Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Why I Moved to Israel - Part Three: Princeton, a Detour?

Part One
Part Two

The year is 1985. The nest is empty. Oma has been gone for five years. Cousin Lucy is also gone. All remaining relatives from my generation live too far for a day-trip visit: Sailorman and cousins in Southern California, Googleman and SIL in their mid-Atlantic home. Elswhere is away at college and Prowesslessness is living at his Dad's, attending Stuyvesant High School. After years of being a wandering minstrel, teaching seminar/workshops, I experience teacher burnout: "why are my students asking the same questions I answered last week?" Of course they are different students, but I run out of energy for the real world. Depression takes hold, triumphing over the deseryl I've been taking. My doctor refers me to a psychopharmacologist. I find myself taking lithium. Lithium! It's common knowledge that lithium is contra-indicated bad for people with psoriasis, but a depressed person doesn't have common knowledge. And apparently neither does this psychopharmacologist. My psoriasis gets worse. Duh. I stop taking the lithium, but the worsened skin stays worse. Goodbye psychopharmacologist, hello dermatologist.

After a few PUVA treatments, I decide a Major Change of Scene (including a new doctor and better medical insurance) might be in order. I take a job in the newly-high tech neighborhood of Princeton, NJ, and put my house on the market. At least moving will force pruning of the accumulated possessions and lighten my load o' baggage. Some of you may think there are less drastic ways to accomplish that goal, but a depressed person can be a bit heavy-handed and concrete-thinking, not to mention melodramatic.

The town of Princeton had a longstanding reputation of anti-Semitism when I first heard of it, with an exception made for outstanding scholars affiliated with the University or the Institute for Advanced Study. I found it appealing to consider bumping into the likes of Albert Einstein and Kurt Godel at the local supermarket. Except they were dead, and I didn't know what their successors looked like. The invasion of high-tech businesses reduced reshaped Princeton's inherent anti-semitism, but the town retained its pseudo-English pretensions. The downtown bus station looked like Shakespeare might run out any minute to catch a bus. The Princeton Burger King had a Tudor storefront, the result of a local brouhaha between the Princeton Town Council and the Powers of Corporate Franchising (MacDonald's wouldn't compromise on storefront cosmetics, so there was no MacDonald's).

The first weekend after my move, Prowesslessnesslessness visited. His take on the Tudor style public phone booths in Princeton was, "They look like the Department of Cutesification had a strong voice in the design." Moving to Princeton in the mid-1980's seemed to me the ultimate assimilation of a Jew into the American Mainstream, which ended up looking like a Disney version of Stratford-on-Avon.

Except. As soon as I've moved to my new white-bread, "cutesified" environment – well, not quite white-bread: the week after I move there, Princeton gets its first bagel bakery – almost everything I choose to do in my spare time is Judaism- or Israel-related. I join the Jewish Center (no "Community" in the name = no pool), I attend services weekly, I join the synagogue choir where the repertoire is an amalgam of liturgical, Israeli folk, Yiddish, Israeli modern, Ladino music, I study Hebrew, first formally once a week and then informally with three other women early mornings at the local Burger King (it's the only place open early enough for us), I learn Israeli folk dances. I develop a taste for Hazzanut. My only hobby outside the pattern is an adventure in macrobiotic eating/cooking (although all macrobiotic food is technically, if not legally, Kosher). I finally take a business-trip plus vacation to Israel and I see what I'm missing: total immersion.

So I go to the Philadelphia office of the Jewish Agency and talk to the shaliach (emissary) about moving to Israel. Only the folks at the Jewish Agency call it "making aliyah," which means "moving up." To me that sounds pretentious, but I'm beginning to learn what the claims of a community can mean: if the community calls it aliyah, I'd better get used to it. When I talk to my assimilated American friends and family, I tell them I'm thinking of moving to Israel. When I talk to my new Israeli connections, I talk about my planned aliyah. Lesson One in cross-cultural communication.

The shaliach is a pleasant kippah-wearing American-Israeli in his late 30's, who gives me a party line: "Every Jew has the right to return to Israel," but also makes it clear Israel is not really for the likes of me. Why not? I'm middle-aged, divorced, I have no family support in Israel, I don't know Hebrew, my children aren't coming with me, they'll get married, have children, and I'll be a grandmother 8,000 miles away from my grandchildren. It's not a good prospect, from his point of view.

I come away fuming: his position is age-ist, sexist, collectivist, and almost every kind of –ist that doesn't even have a prefix yet. Nevertheless, maybe he's right. Anyhow, if this guy represents my entrĂ©e to Israel, I am doomed to remain in America. Trying to make aliyah and taking on the Government of Israel while doing so seems foolish (I'm obviously not so depressed/desperate anymore). So I wait. For two more years. During which Prowesslessnesslessness goes off to college, I move again, locally this time, and my salary and work responsibilities almost double.

My American dream is ghastly: I am working regular 70-hour weeks, I don't like my colleagues, my skin shows the stress. The PUVA treatments don't help much. I feel trapped by "success," like a money-making machine, and I am certain I've reached a career dead end. The prospect of growing older, feeling sicker and emptier seems inevitable. I fantasize about sunshine and seaside. A lot. I'm having a mid-life crisis.

I read about the Dead Sea as a mecca for psoriasis sufferers, and decide to try it. It helps. I meet lots of psoriasis-buddies, and even make a "business friend" (a woman who reminds me so much of The Lioness it's spooky).

