Wandering Back to Jerusalem

My lineage has “Wandering Jew” written all over it. Like many Americans Jews, I’m a hybrid of several ethnicities:  Russian, Hungarian, Moroccan – and Israeli. Poverty and persecution brought my ancestors  to the promising shores of the United States at various times in the 20th century, forcing their family to separate and split for years at a time, and in some cases, forever.

It took three generations of arduous integration, sacrifice, and hard work to build the upper-middle class, suburban existence that I was born into: a life of immersive Jewish education and community at day schools, camps, synagogues, Shabbat afternoon play dates with Shabbat-observant friends, and holidays with beloved family. Three generations to build a unified family unit that puts aside the stresses of everyday life every Friday at sunset and set up huts, seder plates, and all-night learning every year in place of board meetings, office retreats, and the season finale of Survivor. It took decades to create the familial harmony, normalcy, and cohesion that I was blessed to be born into.

Why would I leave that?

Because, I believe with full faith that Israel is where the wandering ends. My roots are in Jerusalem. My great-grandmother was born here. My great-great grandmother was born here. And so it goes further back, on and on and on.

Every generation has to do something to fortify the foundation that supports and upholds our people. Oftentimes, it involves wandering to a new place or plane with which we are are unfamiliar. It seems to me that with wandering, uprooting, and re-rooting comes continuity, longevity and legacy.

How blessed I am to wander back to Jerusalem.

Your Main Educator

your main educator - piaseczner

A lot of  people walk around thinking that they’re owed something because their education wasn’t as good as it could have been.

  • It was my school’s job to make sure I knew how to speak Hebrew
  • It was my parents’ job to push me harder
  • It was my parents’ job to push me less
  • It was my Jewish college or Hillel’s job to create a more [fill in the blank] environment

Every educator – whether it’s a parent, teacher, counselor, clergy member – has a responsibility to make their domain of education the best it can be; to foster each and every individual’s growth. And you know what, maybe you’re right. Maybe they messed up.

But now that you’re old enough to care about your growth, advancement, and quality of life (and let’s be frank, you were probably old enough 10 years ago), they can’t care anymore than you do. They can’t make any more of a difference in your life than you’re willing to make in your own.

Decide who has the greatest impact on your life – other people or yourself – and own it.

Because only once we’re willing to own our stories can we really learn from others.

My Great-Grandfather’s Grave

Hearing about the recent desecration of headstones at Jewish cemeteries across the US hit a really personal nerve for me. Exploring and collecting the life stories of my ancestors is important to me, maybe more so than the average Millennial.  Look, there were times when I asked myself why I care so much about people who I never knew. I didn’t always care. As a teenager, visiting my ancestor’s graves was a nice ideal – an auspicious thing to do before the High Holidays – but not worth time away from my burgeoning present and future. As I think back today though, on my great-grandfather’s yartzheit, I feel that it is my duty and responsibility to ask my fellow Jews, both in the Diaspora and in Israel, to learn more about who they come from and to go visit their gravesites.

 

Amram gravestone

My great-grandfather’s gravestone, the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery, Washington DC

 

It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life. After of a year of working and saving, I was finally beginning college. My family wasn’t spared from the negative effects of the Recession, so instead of enrolling in university right after my gap year in Israel,  I took a detour in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Another detour that I wasn’t thrilled about was the one to the National Capitol Hebrew Cemetery at the border of where D.C. and Maryland meet. My Bubbie and I were in the middle of a five day road trip from her condo in Florida back up to her house in Upstate New York. The deal was this: I’d help her pack up and drive her pristinely kept 1995 Nissan Maxima back Upstate, and at the end of our journey, the car was mine for keeps. With my college career starting along the winding, expansive roads of Rockland County, New York, this was a definitely deal worth taking.  Beginning my 20’s with a bank account full of cash, next-to-no-tuition (thank you, Rockland Community College), and a pair of wheels? Yes, please.

I had begrudgingly agreed to visit her father’s grave on our way up Route 95. Begrudgingly because I had a life to start in New York: college most days and evenings, and a part-time job at a New Jersey Jewish day school twice a week. Taking a pit stop in our fine country’s capitol meant missing the first days of both. My 20-year old mind had no patience for the past when the future I so anxiously awaited was nearly in my reach.

