Reflections on ‘Aliyah’
JNS.org – This week marks the 43rd anniversary of my aliyah. In July 1977, I arrived in Israel for what I had thought was going to be a 12-month stint. But when I completed the one-year program for overseas students at the Hebrew University the following summer, I returned to the United States not to remain there, but to tie up loose ends. These included informing the University of Chicago, where I had spent my freshman and sophomore years, that I wouldn’t be back in the fall, and persuading my parents in New York that I hadn’t lost my marbles.
The latter turned out to be less of a problem than I had anticipated. I wasn’t dropping out of school, after all; just finishing my degree at about one-tenth of the price — and in a much warmer climate, both literally and figuratively.
Indeed, the campus of the U of C hit arctic temperatures in the winter, requiring everyone to wear down coats, fur-lined water-proof boots, thick gloves, and ski masks with which to confront the fierce winds. It was also a chilly environment for a teenager like me, who registered as a Republican in my second semester as soon as I turned 18, preferred Motown to what the kids on the block in my largely Hispanic and black neighborhood in Manhattan called “white music,” and announced to my uber-liberal peers — all of whom read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and called marriage “no more than a piece of paper” — that I was in college to find a suitable husband.
As if that weren’t sufficient cause for being ostracized or not taken seriously, I openly argued against affirmative action and disagreed with the mantra that abortion is an issue of a woman’s right to reign over her “own body.”
Nor did I join the “amen crowd” ranting against the recently ended Vietnam War and looking askance at the lone veteran among us. He impressed me as a hero — manly in the way that I believed a guy should be, not someone whose flaws or misfortunes prevented him from dodging the draft. Nothing like the liberal Jewish boys I knew, whose way of impressing a date in those days was to let her pay for her own dinner.
Flaunting my right-wing ideology was like a fashion statement, so it worked as a shtick in social settings. But it was to my detriment when it emerged in the classroom.
Lacking the maturity to know when to err on the side of appeasement, I opted to write a term paper on black antisemitism. Whether the poor grade that it garnered was warranted is unclear. One thing is certain, however: Had the topic been different, the essay would have been treated to a more sympathetic reading.
It’s not as though I hadn’t been keenly aware of that fact when I schlepped through the snow to the library to research the 15-pager or during the hours that I spent banging it out on my manual Olivetti — all the while worried that I’d have to start typing from scratch if I failed to leave two spaces after a period.
In other words, my bad judgement had been premeditated. So too was my subsequent “impulse” to escape to the Holy Land — home of the commandos who had carried out the Entebbe Raid on July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial Independence Day.
News of the spectacular hostage-rescue operation in Uganda exploded during the evening like the fireworks that my parents and I watched from the Brooklyn Bridge apartment of family friends. The jubilation surrounding Israel’s phenomenal bravery did not detract from the celebration of America’s 200th birthday. On the contrary, it enhanced the sense on the part of the patriotic guests in attendance that the United States and Israel were two sides of a special partnership — one that brings out the best in both, while illustrating the power of and potential for human greatness.
This uplifting sentiment was hard to recreate when I got back to Chicago in September. For one thing, Jimmy Carter was elected president a few weeks later. That in itself was enough to dampen my spirit.
It wasn’t even fun anymore to be an oddball — the only kid in the dorm who was bored by Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, yet could sing the lyrics to every Jackson 5 song; a Jewish Republican; an upper-middle-class denizen of the Big Apple who held marriage and motherhood in higher esteem than a doctoral degree; a baby boomer who practically threw up at the sound of the word “career,” the feminist version of what men had no problem referring to as a “job.”
This malaise accompanied me up the ramp of the El Al flight that would change the course of my history. When I landed in Tel Aviv, I practically kissed the ground, but not in the way that many ardent Zionists recount having done. The feeling, rather, was one of relief. Israel was not as I had expected; it was even better.
Gorgeous Jewish soldiers of both sexes were everywhere, walking easily with Uzis hanging over their shoulders, eating ice-cream cones, gossiping and flirting, taking their uniforms and guns as much for granted as the assumption that they were in the process of procuring future spouses.
Passengers on public transportation would shout at drivers who missed their stop — a common occurrence due to the distraction involved in turning up the volume on the radio to enable even people at the back of the bus to hear the regular news bulletins.
The first student of the opposite sex whom I encountered at the Hebrew University book shop — getting ready for his first semester after serving three years in the army — promptly hit on me with the line, “Hey, baby, what’s your major?”
I couldn’t help laughing at how such an act of “male chauvinism” (as it used to be called) would have been received at a comparable US institution. There was no doubt in my mind that this young man never would allow his date to pay for dinner.
I was smitten almost instantly with Israel for not emulating the aspects of the United States that made me want to abscond in the first place. Though America too had been built and continued to be cultivated by heroes, its radicals were gnawing away at its fabric.
Today’s “cancel culture” didn’t happen overnight; it’s been in the making for a long time. That its current manifestation seemed to erupt like a volcano on May 25 — when African-American George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer — is incidental. The movement behind it was lying in wait for the right moment to unleash the lava.
Unfortunately, Israel’s uncanny ability to progress in every field at lightning speed means that it is not exempt from the kind of cultural revolution taking place across the ocean. Campuses across the Jewish state are filled with radical professors accusing it of crimes against humanity, while art exhibits, plays, and films portray the Israel Defense Forces as villainous. If not for constant genuine threats from external enemies armed with actual weapons, the nation would have been free to replicate — and perhaps even surpass — American self-destruction.
I spent this Fourth of July in New York, holed up in coronavirus isolation with my parents, observing the once-vibrant metropolis revert to the dangerous and dirty hellhole of my childhood, and reading about similar filth and violence in Chicago, the city where I voted in my first election.
Over the decades, I have been asked whether I love living in Israel. My answer is that it’s no longer a question; it’s simply my life. On this particular anniversary of my aliyah, I would amend that reply to say that if I hadn’t moved to Israel when I did, I would be doing it now.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring’.