Header Photo Credit

*The stunning photo in the header of my blog is all thanks to Ron Shoshani. Visit his facebook page for more of his amazing photographs of Tel Aviv!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Making Aliyah in Tel Aviv- A Glance Back at My First Day as an Israeli Citizen

In light of my most recent post about marriage in Israel, I dug out my ruminations that I sent out to friends and family when I first made Aliyah...way back when I had long hair.

My relationship with Israel is a complicated affair.  You could call it a love/hate relationship, but it's more complicated than that. I think it comes down to the fact that we're both still trying to find ourselves.

Some of you have already read this.  Think of it as a nice refresher. Plus, I edited it a bit so that it reads a bit better.

 My love for this country and my fascination with Israel runs deep, despite the fact that I don't agree with everything that happens here.

Me and my brother in Israel 1995 (gotta love the hats)

"Yesterday morning, it was my turn. After waiting in a large gray hallway lined with uncomfortable gray metal chairs, it was finally my turn.  I'd watched for almost an hour as Russians, Koreans, Vietnamese, French,Spaniards, and Ethiopians jumped up at the call of their mispronounced name and entered the room behind the security guard with a thick Russian accent. 

Now it was my turn. I sat down at a big gray desk and handed over my birth certificate,  a letter from my rabbi confirming my maternal Jewish lineage, and my passport to a thin olive-skinned woman. I bit my nails and tried my best not to look to hung over.

Yesterday morning, a thin olive-skinned woman behind a big gray desk typed a few keys into her computer, made a few photocopies, and suddenly I was an Israeli citizen.  She handed me a small plastic folder with an ID card inside.  "Mazal Tov" she said with a half smile, and then she sent me on my way. She pressed a button to signal that her desk was open to serve the next in a long line of anxious people, and then she turned back to face her computer.

Yesterday morning I walked out of The Office of the Interior in Tel Aviv with my new ID card unsure of what to do next. For some reason, I thought I'd suddenly feel different.  Or, maybe not even feel different, but be different. Or if not that, even, I'd imagined that the staff at the office of the interior might hand me a small plastic Israeli flag, or a bag of
Bamba (Israeli snack food), or the words to the Israeli national anthem, 'HaTikvah', to welcome me as a new citizen of their holy country; to make me feel like this day was somehow special.

But there was none of that -- only a small piece of paper with my photograph and my name and birthday written in Hebrew. So, that's all my citizenship really is? A piece of paper? I came home feeling strange.  The day was incredibly anti-climactic.

At home I discussed my new status with my roommate Liron.  It didn't seem any different than any other conversation we have on any other day.  We sat on the balcony, drank coffee, smoked our cigarettes, and
spoke about little things and big things….in Hebrew.  I've already been living in Israel for over a year.  I already conduct my entire day in Hebrew.

My typical day is already quite "Israeli".  I sit on my mirpeset and drink my instant coffee before walking to work.  I walk the entire length of Tel Aviv at least twice a day, each day changing up the route depending on the weather. When it's too hot, I choose Ben Yehuda Street, which always has shade.  When it's too windy, I choose Dizengoff Street  which shelters from the sea breeze.  When the weather is just right, I walk along the boardwalk and sometimes allow myself a few meters of strolling along the shore. Every so often, I run the 4-kilometer length and shower at the public bathrooms near the Tel Aviv port where I work. 

Walking along the beach is by far my favorite route. I put on my ipod and stroll briskly down King George Street past its discount clothing stores.  I take a right on Allenby at the intersection where the Tel Aviv open-air market makes it's home.  I then pull a left on Ge'ulah, pass a few hotels and finally reach the boardwalk.

Me on the Tel Aviv beach with my friend Nomes
The Tel Aviv beach could never be mistaken for anything but a public beach.  The sand is laden with trash and cigarette butts, there are old men with dark shriveled skin playing Matcot (Paddle ball), and men and women of
all ages walking their dogs along the shoreline.  There are bike riders and runners, and kids playing volleyball.  There are homeless people sleeping on the hot sidewalks, and restaurants with tables in the sand where tourists watch the soft blue waves of the Mediterranean ebb and flow as they eat their Israeli breakfast of eggs, sour
cheese, and cucumber and tomato salad with lemon and olive oil. There are stands of jewelry sellers, portrait artists, and "born again" Orthodox Jews hoping to convert the secular.

