“Becoming Israeli: The Hysterical, Inspiring and Challenging Sides of Making Aliyah” by Akiva Gersh is the first and only book to share the voices of multiple English-speaking olim (immigrants) to Israel and their experiences with the inspiring, emotional and challenging moments along their journeys to becoming Israeli.
What motivated you to write “Becoming Israeli”?
I made aliyah in 2004. Growing up, my family and I were somewhat disconnected from Israel, and I’d describe my connection to Judaism as “light.” In college, I discovered my Judaism again and, in that discovery, came Israel. I traveled to Israel for the first time when I was 22 and instantly fell in love with the country. Although I’d been to Israel six or so times before, it had only been for a few weeks or months at a time. I’d never fully immersed myself in Israeli culture and society during those visits. I would mainly hang out in Jerusalem or Safed with friends. So, when I made aliyah, I established my connection with Israeli society.
What do you feel your connection to Israel was like before that?
My connection to Israel was always religious and spiritual. Yet, after making aliyah, I realized that something special is happening here. This isn’t a normal country. There’s something unique happening here. This is a society that has come together after 2,000 years of exile. There are experiences that you can only have by living in Israel.
Can you tell us more about what you found to be so unique?
I excitedly coined the term, or so I thought, “only in Israel,” as I wanted everyone else to share their own amazing and unique stories. Everything from receiving a free challah from the gas station on a Friday afternoon to the woman at the supermarket standing behind you in line who realizes she forgot to get milk and hands you her baby as she goes back down the aisle. Or the security guard in front of the mall wearing a tallit and tefillin as he takes a break to pray. There are literally thousands of these types of stories. [After starting the Facebook group “Only in Israel”], I received a grumpy email from a fellow Israeli who said, “Hey! I already started an “Only in Israel” group by this name, and you’re taking people away from our group!” So, I shut down my group and joined his. Of course, only in Israel!
It sounds like you were highly astute to the nuances of life in Israel.
I think I had an awareness and then a hyper awareness after making aliyah to all of these “only in Israel” stories and experiences. As a writer and educator, I decided to start blogging about the aliyah journey, experience and acclimating to Israel. After I started blogging, I realized there were many other olim who were doing the same thing. And I thought, wow, there are so many incredible written pieces about the aliyah journey that I have to bring them together in a book and share it with the world! I thought, surely someone has already done this, and after trawling the internet for months and months, nothing like this existed. So, I said to myself, why don’t I do this?
It’s certainly a unique work. How would you describe “Becoming Israeli”?
“Becoming Israeli” is a compilation of essays that provides a unique insight into the funny, inspiring, emotional and challenging aspects of the experience of making aliyah and the journey of acclimating to life in Israel.
Who should read “Becoming Israeli”?
I thought about this a lot, and I really believe the audience for this book, although it’s about aliyah, can go beyond that, and it has. Obviously, it will appeal to people who’ve made aliyah in the past couple of years, as well as those who made it 30 years ago. Anyone who has made aliyah will be able to relate to the stories in the book because it’s the story of coming home, yet it’s also the story of becoming frustrated at daily life and making mistakes and adapting to a new culture. After I gained this hyper awareness of “only in Israel” moments, I became even more aware that just because this is my homeland, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It’s still a different place, culture and society, and this takes years. For some olim, it’s an endless journey.
The book should also appeal to people considering aliyah, and many people who’ve made aliyah shared with me how grateful they were for the book, which gave helpful insight into the process. There are so many people in Israel within the olim community who work with new olim; many of them help with the technical side of things, like how you go to the doctor, pay taxes, pay for parking, etc. My contribution is more on the raw, emotional side of things, everything from the exciting and inspiring part to the frustrating parts, such as how Israelis drive on the road and how lining up for things doesn’t exist.
It sounds like you’ve covered a lot of ground in your book. Surely many people have found it helpful, right?
Definitely. My book was helpful for many people because it got them excited; there’s a lot of laughter, but there are also many emotional challenges that come with the journey.
Going back to your own aliyah journey, was there a point in time that you said, “Right, I’m making aliyah”?
Yes! It literally was a moment in time, and as crazy as it sounds, it happened during my first week being in Israel when I was 22 years old. I just knew that one day I would spend the rest of my life here.
After that realization, when did you actually make the move?
It took me five or six years, and more practically, it was progressed by my wife-to-be, who also knew she was making aliyah. We were in New York at the time, finishing our master’s degrees. We’d been dating for a long time and she said, “I’m finishing my master’s and then I’m going to Israel. And if you want to go to Israel, then we’ll get married and go together. However, if you’re not ready to make aliyah, then we’ll part ways and I’ll go to Israel by myself.” So, the practical catalyst that actually brought me to Israel was my wife!
Did you make aliyah with Jewish National Fund-USA affiliate Nefesh B’Nefesh?
Yes! I believe we were the second or third year of their flights.
How did they help with the process? Did they make it easier?
Nefesh B’Nefesh was amazing. We were super impressed by them. They just made it very easy. First of all, there was the financial help and then there was a whole amazing staff of people. After making aliyah, I went into their Israel office over the first few years for assistance with various things, such as job searching, and they were extremely helpful.
Are there any standout stories you keep thinking about?
It’s difficult to choose. They’re all so great. When I received the forward for my book from American-born Israeli journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi, it literally brought me to tears. I was so moved by his piece and was so grateful to have his contribution in my book. Even though he made aliyah with a different generation, it was incredible to have him be a part of it. He has really been a mentor to me and helped through the entire process of compiling the book.
Who should come to hear you speak at Jewish National Fund-USA’s Fall Reading Series on Sept. 23?
Anyone who shares an affinity with Israel. I also think a wider American Jewish audience; the idea of aliyah is not just for Jews who are religious or highly ideological. Making aliyah can appeal to many people. I think there’s so much that Israel can offer Jews just as human beings: a high quality of life, a thriving tech sector, being a strong nation, an innovative nation, a nation that feels like a family, a nation that’s persevering and has shown its strength in many unique ways, and a nation that’s committed to helping people around the world and has taken the concept of tikkun olam seriously. To sum up, I think there’s a wide and diverse audience “Becoming Israeli” will appeal to. I deliberately chose a wide spectrum of Jews in the book—left-wing, right-wing, religious, secular—there’s deliberately nothing political in the book; it shows how people are living their life and aliyah journey in Israel’s diverse tapestry of communities.
To hear Akiva Gersh speak on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m., register here.
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