Move On Up (Toward Your Destination)

On Language


By Philologos

Published October 13, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

“When someone moved to Israel, we used to say he was ‘going on aliyah.’ Over the past 10 to 15 years, the phrase has changed to ‘He made aliyah.’ This doesn’t seem to make sense in either English or Hebrew. How did the change come about?”

Over the past 20 to 25 years may be more like it, but Mr. Rockoff is right. American Jews immigrating to Israel now “make aliyah.” Why?

“Aliyah,” needless to say, is a Hebrew word, not an English one, a word with which few non-Jewish Americans, and not all American Jews, are familiar. Its literal meaning is a “going up” or “ascent,” since in Judaism, traveling to the Land of Israel has traditionally been thought of as “ascending” to it, just as leaving it has been thought of as a “descent,” or yeridah. Although over the centuries this usage took on a metaphorical meaning, the “ascent” to the Land of Israel being conceived of as a step up to a higher plane of existence and the “descent” from it as a step down, this was not the original intent of the words. That, rather, was purely geographical.

Look at a topographical map of the Middle East. Although the mountains of Palestine are not particularly high (apart from Mount Hermon in the far north, they never surpass 4,000 feet), anyone traveling to them from Egypt, Babylonia or the Mediterranean basin — the areas in which, in early rabbinic times, the Jewish Diaspora was concentrated — had to climb to a higher altitude, whether from the lowlands of the Nile and Euphrates valleys or from the flat Palestinian coastal plain, where a ship crossing the sea from Greece or Italy would dock. And because Jerusalem, at 2,700 feet, sat atop Palestine’s central mountain range, anyone traveling to it from elsewhere in the country, at least on the last leg of the journey, would be upward bound, too. Hence, a pilgrim to Zion for one of the three festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot was called an oleh-regel, a “festival ascender,” a Hebrew word that eventually came to denote a pilgrim of any kind.

In time, however, as I have said, the “ascent” or aliyah to the Land of Israel began to be thought of more in psychological and spiritual terms than in geographical ones. And in modern times, these became Zionist terms, too, so that the oleh, the immigrant to a Jewish homeland or state, was someone who had chosen an elevated life of national commitment. In both traditional and modern Hebrew, what such an oleh did was neither “to make aliyah” nor “to go on aliyah.” Rather, it was la’alot la’aretz, literally, “to ascend to the Land.” Hence, “I’m immigrating to Israel” — ani oleh la’aretz; “I immigrated to Israel” — ani aliti la’aretz; “I will immigrate to Israel” — ani e’eleh la’aretz, etc.

And now let’s cut to American Jewish English. You’re an American Jew about to move to Israel: What do you say? “I’m immigrating to Israel”? That sounds cold and neutral, and no different from moving to England or Spain. “I’m oleh-ing to Israel”? That sounds like New Guinea pidgin. “I’m going on aliyah to Israel”? That sounds better — and in fact, as Mr. Rockoff points out, it’s what American Jews said for many years.

Why did this change to “I’m making aliyah”? I can only speculate, but here’s my guess. What are some of the things we commonly “go on”? For starters, we might point to journeys, trips, outings, expeditions, tours and, yes, pilgrimages. And what do all these things have in common? All involve travels from which one returns in the end to one’s point of departure. To an ear sensitive to English, “going on aliyah” has the at least faint implication that one will end up coming back, as indeed not a few disappointed American Jewish olim have done. It’s not a very encouraging note to set out on.

And what are some of the things that we make? Resolutions. Decisions. Fresh starts. Life changes. “To make aliyah” implies the determination to stick it out and succeed that “to go on aliyah” lacks. This, I would speculate, is why it has replaced the latter — a development that may have to do with the fact that most American olim today are more religious, more ideological and more committed to staying in Israel than their counterparts have been in the past.

Meanwhile, however, a curious thing has happened. Although “to make aliyah” is hardly a typical Americanism, it has, like countless other Americanisms, influenced Israeli Hebrew, so that more and more in Israel today, one encounters the thoroughly un-Hebraic expression la’asot aliyah — “to make aliyah” — in place of the traditional la’alot. “He’s immigrating to Israel” — hu oseh aliyah; “He immigrated to Israel” — hu asa aliyah; “He will immigrate to Israel” — hu ya’aseh aliyah. I could easily write a column about this and post-Zionist trends in contemporary Israeli society, but I can write only one column at a time.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.