One of the reasons that I love Tel Aviv is that it's a bit tacky. Maybe tacky isn't the right word.  Maybe the aesthetics just aren't 'polite'. While the city itself is beautiful and the sea is gorgeous, while most buildings betray their distinctive Bauhaus design and produce stands fill the streets with sweet smells and bright colors,
there is an air of disrepair hanging over Tel Aviv that can't be overlooked.  

Most buildings, even the most beautiful, have paint peeling at each corner of their balconies, and they aren't shy about their water stains or ashamed of their dirt-caked faces.  Most fruit vendors sit in the doorway of their healthy-looking stores, smoking cigarette after cigarette between deep phlegmy coughs.  And even the most important businessmen walk to work in shorts and a button-down linen shirt. Only recently have they implemented the "no jeans policy" in the Knesset. It's as if aesthetics are understood and important, but not important enough. And I take this all in as I walk my hour-long walk to Gilly's restaurant where I work as a hostess.

By the time I get to work, I'm almost always sweaty, and I'm ready for another shot of caffeine. I say 'boker tov' (good morning) to the barman, ask him to make me a cup of black coffee, log myself into the computer, and begin
answering phone calls.  At 9:30am all the waiters and waitresses working the first morning shift sit down to eat breakfast and chat about this and that before the restaurant opens at 10:00. I sit at the table, spooning salad, labane, and shakshuka (Israeli breakfast dish of eggs cooked in a tomato-base) onto my plate, and listen
to their stories.

Breakfast at Gilly's (that's me at the head of the table)

The first word out of my mouth every day is in Hebrew, and the last thing I say before I got to bed is "layla tov" (good night). I've begun to resent Americans who speak English here.  They don't understand the raw
beauty of the Hebrew language.

Last night, while out celebrating my new civil status with a couple pints of beer, my friend noted how different one's voice sounds when speaking Hebrew as opposed to English.  He then pointed to his heart and he said, "Hebrew comes from here".  "English", he said, pointing to his head, "English comes from here".  

And he's right. In Hebrew, there's no other option but to speak the truth.  Hebrew doesn't allow for anything but brutal honesty.  In English, everything is softer, more polite, and takes longer to say; everything is somehow
twisted, and a bit less exact.

Compared to Hebrew, the English-speaking world is a play, a farce, or a choreographed dance of sorts.  If Spanish is a strange magical dream, and French is the language of romance; if Chinese is complex and somewhat mathematical, and Russian is the slurred speech of alcoholism; Hebrew is the language of raw, direct, honest truth.

So maybe that's it. Maybe that's why there are cigarettes scattered along every sidewalk, and why the paint is peeling on almost every building.  Maybe that's why there was grayness and uncomfortable metal chairs and half-smiles yesterday morning.  Maybe that's why I didn't feel any different at all. 

This piece of paper, this small photo-ID, this morning free of ceremony- it all said more than I had realized. It's honest. It's not very polite. It's not sugar coated. There's no celebration, no gifts or kitschy fake smiles. The ID is as plain as plain can be.  It says what needs to be said, and no more. Without a hologram or a laminated seal, it says that I am now a person whose name and birthday and residence are printed … in Hebrew."

My Israeli ID Card


  1. I like this page. I'm about to move abroad myself for a long period of time, and I hope that I can be as well integrated as you are. And I think you're absolutely right about Hebrew, being honest that is. Plus, Israelis have enough to worry about without pleasantries getting in the way!


  2. הי
    I just noticed that your ID doesn't state your national group (לאום), how come?

  3. Great question!
    In 2002,a law was passed that one's national group, or לאום, would not be printed onto one's T.Z.(תעודת זהות).
    All new T.Z.s after this date, and renewed T.Z.s, do not show one's לאום.
    While this information is still collected and does exist in the government's computer systems, it is no longer printed for all the world to see.
    Since I made Aliyah in 2007, I have one of these "newer" I.D. cards.
    And, if you go and renew yours today, your לאום will not be printed!

  4. Oh, I see. I thought that the law had removed the mention of "religion" (דת), not of nationality.
    Thank you for your answer.

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