israeli foods.

Israeli Home

In our home, my parents continued to speak Hebrew so that we children would not forget the language. My mother especially approved of everything that was Israeli and regarded everything American as inferior. All in all, they passed on the programming with which they were raised.

My sister and I later joined a Zionist youth group, which reinforced our Israeli identity. We loved singing Hebrew songs; some with which we were familiar from home and others that were new to us but nevertheless brought joy and comfort at the end of a week of being Israeli at home and trying to fit in and be American everywhere else. We also learned Israeli folk dances, which were also familiar to our parents.

My parents never, for a moment, stopped expressing their longing for Israel and their wish to return. They remembered an Israel with less materialism and more solid values; a society where economics did not divide people and families in any obvious manner; clean air and beaches, innocence, trust and hope; smiles, hospitality and song. This was the Israel they painted from their memories and believed with all their hearts still existed, unchanged.

Grown Children

In time, I married and remained in the US, where my son was born. My sister met her husband in Jerusalem and married and settled in Jerusalem. My brother who was much younger was still in school when, some years later, I divorced. When I remarried, it was to a man who wanted more than anything to return to Israel, where he was born.

After marrying and moving to Jerusalem, my parents had two daughters here and my brother already talked of Aliyah and serving in the IDF. My parents made serious plans to return after retirement.

Sharing the Israel Experience

When I spoke to or visited, I would anecdote life in Israel to my parents, who were convinced that my accounts of inefficiency, rudeness and general, seemingly deliberate, disorganization, was my own distorted perspective that showed an inability to adjust. I assured them that I was exercising my right to voice and that just as Israel was home to all Jews, it was my home and I basically loved living here but saw much room for improvement.

They never realized that they were out of touch. They could not understand overdraft, since when they left Israel, people didn’t have overdraft, they lived in poverty or a very humble lifestyle and any luxuries were few and far between, if at all. They could not understand how one could be thousands of New Israeli Shekels in the red, without being completely irresponsible. They had no inhibitions about voicing their disapproval and judgment, as well as disbelief when facts of modern Israel were presented to them.

Retirement and the Long-Awaited Move Back

The day came when they both retired. As planned, they shipped their container and came back home. Before that, they had bought an apartment in Rishon Letzion that was rented out. They did not renew the tenant’s lease and renovated before moving in.

After the initial period of adjusting to their new home, a 3 1/2 room apartment, instead of a 3-story house with a yard, they re-entered the Israeli system. For all their strong opinions and denial that anything about Israel could be bad or wrong, they experienced double culture shock. Nothing was what they knew from the US, where they had lived for 32 years and nothing was as they remembered from the Israel they loved and for which they yearned all the years abroad.

No Respect

They were appalled at the blatant lack of respect for older people, since for many years, Israelis were known for respect for the elderly. They also could not understand how clerks and other office personnel did not know how to read their name in Hebrew. The name Presser was mispronounced regularly and young workers would read it as parser, perser, etc. Instead of finding younger generations of educated and knowledgeable Israelis, they were embarrassed at the (low) level that they met with every day. For their generation, “chutzpah” meant you could go out when you wanted, as you wished, without curfew and other restrictions imposed by British occupation that preceded the state. Certain words were never uttered in polite company or mixed company and women still held some mystery. The contemporary “letting it all hang out” reached levels that they found hard to take.

My parents did not dare say it out loud but they questioned their decision to move back. The readjustment to a system that was foreign to them, for the second time in their lives, rocked their world. The were perplexed that suddenly and without warning, due to some glitch, they were 7,000 NIS in overdraft, or that their National Insurance stipend did not come in due to a strike. The same banking glitch caused their Kupat Holim to cancel their Long Term Care health insurance, as well as their Supplemental Health Insurance. Once the account was taken care of and the issue cleared up, they never regained their Long Term Care health insurance.

The issue that perhaps hurt them the most, though, was the disappointment in their friends and relatives who, over the years, asked freely for things and to come stay with them, free of charge, with full room and board, as well as all other amenities. My parents moved here, anticipating a full social calendar, with far shorter distance to cover and frequent visits. Instead, once they moved back, those same friends and relatives they hosted generously, could not make time for them. When expectations and reality do not concur, there is disappointment and those two proud people were deeply hurt.

They came to terms with their new reality and accepted it, for lack of any other choice, but they did not like it. They did, however, in time, pass from this world and it was obvious that they were comforted in having their daughters nearby and knowing that they would be buried in Israel, one next to the other.

Life is made of decisions and every decision has consequences. In returning to Israel, they also confronted many illusions they entertained, as well as faced some demons and put an end to them.

*I worked on this post far longer than I expected, as my dad took very ill and has since passed. I wish all readers long life and all good things.

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