February marked the sixth anniversary of our aliyah, and we understand that Israel is not Little America.
It can fool Diaspora Jews into thinking this is Wonderland with its paved streets, booming construction, world-class universities, medicine and restaurants, the prevalence of spoken English and music, glass and steel high-rises dominating skylines, and credit and debit cards used to pay for everything from bus rides to ice cream.
That is, until you live in Israel awhile.
My culture shock hit two years into aliyah, once the exuberance and emotional thrall smashed against reality.
First, Hebrew is the national language. It’s not English, French or Russian. Learning to speak Hebrew is a must if you want to acculturate.
I get by speaking English to taxi drivers, waiters and doctors. Here’s where not speaking Hebrew makes an oleh (immigrant) feel inadequate and childlike: I don’t get their jokes. My doctor explains conditions to me in English, then turns to the nurse and talks about me in Hebrew. Am I really going to live?
In staff meetings, Henglish is spoken for a few minutes but reverts to Hebrew. After a few months, my colleagues are annoyed translating for me.
Bank documents are all Hebrew, and so are notices from utilities, mortgage lenders, and the pension and retirement agency. The military and government conduct their business in Hebrew. I volunteered with a child protection nonprofit, but it does all its communicating in Hebrew and turned me down.
News broadcast in Hebrew does not translate well into English. My son and nephew watched an interview with a Hebrew speaker translated into English. They broke out laughing, saying the translation was not what the man said at all.
Not speaking Hebrew leaves olim feeling like outsiders.
Second, the lack of sustainable employment is a hardship for the young. It’s nearly impossible for the over-55 crowd. They call us vatikkim (antiques), and while the sobriquet gets us discounts on public transportation and entrance to Cinema City Jerusalem on Tuesdays, vatikkim connotes impatience with people past their prime.
Israel is a young Sabra (born in Israel) nation. Between 1948 and 2017 the religious and secular Sabra population skyrocketed from 35 percent to 75 percent. Intermarriage between Ashkenazim and Sephardim and between Russians and Israelis is homogenizing the culture.
Sabras harbor an endemic sense of nationalism and pride in the depths of their souls, while olim emulate with love. Love fades, and it’s estimated upward of 20 percent of olim return to their native lands, while only 12 percent of Israelis emigrate, always hoping to return after making their fortune overseas.
While 28 percent of the population is 14 and under, 10 percent tops 65.
Israel holds eighth place for highest life expectancy in the world. People can plan to live well into our 80s, surpassing the United States, Canada, France and Russia. Yet mandatory retirement is at 67. For the next two decades, there is travel, volunteering, self-employment, enjoying the grandchildren and boredom.
The Supreme Court recently upheld the mandatory retirement age, claiming it is not discriminatory against elderly. It makes sense from an economic point of view. It is one tool to open rarely available jobs for the young and stem their emigration, the job market being what it is in Israel.
Nevertheless, Israel stirs the emotional stewpot and remains the ideal place for the young at heart. It’s a rainbow kind of country. Israel is “Over the Rainbow.” She is the epitome of the story about Jewish survival.
The lyrics were written in 1938 by Yip Harburg (Isidore Hochberg), who also wrote “April in Paris” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He was born to Russian Jewish immigrants and grew up in a Yiddish-speaking, Orthodox home in New York.
Harold Arlen (Hyman Arluck), a cantor’s son, wrote the score.
One teller claims, “The two men reached deep into their immigrant Jewish consciousness — framed by the pogroms of the past and the Holocaust about to happen — and wrote an unforgettable melody set to near-prophetic words.”
Read the lyrics in a Jewish context. They are not about wizards of Oz, but Jewish survival:
Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.
Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why, then, oh, why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow
Why, oh, why can’t I?
The Jews of Europe and Russia looked to heaven, praying for centuries to escape pogroms, satrapy, czarist and Christian oppression to fly beyond the rainbow. The 1938 song visualized the chimneys soon to be the hallmarks of hell in concentration camps, spewing the smoke and ashes of burning Jews flying beyond the rainbow.
Israel is a land “once in a lullaby.” The lullaby is the story of the Exodus from Egypt annually read at Passover and retold just before bedtime.
A decade after the publication of “Over the Rainbow,” the exile was over with the rebirth of the state of Israel. There are 65 million refugees in 2018. Not one is a Jew. Dreams we once dared to dream really do come true.
Businesses and community organizations interested in scheduling speaking engagements this summer with Harold Goldmeier can contact him at Harold.firstname.lastname@example.org.