The Family You Meet and the Family You Miss
Shavua tov everyone (literally translated as 'good week'. A very popular Israeli way to greet people on Saturday night or Sunday).
I promised you all that this blog would be an honest account of my experiences in Israel - the good, the bad and the ugly. This post will likely be a bit different for me as I turn off my robotic tendencies and share some of my feelings on the difficulties of living so far away from family, especially during this crazy and difficult period of Corona uncertainty.
As I turned on my phone after Shabbat, I was immediately bombarded with Whatsapp messages from the various classes of my kids' school. This was not an unusual occurrence because, for those of you who don't know, Israelis' preferred method of communication is Whatsapp (or hand gestures) – this tends to apply across the board whether in meetings or doctor's appointments or even while driving. Anyway, my first reaction was to do what I usually when I do when seeing 68 unread Hebrew messages and ignore them (I cannot tell you how many times I was supposed to send my kid with a white shirt or a certain book or food and I had no idea. Classic olah mistake which I keep repeating and refuse to learn from). I took a quick glance just to see the general topic and understood that a girl in first grade from the school that my girls go to was diagnosed with Corona and, because of this, my daughters in first and third grade that go to that school must go into isolation (known here as 'bidud').
Obviously, they can't isolate on their own so what does mean for the family? Are we all supposed to isolate now? Can we still go to work? Can my other kids still go to school? We have no idea what this means on a practical level. I went back to the Whatsapp messages and tried to decode the bottom line between all the messages of hysteria. The bottom line is that no one knows what this means. So for now, as I am sitting here typing this post, I am just assuming the entire family is in isolation unless told otherwise. Let's consider this part – the 'ugly' of living in Israel - the absolute and constant uncertainty and complete inconsistency of messages from public offices (although, to some degree, I will assume this applies all over the world right now). I am trying to find some kind of rationale behind some of the rules here but, to be honest, to me it's the equivalent of trying to find the rationale behind why my 4 year old will only use a green spoon for breakfast.
Now let's discuss the good. Within seconds of me mentioning the situation in one of my Whatsapp groups for Anglo woman in my neighborhood I received phone calls and private messages from so many of these women asking what they could do to help and what they should bring me. Do I need food? What about toys for the kids? Art supplies? In general, I am not someone who likes to ask for help. Ever. But the fact is that in certain situations there is just no choice. One thing you really learn here is that it is ok to ask for and accept help.
Don't get me wrong here - I am sure that outside of Israel people also offer help in situations like these, but when you live near family, it's easier to not accept help because you have your family to rely on. When living in America, I lived very close to my mom and she was a constant source of help and support. If I ever needed something, I had my mom as a 'go to' to call and ask for help. Of course, friends offered but I rarely was in a situation where I needed to accept it.
Living far away from family is a humbling experience where you become more dependent on the kindness of others. I think that for so many people thinking of making Aliyah, the idea of leaving your family and your support system behind is the hardest part of the decision. Instead of asking my Mom for help in situations such as this, we are forced to rely on the help of friends and accept that I cannot do it all by myself. At first, this concept was so difficult for me to accept but I have realized that we are all in the same boat here and at some point, I will pay it forward and offer the same help to someone else. You become each other's Israel family because there just isn’t a choice. It's like this unspoken agreement to have each other's backs.
In addition to help being offered from fellow olim, I find that a big part of the Israeli culture is based on treating everyone as family. What this means practically is that random Israelis may yell at you and tell you what to do like family but they also often want to help you like family.
Unfortunately, I had a chance to test this theory a little over 4 years ago. Let's call this story- the bad (with some good mixed in). I was 9 months pregnant when my father passed away fairly suddenly after a 3 month battle with stomach cancer. I could not fly back in the advanced stage of my pregnancy to say goodbye. I was alone in Israel away from my family. The day he died is the one day I more strongly than ever regretted moving to Israel. I kept asking myself how I could leave my family. How could I be missing my dad's funeral? How could I sit shiva all by myself? After a few hours and lots of time crying on phone calls with my siblings, aunt, mother and stepmother, my family decided to bury my father in Israel and sit shiva with me here. The relief I felt when finding out I would not be missing the funeral was palpable. Having my siblings with me during the shiva was such a comfort and I could not imagine having to go through that alone. We were able to cry together and reminisce together. We laughed as we remembered my dad's corny dad jokes and cried as we thought of all the things left unsaid. My brother was even able to stay with us until my son's brit (circumcision ceremony) 3 weeks later where he was named Refael or Rafi, after my dad whom he would never get to meet.
For over a month, from the day my father died until about 2 weeks after the birth, I did not cook one meal. Seriously, meals just kept showing up from friends and some strangers, Anglos and Israelis, people in Israel and in America. At some point I had to ask people to stop sending meals so I can try to find some semblance of normalcy but the offers kept on coming. During the shiva, I thought the house would be relatively empty because not many people in Israel knew my dad. Instead, the house was filled with visitors many of whom did not know him and did not know me but decided to come anyway because they got a message in a whatsapp group about a pregnant immigrant who lost her father. All Israelis are family.
Now as I sit with my family in isolation and hope for the best, I feel so thankful for all of the messages I received from my Israel family. I miss my real family everyday. I have no way of pretending this part of Aliyah is not difficult in order to try to make this concept easier for you. I think understanding the difficulties here and coming in with realistic expectations is critical for success and, because of that, I will always be honest with you. I wish I could be near my mom while she is self-isolating in NY and help bring her food, etc. so she doesn't need to go out. I wish I had family near me here who I could call to ask for favors. This does not get easier as the years go on it just becomes reality. It is what it is. I hope my family will join me here one day but until then, I know I have my Israel family here too that I can rely on when necessary because when you become an immigrant (an oleh or olah), you become part of a new, sometimes dysfunctional but always well intentioned, family.