Still, I understood that I owed my grandmother the respect of paying respects, especially since she was giving me her car afterward. She’d mentioned that it had been at least 25 years since see last visited her father’s grave. Twenty-five years…nearly half of the amount of time since his passing in 1963. During that trip, she was determined to document his memory for generations to come, bringing along her camera. Accidentally, she left the camera in the rental car. She was crushed.

Amram Armand Levy

My great-grandfather, Armand Amram Levy, passed away when Bubbie was 16. They’d been living a simple yet idyllic life in Silver Spring, Maryland, enjoying a Jewish-ish suburban life in a two-bedroom apartment. When he suddenly collapsed from a heart attack, life as they knew it changed. My great-grandmother, Libby, packed up my Bubbie and her younger sister, and resettled near her parents in an even smaller two-bedroom apartment, in Albany, New York. Life left her – and her young family – with a gaping hole. My Bubbie described to me how, after her father died, she felt like an orphan, floating through life on her own. Without the resources or support system to help her, visiting his grave wasn’t even an option: her mother worked full-time, they didn’t own a car, the price of bus fare was too vital for their everyday needs. She could only dream of confiding in him, being close to the place that still kept his memory in this world. For many years, it was just a dream; a longed-for moment to anticipate for another time, another day.

When we finally spotted his gravestone, the dream became reality.

Suddenly, the lively, funny lady I knew so well was a girl, crying, “Daddy, Daddy. I miss you.” She rested her head on my shoulder, her warm tears falling onto my hair. Suddenly, the hard-nosed, laser-focused college student was softened and affected. I too began to cry, and felt something I’d never felt before.

It’s hard to put those feelings into words, but the first one that comes to mind is ‘timelessness’. Though I had two feet in this world and in the year 2010, I was also highly aware of my connection to a line of life that started long before me and will please G-d exist long after. There we were, great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandchild, all existing in the same moment. Together. In that moment, I knew deeply in my core, and without a doubt, that I’m not alone in this life, and that my part in it matters…my life story is eternally bound to those who came before me. With this eternal binding and embrace also comes great onus and responsibility: to continue the story and legacy vested within every generation, in my generation.

I got to school and work a day late. It didn’t change my life. Visiting my great-grandfather’s grave did. It’s a moment that will stay with me forever, and still serves as a guide and grace when I feel life is too big for me to deal with alone. If you know where your ancestors are buried, go visit them. Make a statement to those who want to erase our loved ones’ memories on this earth, and make it known, that though they might bring down their gravestones, they won’t bring down our loved ones’ legacies. Show the generations past, present, and future that you -and they- are a part of an eternal embrace, an epic story that is still unfolding. Have your own timeless moment for yourself, for your family, and for our future.

Just this week, my uncle, Bubbie, and cousins mounted plaques in memory of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother in our shul there, Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob. May their memories be a blessing and inspiration for years to come.

 

 

 

A Year After My Final Mega Event

This is my first year following the Nefesh B’Nefesh Mega event from the other side. Yup, after attending the annual conference for three consecutive years, here I am, observing as an Israeli citizen.

Last year’s Mega in Midtown Manhattan was what sealed the deal for me, and my guess is that at least a  few of the 1,500 aliyah-minded folks who attended Sunday’s gathering this year also left feeling encouraged.  For me, there were a two things that the event  did really well:

  1. It got a lot of us aliyah-minded people under one roof, and gave the decision-making process a unifying, celebratory vibe. There’s no greater reassurance than knowing that you’re not on this journey alone.
  2. The NBN staff doesn’t sugar-coat the process. As someone who made aliyah as a single young professional, I can only speak from that perspective: the primary challenges I’ve faced as an olah chadasha (finding a job, finding community, language-related realities) were addressed at various panels and sessions.

Of course, there’s only so much that can be crammed into a one-day event. I didn’t get all the answers I was looking for, and there were certainly things that that were only going to make sense after the fact. Every individual experience is unique. When you make a big change like aliyah, there are certain things you’ll only learn along the way. Though I’m still pretty new myself, looking back to a year ago when I finally decided that it was time to book my flight, there was a particular aspect of the process that understood, but not in full: with growing pains come growing gains.

