JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Layers of meaning

By Michael Hoffman

THE OTHER DAY when I was giving my daughter a yogurt to eat I thought about my mother-in-law.

My wife's family made aliyah in 1970 and my mother-in-law tells me stories about how she saved all of those flimsy yogurt containers for storage and cups because they had no extra money. It is the classic story of sacrifice in Israel. Did her peers in America save the yogurt containers? Not a chance. They were busy having Tupperware parties. But in Israel things were different and that was just the price they had to pay to be here.

And it was a high price, indeed.

In the three years before they moved back, my father-in-law held three jobs. They spent months in an absorption center and ended up moving into a small apartment in what was then the edge of Jerusalem. They fought illness and received poor care in Israeli hospitals. And on Yom Kippur, 1973, my wife's parents did what turned out to be the last straw for them and many others; they sat on the floor of a bomb shelter in Jerusalem with two young children as Israel came under attack from the surrounding Arab armies.

Moving to Israel then was about coming to be a pioneer in a new land, making the choice to turn your back on American-style materialism and comfort to build a new Jewish life in the great Jewish experiment.

I can't relate.

I have been in Israel for a little over a year now. We have a great apartment and a nice car. My daughter goes to an excellent day care center around the corner, and the empty yogurt containers get tossed in the trash.

Not that my situation is representative. I have many friends who struggle much more than they would in America to make ends meet. And even the ones who do not struggle day to day do not enjoy the large suburban spaces and cheap consumer goods available to you folks in America. We are still given to occasional panic attacks about security, as in the recently aborted Gulf War II. We are still deeply mired in a political situation that defies simple solutions. But we do not live in the same Israel as my wife did when she was four-years-old.

Some things are the same. Israel is still the place you go to live the ultimate Jewish experience. To live in a country where Purim is a national holiday brings me intense joy. It makes the choice of living a Jewish life easy and does not make me feel, as I sometimes did in Baltimore, that to live Jewishly I had to ghettoize myself. (My wife and I used to joke that if we drove out of Pikesville we would get an electric shock.)

Could I have moved to Israel in 1970? Probably not. It is much easier to live in Israel today. I get an English newspaper, listen to English-language radio, read the Baltimore Sun on the Internet, call and send emails to my family, watch CNN, and have a community of friends who do the same. We eat Thai carryout, carry cell phones, shop at The Mall, buy gourmet coffee, and order clothes from Land's End.

And I still get the benefits of living in this Jewish country. In Israel I feel connected to the bus drivers and shopkeepers and street cleaners. Israel is a place where a total stranger will tell you that your daughter should be wearing a hat because it is cold outside a situation at once infuriating ("it's none of their business!") and endearing, ("they really care!") Israel is a family and feels like a family. A warped dysfunctional family, but a family nevertheless.

The sacrifices that we do have add to the feeling that we are doing something important by being here. We live in Israel by choice and in whatever small way we are building a nation that is still in its infancy at 50. There is a layer of meaning in everyday life that does not exist in America.

Right now I would not want to be anywhere else.


New JWR contributor Michael Hoffman moved last year from Baltimore to Israel, where he develops high-tech businesses.

©1998, Michael Hoffman. Courtesy of the Baltimore Jewish Times