For many years — for most of my life, in fact — I wanted to live in Israel. My elementary school was so successful in teaching its students to be Zionists that it eventually had to close down; too many of the students and families moved to Israel. I myself was a convert to Zionism, and since my parents did not intend to make aliyah anytime during my childhood, I set about planning my own life around my eventual move to Israel.
My family visited Israel often, so that by the time I was in high school we were no longer doing the “touristy” things — we had already done them all. When I did my gap-year Israel learning program, I picked the one that was run and attended by Israelis so that I could learn Hebrew and acclimate to the culture. I took the Israel college entrance exams so I could apply to universities there; I decided if I waited until after college, it would only get harder to make such a big move.
Israel, in my mind, was home. It is the Jewish nation and the Jewish birthright. It is the holy land, but more than that, it is a land where a Jew could be comfortable being a Jew. Davening on the bus wouldn’t make me stand out as a strange girl muttering to herself; I would be one of many girls doing the exact same thing. Israel has the right values, I determined, a place where children can walk to the supermarket alone and be safe. And if I was killed in a terrorist attack, well, at least I would die in Israel.
Clearly, though, I did not live out my dream. I live in New Jersey, not Gush Etzion on the West Bank as I planned. When I got sick during my two years of learning in Israel, so sick that I had to come home halfway through each year, I decided I couldn’t attend university so far from home. What if I got sick again? But I assured myself that America was only temporary. I was committed to my plan, even if everyone told me how hard it was to live in Israel.
But then I met Jeremy. Previously, I had tried to only date men who also had a dream of making aliyah, or at least claimed to, knowing that I only wanted to be with someone who would move with me. But with Jeremy it was different — we sort of fell into dating, and by the time I realized it was looking like marriage, it was too late. I loved him, and I didn’t want to lose that. Jeremy had no such dream of living in Israel, and even if he did, he was on a path to graduate school in America. He promised to be open to the idea of moving there, but it would be years before he would be ready to move, and by then the chances would be even slimmer. There was a pivotal moment in our relationship in which I took a weekend to decide: Jeremy or Israel? I chose him.
The truth is, I don’t know that I would have made aliyah either way. By that point the dream was starting to feel like a burden, a promise I made myself and everyone else that I had to keep, rather than a fire that burned within me like it originally had. I loved Israel, sure, but did I really want to live there? There were a great number of challenges to living in Israel, challenges that I had always known about but seemed surmountable when I had a passion for the dream. Now the challenges loomed before me, and when I chose Jeremy over Israel, there was a certain relief: I didn’t have to make aliyah, and I had good reason.
As I write this, Jeremy and I are preparing to go to Israel together for the first time as a couple. I haven’t been there since my sister’s wedding a year and a half ago; for Jeremy it’s been almost two years. A year and a half ago my sister lived in Israel, I still had a vague plan of moving there someday as well, and I hadn’t yet chosen Jeremy over that plan. When I travel this time it will be to a land that will almost certainly remain a travel destination for me and nothing more; my sister has moved back to the United States, which has made me even less motivated to move there.
Israel wasn’t originally the focus of our trip. We were planning to visit Greece, and Israel is so close that it just made sense. But now that the trip is actually approaching, now that I’m thinking about seeing the cities I used to know as well as my hometown, walking the familiar streets, I find that I’m as excited to see the land I’ve seen a hundred times before as the famous islands of Greece that until now have only existed for me on the pages of travel magazines.
I may never live in Israel, and I may never think of it with the undiluted fervor of an elementary school student, taught that Israel is the good guy and the rest of the world the bad one. But Israel will always be my homeland.
Simi Lichtman is a contributor to the Forward.
Choosing My Husband Over Israel