Aliyah comes with a little identity loss. At times, you’re so focused on setting down the basics, you might wonder hey, who am I?! I think olim from North American countries are more prone to this because we left environments that allowed and encouraged us to thrive professionally, socially, personally, and religiously. We leave all that we’re familiar with – our community centers, synagogues, neighbors, Target – and then have to find new community centers, new synagogues, new neighbors, no Target. Suddenly, the language that wasn’t important enough for (many of) us to be fluent in during all those years of day school and summer camp becomes really important. Oh, and if you’re coming single from New York City like I did, just know that socializing isn’t the same as it was in the Alter Heim. Community is much less focused on synagogue events and ice-breakers. It’s not non-existent, just less prominent, so if you’re a person who loves close-knit community like I do, expect to adapt to the way things are here…or to create what you wish to see.

That’s the wonderful thing about Israel. It’s open to your ideas. Open to growth. So if there is a change you want to see, go for it.

Growth isn’t comfortable. Sometimes it’s clumsy and awkward, but I wouldn’t trade in the growth I’ve experienced so far for the familiarity and comfort of the life I left behind. Because when I’m in growth mode, I’m happy. Truly happy. The term Menuchat HaNefesh, tranquility of soul, is what comes to mind…because growing pains are part of the the mental and emotional shift that occurs when a Diaspora Jew also becomes an Israeli Jew. With every challenge, I’ve gained so much more in the ways of confidence, ingenuity, and self-awareness. I had it all in New York, but I can’t say I had those qualities to the same degree. And I wouldn’t trade those in, not even for Target.

If you’re considering Aliyah as a young professional and want to chat, be in touch. 

Being a 20-percenter

split-sea

A few years ago, I came across a pre-Passover Charlie Harary video. In it, he shared that of the thousands of Jews living in Egypt at the time of the exodus, only 20% decided to seize the opportunity to walk out of slavery and into freedom.

Really? Only 20%?

I mean, when your reality is one of back-breaking physical labor, humiliation, and absolutely no time to focus on individual and communal well-being…why stick around?Why did 80% of Jewry at that time say, no I’m not up for freedom. I’m staying here.

I never fully understood Charlie’s answer until I read Parashat Beshalach last Shabbat, as a new Israeli immigrant.

As Charlie says. “Freedom isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility. It’s not a privilege, it’s a purpose. It’s not a gift, it’s a choice. You don’t get freedom. You earn it.”

Why did I make aliyah? Because I want a deeply immersive Jewish life. I see this incredible, unique opportunity – to be able to practice Judaism in its totality in the Jewish Land – to fulfill something that was only a dream for generations. At a certain point, I couldn’t imagine not being involved in this chapter of Jewish history.

Flash forward seven months post-Aliyah flight. The dream is no longer a dream. The realities of making a life in Israel – a life with employment, meaningful relationships, and sense of purpose – involve way more than walking the land, and marveling over Shabbat-conscious messages on city buses. Actually, it takes a lot of every day, every moment effort to turn the life you hope for into the life you are living.

Having a meaningful life here isn’t a right, it’s a responsibility.

It’s not just a privilege. It’s a purpose.

It’s not just a gift. It’s a choice. A choice that needs to be made every single day.

At least, that’s how it feels when you are at the banks of the sea, with your old life not far behind you, and the new one ahead is a nebulous haze of uncertainty.

So, I understand why only 20% chose freedom. Freedom comes with a lot of unknowns… and the known, whether you like it or not, has a soothing familiarity to it.

I understand why those who chose freedom were complaining not long after, yearning for the pots of meat and plentiful bread they left behind. Freedom is downright scary, even when you know it was the best possible choice.

So, 20-percenters, what to do?

Take it one day at a time. Own your choices. Give them time to blossom. Nurture them. Nurture yourself. Know that though you’ve let go of many comforts, you’ll never have to wonder ‘what if.’

What if I tried to make it to the Promised Land?

What if I allowed myself to step outside my comfort zone?

What if I did, instead of dreamed?

Those aren’t questions you’ll have to ask yourself. See the solace in that.

You are the 20 percent.  That’s pretty amazing.

