Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder Syndrome

Frustration and anger are part of the early Aliyah experience of many olim – it’s just a fact of life when one leaves behind one culture for another. Especially when one makes a physical move into a foreign culture but insists that the “new” culture change to accommodate their “old” culture.

Pre-Aliyah I was all psyched up and made the bold statement that “I want to become Israeli, not live in ‘little America’  in Israel”.  I can look back with amusement at that statement because I now live in a neighborhood & community that’s a healthy mix of Israelis and Anglos from foreign countries (including the US). With my total lack of functional Hebrew at that time I would not have survived socially in an all Israeli community.

From time to time I receive letters from new olim overwhelmed and sometimes (heaven forbid) planning to leave Israel due to an unpleasant experience or offense that some “Israeli”  (verbally) committed against them. I do my best to point them in the direction of  helpful information or someone who can assist, but the letter I read today was not a tangible problem I could pass on to someone else because I had “been there”.

The letter was from a young woman named “Rose”, who had been gouged by UPS for Customs fees on school books she ordered from Barnes & Noble – a problem many of us have encountered but haven’t been able to resolve for lack of connections in the mafia here (which, I must add, is no different than some experiences I had while living on American soil).

Rose’s “I’m leaving Israel” problem was the result of one inconsiderate Jew’s behavior during her attempt to obtain financial assistance so she could attend the University of Haifa. This klita experience was further aggravated by “bureaucracy” (she didn’t provide details) and disillusionment over the Zionistic expectations she had of Israel. Since Rose is young, I’ll give her the benefit of assuming she hasn’t had to deal with American bureaucracy much – I have, and the only difference here is the barrier of my poor Hebrew skills causing additional frustration (probably for the clerk as much as for me)

My response to Rose, and all the other olim who arrive with high expectations and are disappointed is:

I’m sorry to learn of your bad cultural experiences here. Mine have been totally opposite yours – both here (where total strangers have treated me like loving family) and in the US (where I had loving family & friends, but was also subjected to – burnt out by – back stabbers, unethical business people, lazy government workers and dishonest politicians – regardless of their religious affiliation – throughout my 50 years there). That’s not to say that I haven’t had frustrating experiences in Israel too, or that everyone I’ve encountered has been nice or honest.

My point is, don’t throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. I was once told by a wise man, “don’t judge Judaism based on the behavior of a Jew. Judge it on what the Torah says, because people are only human and not every Jew – even if they claim to be Torah observant – is a good representative for God.”

So I ask you to please not judge the entire country of Israel based on some jerk’s behavior at __________ (fill in the blank). I’ve learned that there is really no such thing as “no” in this country and that many Israelis who have had rough lives are jealous of Americans and will give us a difficult time just because of where we came from (they look down on us for being “soft”). You have to assert yourself when someone declines your reasonable request, don’t take “no” for an answer the 1st, 2nd or 3rd time! Go above their head if necessary – or ask someone else to help you get there.

Native Israelis can be harsh at times and sometimes it takes getting to know the person in order to soften them to the point of wanting to help you – and when they want to help you, look out because they’ll barrel ahead like a freight train once they view you as mishpacha.

Example: I recently had the unfortunate need to obtain assistance at the Israeli IRS office. The first two times I went there, I was met with disinterest and annoyance over my poor communication skills. The third (and last!) time I went, I was given a list of hoops I’d have to jump through and then told that I’d have to go to a different office in another town (more than an hour away). I snapped and explained that this wasn’t going to happen, and they would need to resolve the issue while I was there, and that I wasn’t coming back again (I did this in a combination of Hebrew and English).

At the sound of my raised and assertive tone, a manager came out and invited me into her office. She asked me about my family, how long I had been in Israel, what type of work I do… and I complimented her on the photo of her children and flowers on her desk. She didn’t speak English but between the forms I had completed and my elementary Hebrew skills, she got the picture and got on the phone. During the 10 minutes I was in her office, she began a friendly phone conversation asking about the other woman’s children, etc. and then went into the details of my case. As the other woman resisted making things easy, this manager became my advocate and aggressively pursued (and obtained) the results I needed. Then she called a younger Israeli with passable English skills into her office to explain to me what had transpired and what I could expect.  And as I was leaving her office (it was a Thursday), she wished me “Shabbat Shalom” and pronounced blessings for an easy klita, good health and prosperity upon me and my family.

I’ve also been on buses where I wish I had had the foresight to video the events that transpired – they’d make great TV. I’ve witnessed strangers in heated arguments (politics, child-rearing, clothing color choices…) later help their “victim” with  packages, stroller, etc. as they’re getting off the bus and wish them “Shabbat Shalom” as they climb back to their seat! It’s difficult for those of us who have come from the American “mind your own business”, “equal rights” (which is a fantasy even there) & “freedom for all” culture to understand, but when I recall my mother retelling my grandmother’s stories from the “old country”, I realize that things in Israel are pretty normal and it’s the US that isn’t.

Another point worth considering is the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” syndrome whereby we tend to only remember the best, most comfortable, heart-warming things about the land of our birth when we’re experiencing difficulties in Israel. It’s best not to make snap judgments and decisions during a moment of emotional upheaval – give it time and do a fair reality check on both sides of the ocean (including verifying the current employment, housing, education and cost of living conditions there) before throwing in the towel and leaving your Jewish family in Israel.

And remember that they don’t owe us anything, they’re the ones whose families built this country with their hard work, blood and prayers. Our Israel experience is what we make it!

Shabbat Shalom!


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