Writer/editor Gila Rose and her husband, Donny, are from Baltimore. The American couple moved to Israel with their young children in 2008. JewishBoston asked her why they moved and what life is like in Israel for ex-pats. Here, she offers a candid look at life abroad.
First things first: Why did you leave America for Israel?
Well, I would probably start by saying that we didn’t “leave America” as much as we “went to Israel.”
A very clichéd saying that I’ll use anyway is that many people in our generation—especially coming from North America—are running to Israel, not running from something. We are in a unique position, I think historically, of moving to Israel because we believe we can actually live a better life there, not just for purely ideological or Zionistic reasons. Donny, my husband, joked that we could live “the American dream” better in Israel than in America. Living Jewish in America does not come cheap, with expenses like tuition for day school education, using all your vacation days for Jewish holidays and no kosher Doritos. Living in our homeland is not just an, “Oh, it’s so beautiful walking the same path as our forefathers” kind of thing, though that’s nice too. It means being able to live a full Jewish life—in an organic, natural way. Living Jewishly is built in to the country along with falafel, chocolate milk in bags and having very loud arguments.
So we realized that moving to Israel was more than fulfilling the dream of living in our Jewish homeland. It was also possible that we could live the life we wanted more easily in Israel. We came with two kids who were 5 and 2. Now we have five—14, 11, 7 and almost 3-year-old twins.
How is it different from the United States? How is it the same? Better? Worse?
I guess I would say the “outline” of our lives is the same as it would be in America. We wake up, eat breakfast, go to work and school, come home, break up sibling fights, make dinner someone complains about and eventually herd everyone in bed so we can watch TV.
That would probably be the same no matter where we lived. But then other differences are so vast, it’s almost mind-boggling. For example, Judaism—everything from laws, to ancient and modern history, to culture, to defending the land—is baked (literally it’s super hot here!) into our children. In addition, they are ingrained with that unique quality that can only be described as “Israeli-ness.”
And our kids have an incredible amount of independence—taking buses and trains all over, meeting up with friends, walking everywhere, even late at night. Generally, we feel safe here. We don’t have to worry about anti-Semitism, mostly, and we have no problem with our kids walking home from their youth group activities at midnight. Of course, instead we have to worry about wars and terrorism and making sure the kids know how to run to the nearest bomb shelter during a siren. But that’s a topic for the next Q&A.
For kosher and Sabbath-observant Jews, living in Israel is truly life-changing. We are part of the “regular people.” Not the “other” that has to do everything differently. I still remember our first vacation here, in summer 2009. Vacation in America always meant schlepping at least two pots, a frying pan, a portable grill and, one year, even a crock pot, so we could make food for ourselves. We always looked longingly at the families eating at some diner on the side of the road. How nice to be able to just stop anywhere and eat food! And there we were with our sad little bag of chips and Sprite. So when we went on vacation here the first summer, it was truly amazing. We were the people who could stop on the side of the road and eat food! Want pizza for dinner? Sure, we’ll pull over and get some. Snacks in the gas station? All kosher! Breakfast in a café? Let’s do it. No more pot-schlepping! For people who love food as much as we do, it was really a game-changer.
What are the challenges of raising kids abroad?
Well, I am and will be an immigrant parent forever. I’m not fluent in Hebrew. I’m a thousand times better than I was, but I’ll never sound like a native. We joke that we’re the Israeli version of our grandparents and great-grandparents who came from Russia and never spoke fluent English. I’m the embarrassing mom stumbling her way through the parent-teacher conference in Hebrew or trying to listen hard as the mom of a kid’s friend is speaking rapidly to me on the phone to plan a playdate.
And I didn’t go through the school system. I’m learning the lingo, but it’s not second nature. I didn’t do the army or national service or university here. It’s all literally foreign to me. I think one of the hardest things for me is the lack of common experiences we have and will have with our kids. For example, who hasn’t thought of bringing their son or daughter on a college tour of their alma mater? Well, that won’t be us. Our own college experiences are pretty much meaningless to our kids. And we have no expertise or advice to offer our kids for their experiences. My kids have asked my husband, “What did you do in the tzavah (Israeli army)?” Because all their friends’ fathers serve and are still called up regularly for reserve duty. And Donny was never in the army. (Even though there is a mandatory draft, the IDF isn’t really looking for old married guys with two kids, so generally olim aren’t drafted.) But our kids will serve. And we won’t be able to personally help or guide them through it.
Even now, our oldest, going into ninth grade, is in the early stages of preparing for bagruyot, the intensive tests high-schoolers take in 11th grade. I’ve taken SATs, but I’ve never taken a bagrut. I have no advice to offer. So constantly trying to scramble and be on top of the game, trying to figure out the next thing our kids need and how we can go about taking care of it, is hard.
Any advice to parents contemplating doing what you did?
Personally, I think if you’re going to do it, the sooner the better. Though I have seen plenty of families make aliyah with older kids and everything is smooth sailing, it’s definitely easier when your kids are younger and can more easily adapt and pick up the language. The older kids are, the harder it is to make a sudden and drastic move like aliyah.
And just know it’s going to be hard. For sure. Be prepared for that. It’s hot. So, so hot. There’s red tape and bureaucracy and frustrations. Though I heard they just canceled the dreaded driving test and that you can automatically transfer your license, so that’s good news! Aliyah may affect your family in ways you might not even be able to anticipate yet.
Most of all, be zorem. That is my No. 1 piece of advice. Zorem is Israeli slang for “go with the flow.” Literally: Flowing water is called “mayim zormim” in Hebrew. Be prepared for setbacks, for something you thought would take five minutes to take five days. For people not returning your calls. If you’re zorem, then when things do go your way—and trust me, they will, I promise—you’ll be so pleasantly surprised!
How did this move affect your Jewish identity?
My country is my religion is my identity. I’m not two separate people anymore. I’m not “an American” and “a Jew.” I feel more “whole” as a Jewish person. Like, “Oh, yeah, this fits, this makes sense.”
What’s it like to visit America with your kids now? What do you tell them about their American identity?
So, funny story. My kids haven’t been back since we came in 2008. We have been very lucky and my parents made aliyah in 2012, so we’ve had them nearby since then. My sister lives in Modiin as well. My brother is in Chicago, so I definitely don’t see him as much as I would like, and that’s hard. And my in-laws have made several trips here since we moved. On Donny’s side, three out of four siblings live in Israel as well. So because of all the family living and visiting here, we haven’t had a compelling reason to go back. Obviously a trip like that is expensive to do just because. My kids know they are American and they all speak fluent English. Reading and writing is another matter, but they all speak it. And we have a big plan for a family trip to America in two years—God willing—where we will hit all the sites: Manhattan, D.C., the big parks out West. We’re going to do the whole America shebang! The kids are really looking forward to that, and so are we, though it dawns on me now and then that we’ll have to bring a pot and not eat Doritos.
Any plans to return to America in the future?
Permanently? Definitely not. Israel is stuck with us for the long run. I’ve been back only once, for a family wedding. My brother will be making a couple of bar mitzvahs down the road, starting next summer, so hopefully I’ll go back for those, and take a kid or two. Kids, if you’re reading this, we are not discussing who goes first now! And we will of course be taking The Great America Vacation of 2019. We are considering adding Boston to the itinerary. We want to show the kids an amazing baseball stadium. What do you think?