Exit Ramp: Becoming Israeli

Exit Ramp: Becoming Israeli

It was 1970. I was bereft! My best friend, on the other hand, was euphoric. I was, or so I thought, losing her. She and her husband and their three adorable little kids were moving to Tel Aviv. They were making aliyah.

Our friendship started one spring morning in 1964 when an obviously pregnant woman of about my age strolled past our new home in Clark, walking her fancy pedigreed dog (obviously over-bred since he had a short and unhappy life) as I emerged with our own canine, Gringo, an exceedingly healthy import from the Newark dog pound. Gringo, with mock ferocity, promptly charged poor Pokey, terrifying him, then immediately showed signs of repentance. While the dogs sniffed each other in unmentionable places, the two young dog walkers began to chat. Her baby was on the way while mine, Amy, had recently arrived. Sparks flew; we would be friends forever. We both knew that on day one.

Clark was never one of the area’s toniest suburbs, but in the 1960s it had a comfortable reputation for attracting young Jewish couples, with a welcoming shul, good public schools, and somewhat reasonably priced new homes. Neighborhoods sprung up, and new streets seemed to appear overnight. Wheatsheaf Road, sporting nary a sprig of wheat, was among them. We lived at number 68 and our new friends lived at 92, just up the block. 

The husbands hit it off. We eventually had, between us, seven kids, all close in age. Life was pretty much perfect.

Until the announcement: Our friends, Janet and Ben, were selling their business and their house and moving to Tel Aviv. Janet’s parents would be making aliyah as well. 

Talk about being devastated. OK, maybe this wasn’t a tragedy, but it sure made me unhappy.

Of course, I didn’t think it would work. I had this American vision of Israelis’ being poor and unpampered. My friend, who had only recently been on a six-week cruise aboard the Queen Mary, leaving her children in her mother’s care, was neither unpampered nor poor. I could not imagine her clearing malarial swamps or, worse, eventually sending her boys to the Israeli army. (She never did have a hand in draining those wetlands, but she did endure many years of being a soldier-mom — valiantly, I might add.)

Of course, they ignored my negativity and off they went to a brand-new Tel Aviv apartment in a neighborhood not too dissimilar from our own in Clark — lots of young Jewish couples, lots of little kids. Their new friends were, however, not Jerseyans; they came from disparate places like Paris and Buenos Aires. Ben already spoke Hebrew and Janet flew through ulpan and was soon completely fluent, ready to chat away in Ivrit with all the friends who had replaced poor me back in New Jersey. 

Full disclosure, my own sister had made aliyah in 1967, when Israel was experiencing unprecedented power following the Six-Day War. My sister’s aliyah when she was a young single did not resonate in the same way as Janet and Ben’s. In her I saw the fulfillment of a thirst for adventure. A recent college graduate, with no husband or kids (yet), it might even have been a passing phase. Janet and Ben’s moving with young children seemed to me more of a challenge and commitment. That my sister might stay on and build a family was not yet on my radar. 

And so I, a pretty dispassionate Zionist (I was a Hadassah member and had a JNF Blue Box in my kitchen), found myself looking east. Friends and family were compelling magnets. Life changes were on the way for me and my family. We began to travel to Israel for vacations. Our first trip was in 1971, then again in 1972. We loved every moment of being there. These were halcyon, golden days in Israel; the country was surging forward, with, seemingly, nary a worry in sight. It was a place that felt empowered. Who wouldn’t want to be there? Jewish pride indeed!

In 1973, with no inkling of the Yom Kippur War to come that October, we went to Jerusalem for a 14-month sabbatical. My husband had been invited to consult at The Hebrew University on pollution control. The country hooked us, all six of us (and Gringo, still very much part of the family). We had connections who were exceedingly close and important to us. Our kids became immersed in the Israeli school system and mastered Hebrew much faster than their parents. 

We would never leave the country totally behind. We became part-time Israelis, spending more and more time commuting back and forth between Herzliya, our home for 22 years, and New Jersey. And my sister and my best friend remain there.

Israel is in our hearts and souls.

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