There used to be a joke in Israel. It worked in English and Hebrew, so here it goes.
A tourist goes to visit Israel. He is astounded at what a beautiful country it is. He’s awed by the crops in the field, the amazing range of topography from mountains to deserts, from to to ocean. Haifa sits on the ledge overlooking the Mediterranean and little Safed (Svat) is a gem atop a mountain overlooking the sea of Galilee. He decides his future is there and he gets his family on board and they all move to a Merkaz Klita (Welcoming Dwelling) where they will first settle for free while everyone learns Hebrew and figures out what work they would like to do. But nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. The family is completely bogged down in bureaucracy. The kids learn Hebrew quickly, but mom and dad? By the time they’ve been there a year they have a couple of hundred simple words and an accent that makes Israeli’s cover their ears. Their skills don’t seem to fit in and their poor language skills make even an interview feel like climbing a mountain. Although they arrived with quite a lot of money, a year later, they are nearly broke, still don’t have a home of their own or something they could call a profession. The kids are happy, but the parents are sometimes too depressed to get out of bed in the morning.
“What happened?” says the man who first came there. “It was perfect. Beautiful. Everyone was happy. It was just like a tourist guide, full of fascinating archaeology, golden fields, exciting technology, hope, joy … with a future.”
“Aha,” said the Israeli to whom he was talking. “That was because you were here on a tourist visa.”
This particular bit of humor works for any place on Earth — or for that matter, Heaven and Hell. It’s an all-purpose joke. You just don’t “get” a country when you go there on vacation. I know a lot of people who moved to places they fell in love with as tourists, only to discover that the day-to-day lives of those who lived there was something too different for them, at least permanently. Nonetheless, I maintain that everyone should spend at least a year living in another country and not next door. It’s the only way you learn that how we do things here isn’t the only way they can or should be done. When you live abroad, there are no foreigners because you are one.
I had a dream about Israel last night. I often dream about Israel, and frequently, I dream in Hebrew. This is particularly interesting because apparently somewhere in my brain, I know a lot more Hebrew than I ever managed to to speak while I lived there. Owen spoke like he was born there within six month, but I spoke with such an awful American accent, often substituted words that sounded similar to the correct ones — which was hysterically funny to Israelis who are not, overall, big on politeness. They laughed until they cried. Each burst of laughter made me less willing to try to learn the language properly.
Nonetheless, I stay just under nine years and loved the country. I didn’t love the politics. I’m not sure anyone loves their country’s politics, but Israel and the Middle East are particularly incomprehensible. There is truth on every side, lies on every side, and a bizarre mixture of both on every side. It is not only possible to believe two completely opposing beliefs simultaneously, it’s almost a requirement. For example you can believe it is absolutely imperative that Israel have borders that can be protected against invasion because we have seen what happens when we don’t, but also believe that the Palestinians are getting a raw deal. Both things are true and both issues need to be somehow reconciled. If it were up to me, I would try to convince everyone involved on both sides to declare the past done. It’s too complicated to work out the differences. Start from today. Make something work now because the past is gone and living there is not doing anyone any good at all.
In my dream, a friend (who I didn’t recognize and still don’t) was singing an Israeli folk song. She asked me if I knew the song. I said I didn’t. She asked me a lot of questions about the country and places I had visited. Eventually, I woke up talking to her explaining I had moved there and never been a tourist. I never did touristy things unless I had guests from the States. I loved having guests because it was the only time I had to do the tourist stuff.
Otherwise? I worked. I raised a family, or tried. I had a terrible marriage which was a “bounce back” from a recent divorce (always a very bad idea — overseas or not). I didn’t understand anything and he wasn’t much of a help. I worked long hours and commuted … something few Israelis did at that point though I understand these days, Israelis do commute between cities. It’s a very small country, after all. Today’s Israel is very different. Owen commented the other day that he had overheard some Israelis talking and could barely understand them. The language — especial the idioms — have changed enormously during the past 30 year. He was embarrassed that he understood so little.
But the thing is, I was involved almost from the first couple of weeks in work, relationships, and working at being a part of a society about which I understood only pieces. I never gave myself a chance to learn the language which remained a huge barrier for me. I was tied down to very young children and their care while they didn’t even understand my language nor I theirs.
Moving to a country is not at all the same as vacationing there. Maybe retiring might be similar. I wouldn’t know. I never had any significant time off while I lived in Israel. I was always working. Like many people who move to a new country, most of my friends were immigrants too. From England, Australia, South Africa, France, the Philippines, and of course, the U.S. In the years I lived in Jerusalem, almost all of them went back to where they came from.
They got tired of battling bureaucracy, dealing with terrorists and impending war, as well as Israel’s weird brand of socialism crossed with capitalism. With salaries too low to live on and what was then the most insane inflation you can imagine.Calculating various currencies and overdrafts while tryin to figure out what you were really earning. Mostly, I came to realize that Israel was not solving its problems. With each passing year, the idealists got older and the younger ones were a wholly different culture than the ones in my age group or older. The new crowd were born there. As far as they were concerned, the lay of the land was the way it had been since before they were born and they weren’t giving up anything to anybody. Much like this country. Is the U.S. giving back our Native Americans their land? Or even giving Black people a couple of acres and the equivalent of a mule? Of course not. After a certain point in time. the land belongs to whoever has possessed it, regardless of what happened before. I did not think there would ever be peace in my lifetime or maybe ever.
Yet I loved it. I love the Old City. I love walking the wall of the old Jerusalem. You could still do that back then. You could still go and dig around in archaeological areas and “find stuff.” You could walk through a corner in Jerusalem where David fought Goliath. Climb a mountain where an Israeli king made a last stand. See where the Romans broke through the walls into the city. Look at the reservoirs built by Herod the Great (his greatness is in considerable dispute, by the way). You could climb the Mount of Temptations, follow the Via Dolorosa and have Arab coffee along the way at the Misery of the Cross Coffee House and Souvenir Shop while shopping for sandals. You could fall in love with the open air spice shops and vacation along the Sea of Galilee. Drive to the top of the Banias and visit Eden where Adam and Eve had that especially delicious apple.
With all of that, it was never a vacation for me. It was beautiful, haunting, and rich with thousands of years of history … but in the end, it wasn’t “home.” Because when I thought of home, I knew I wasn’t there.
Maybe had I made a more sane marriage, learned the language, and felt the country was moving in a better direction, it could have been home, but I made too many bad choices too fast. I learned too little and most of that, too late. Ex-patriotism doesn’t work for everyone … at least not when it’s very far away, across an ocean in a culture that bears little resemblance to your own.