Move On Up (Toward Your Destination)

On Language

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By Philologos

Published October 13, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
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“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 philologos@forward.com


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