Confessions of an American Olah

Teudat Zehut ceremony

When you see the picture of me holding my Teudat Zehut with a full, hundred-watt smile, you probably are thinking that’s gotta be one of the happiest moments of her life. And it was. That crinkling thing I do with eyes is not something I know how to fake. The less of my eyes you can see, the happier I am.

Aliyah was the first big commitment I made without knowing the end result. Sure, I did college, work, and graduate school, and those all took commitment, but the difference was, I knew what the end product was supposed to look like: College resulted in a Bachelors of Arts. Graduate school resulted in a Masters of Science. Work resulted in smooth flowing events and project goals met. Aliyah was the first commitment I’ve made knowing with full awareness that there’s no knowing for sure what lies ahead. Of course, there are reasons that make the risk is worthwhile and give me deep optimism: my supportive friends and family, job opportunity, the go-with-the-flow culture that I thrive one….but of course, there are no guarantees.

Uncertainty is tough. It’s what held me back from making Aliyah the first time I attempted. It’s especially tough when you’re coming from a country where Jewish life is meaningful, rich, and fulfilling.

Golda Meir said: Israel was created, so that every Jew knows he can come home, when he has to or when he wants to.

When I first looked at my fellow olim from other countries, I thought, of course they made aliyah. Why would they stay in anti-semitic France? Or in rupturing South Africa? Sure, Brazil is a beautiful place, but c’mon, there’s not much going on there for a Jew.

I know. Very American of me.

Ask a few American Jews if they would congratulate a French, South African, or Brazilian Jew for making aliyah, and you’ll likely get a  unified  “of course!” When a Jew has to protect his life and heritage, there is no question. Yet ask the same people if they supports another American Jew’s choice to make aliyah because he wants to, and you are bound to get a flurry of different responses, ranging from passionate blessings, to apathy, to disapproving cynicism.

Perhaps most American olim are able to get past the deep ambiguity on the issue, but for me, it’s hard to shake. American Jews aren’t wrong. Life is great in America. It’s overflowing with possibilities in every direction…nothing is off limits. I mean, why on earth would I leave a country in which:

  • a Hasidic Jewish woman is a sitting judge of civil court.
  • there are institutions of higher learning that enable medical and law students to take off the least days possible for Jewish holidays (see: Touro College and Yeshiva University).
  • our beat boxers and a-capella groups are celebrated on national TV and in TIME magazine.

I mean, really. Things are euphorically good in America!

And then, that little voice – it claims to be a voice of reason – pushes its opinion:

You knowit’s takes a lot of chutzpah to leave all of that behind. 

That’s when the avalanche of doubt begins:

  • What, New York wasn’t good enough for you?
  • Look how many people try and come back.
  • Look how many Israelis come to America and stay.
  • What makes you think you’ll make it? Why not just be happy with what you have?
  • What, you think life in Israel will be better?
  • Isn’t marriage more important? You’re accustomed to American guys…why not just wait and find one who will make aliyah later?

It’s amazing how guilty one can feel for being ‘privileged’ to make aliyah out of choice rather than necessity.

Despite the questions and doubts, despite the myriad of eligible men, the richness of Jewish life, the stability, the familiarity, the comfort…making aliyah is the best thing I ever did for myself. Time will tell if it’s the best thing I did for my future husband, children, and grandchildren, but in the here and now, I’m content knowing that I’m living my truth. I didn’t come home because I had to. I came home because, for all of the uncertainty that comes with it comes one huge certainty.

I’m home. And I want to be home.

How Hamilton Prepared Me for Aliyah

Two weeks before I made Aliyah, I caught up with the rest of New York City and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack. Okay, I also watched several episodes of Ham4Ham and cast my lot into the daily drawing, thinking maybe G-d would grace my last weeks in the US with a ticket to Broadway’s most popular show (in case you haven’t heard, the only way to get tickets in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable amount of money is by entering a lottery. After each drawing, 21 lucky people get orchestra seats for $10 a pop). All year long, co-workers, friends, and the occasional fellow subway rider insisted that this musical was absolutely brilliant, like nothing else out there. Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought a whole new genre of auditory euphoria to the masses, and there’s no reason to miss out on the revolution.