I go back to the Philadelphia Jewish Agency and – voila – the shaliach has been replaced by a shlicha (female emissary), a single 40-ish career woman on leave from her job as a news editor for Israel Radio [note: her name is Osnat Landers, and now I hear her name every morning on my radio news broadcast, getting editorial credit]. Osnat comes from a position 180 degrees from her predecessor. I ask her my initial questions, she answers them as best she can, but warns me that some of her information may be out-of-date, or may change by the time I arrive. I like her. She interviews me, looks at my resume, and decides that, despite the handicaps noted by her predecessor, I have qualities and skills that could be used to make a life in Israel. Hurray!


If I had made a mental list of things I was looking for and things I wanted to leave in 1988, it would have looked like this:

Looking for:
1. Community and its meaning to me (the Rabbi's comment stuck)
2. Personal connection to History
3. Adventure
4. Urban living
5. Physical health

Wanted to leave:
1. Cold, snowy winters
2. Career as self-definition
3. Too many consumer choices (for me, shopping is not therapy)
4. Exurban, car-based living
5. Prospect of an increasingly atomized life

But What About the Children?

Ever since I moved to Princeton, Elswhere and Prowesslessnesslessness had spent considerable college vacation time at their Dad's in Queens, closer to the cultural attractions of Manhattan and closer to their new and long-time friends. By 1988, when I decide to move to Israel, E. is a Senior, and P. is a Sophomore with a Serious Girlfriend, Pippi Bluestocking. I wonder whether they'll think of my leaving the USA as abandoning them, or whether they'll look upon it as an example of "follow your dream" living. They're likely to want to strike out on their own after college, 'cause that's how they were raised. So I won't get to see them all that much even if I stay where I am. And they might not even both end up in the same place, and then I'd have to fly from one city to another to see them. What difference would it make if I fly from Tel Aviv or from Princeton? Essentially, only money. Maybe I could even earn enough money in Israel to afford plane tickets, what with my marketable job experience.

So how did I really decide?

I was curious to learn what made Israelis so self-assured, and why, contrary to my notion of self-preservation, they rushed to their homeland every time there was a major war. I had a strong gut feeling that moving to Israel was right for me, and my best friend confirmed the feeling by saying, "What have you got to lose?" All the rest was rationalization.

It was the most drastic decision I ever made on intuition alone, and I was scared to death.


The Lioness said...

Hell, I know exactly what you mean. Not for everyone is it. I'm happy it worked for you.

[Now pray tell, what is it exactly? is it physical, quirky, what? What's the reminder?]

PPB said...

how cool.
And I love your description of Princeton. I spent a few years there one day.

Savtadotty said...

Lioness: definitely not for everyone. For me, it's the eye contact.

PolarBear: Oy, Princeton! And it so beautiful-looking. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, as long you use the cover as a guide to what the book is not.

Noorster said...

Are you going to call this series "Why I Made Aliyah?" from part four on?
Just curious :)

Savtadotty said...

Noorster: Part Four? You mean I haven't answered the question yet?

Dale said...


James J. Na said...

Ha, ha. I must admit that, as an immigrant, I love America for some of the reasons you don't:

"3. Too many consumer choices (for me, shopping is not therapy)
4. Exurban, car-based living
5. Prospect of an increasingly atomized life"

I love consumer choice. As I always say, America is about "want," not "need."

I also love cars. I hated drab Korean cars (single model & make, Hyundai and single color, black) of my youth. I must admit, immodestly, that I have a red Lexus sports sedan. I burn 92 octane gas with zeal.

As for "atomized life," seeing as how I am a misanthrope (I actually like my two dogs and, in fact, most dogs in general more than I do people), it works for me.

What's there not to like about America? Big houses, hot cars, sexy women and plenty of guns! Ah, the power of assimilation!

Okay. I know, I know. Israel has sexy women and lots of guns (if you're Israeli), but 100% tax on car imports???!!!

Savtadotty said...

James: I must admit in my youth I had a taste for two of the things you describe: shopping, cars. In fact, when I lived in London I bought a Triumph TR-3 sports car (black) with not one but TWO detachable tops: tonneau (snap-on) and hard. But time has worked its effects on me, and last year I sold my last car and did not replace it, and boy do I feel liberated! Plus it's doing my little bit to reduce dependence on fossil-fuels (although my annual Transatlantic flights more than make up for the savings). And at the end of the days, there's just me and my Israeli dog, no other humans.

Third Street said...

Finally got to read this. I find it very interesting for a number of reasons. Intriguing to hear the detailed thinking behind a major "follow your dreams life decision." Also, your quest for community interests me. It seems that once you got to Princeton your Jewishness really emerged in response to your feeling of isolation.

I spent a year in Israel under the influence of friends from college who were involved with Habonim and Kibbutz Gezer It was an amazing experience (1980-81).

As a parent, this piece really made me think about my future and the kinds of decisions one needs to make or not make based on the needs of your kids.

Thanks, Savta.

Savtadotty said...

Third Street: Yes, Princeton really exaggerated the negative, and in that way helped define what I really wanted. My original Life Plan ended when my kids went off to college, so I did need both new parenting and new personal goals then. My work was just a sequence of interesting jobs I could do to pay the ever-increasing bills.

Amy said...

Just finished reading all three parts. A moving and beautifully written story! The added bonus for me is that my father's grandmother moved to Israel alone at a similar age, and I have long wondered at her motivations. In those days, she couldn't easily hop on a place to visit the three children and numerous grandchildren she left in the U.S. She even had to relinquish her U.S. citizenship in order to vote in Israel. Now I feel I may have a better understanding of what led her to make aliyah. Thank you so much for taking the time to record your story!

John said...

This is random, I know, but check out the McDonald's in Biltmore Village in Asheville, NC.

You have to scroll way down.

I met the architect once at a party in Asheville. He's kind of bitter about having his career summed up with, "Oh, you're the guy that designed that McDonald's." The whole business district in Biltmore Village was flooded last summer (I think) so I am not sure what it looks like now.