But it’s rap, said the hesitant little voice in my head amid the sea of recommendations, and rap doesn’t speak to my soul. I was quite content with my classic Broadway playlist on Youtube, so, by fault or fate, I wasn’t going to embrace Hamilton unless something significant steered me toward reconsideration.

That something was the pre-Aliyah packing process. As a single twenty-something, I’ve only been able to accumulate whatever fit in storage-less Washington Heights apartments, my room in New Jersey, and whatever my grandmother let me store in her basement. I didn’t think it would take hour upon hour to unpack, sort, trash, clean, and repack all of my earthly possessions – but it did – and during those hours, I needed something to keep me awake. Leaving life as I knew it in the US to pursue what was up until this summer a longstanding dream killed my usual preference for sugary sweet pop songs. I listened to Torah lectures and TEDTalks, and those kept me going for a while, but there comes a time when music is the only thing that gets through to the heart.  Les Miserables, Cats, and even High School Musical kept me alert and agile, but I needed something more; something thought-provoking and relevant; something historic, idealistic, and cognizant of the space where dreams and reality meet. In essence, I was looking for something that reflected what I was going through.

I knew a little bit about Alexander Hamilton. During my time in the Big Apple, I visited the Museum of American Commerce and Hamilton’s (restored) Harlem house, both of which gave the basic narrative of his life story. The short version goes like this: Hamilton was born in the Caribbean to unmarried parents (a social blight at the time) in the mid-1750’s, where he spent most of his childhood. After his father abandoned the family and his mother died, the orphaned Hamilton was passed from relative to relative until he arrived in New York, where he put his smarts and drive to work. It didn’t take long for him to take off in the intellectual and political circles there, where he attended Kings College (now Columbia University), became a lawyer, noted writer, and eventually the second in command to General George Washington.

While I can’t vouch for Hamilton’s level of accuracy (there are plenty of other web pages dedicated to that), it aptly tells the tale of an immigrant who came “impoverished, in squalor” and worked his way up “by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter.” Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton has a grittiness that’s ostentatiously idealistic, legacy-centric, and unceasingly eager to make a difference. As a new immigrant, each of those drives played a part in my choice to disassemble and reassemble my life. Thank G-d, life in America was and is good. I wasn’t running away from something, but toward the focus, values, and legacy that I want to define my life.

See, there’s something that Miranda’s Hamilton – and perhaps the real Hamilton – knew about being an immigrant: immigrants can’t be successful without believing their stories matter. Of course, everyone, whether they move to a new country or not, has a life story that matters. Immigrant stories, by default, amplify this truth because starting over – acclimating to a new culture, and language, and any challenges that ensue, all follow this one move they made. As I folded my clothes and nearly mummified my toiletries in cling wrap, I couldn’t help but feel that, like Hamilton, “I’m just like my country – I’m young, scrappy, and hungry” and that though I was taking a risk, I was also ready to put my all into “not throwing away my shot.” This is my way of “thinkin’ past tomorrow,” the next year, and the next decade.

For the last 68 years, Jews have had the shot to make Israel home. No matter where I lived or what I accomplished in America, I couldn’t get through a day without thinking about building my life in Israel. This year, I knew it was time to decide whether I really wanted to make Aliyah, or if  I would put away with my other forgone dreams. I tried to talk myself into staying at some points, believe me. Jewish life in America is rich, meaningful, and immensely growth oriented. Yet deep down, I always knew that if I didn’t take the historic shot in my grasp, I’d wonder about it every day of my life. So, Baruch Hashem, I’m here, investing everything I have, because I want to be a part of this miraculous unfolding story called The State of Israel.

It’s been a month since the big day, and though I’ve ceased binge listening to Hamilton, its sentiments have stayed with me. A new chapter of my life has begun: I’ve received my Teudat Zehut (Israeli ID card), experienced the DMV-style systems at the health clinic and bank, and formed friendships with Jews from across the globe who are also starting out at Ulpan Etzion. Though I left New York City, the words of Miranda’s Schulyer Sisters come to mind, with a few alterations, each time I get a glimpse at the Jerusalem hills:

Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

History is happening in Jerusalem and we just happen to be

In the greatest city in the world.

Teudat Zehut ceremony

(Oh, and Bubbie, thank you for making me watch the Tony’s.)

Reflecting on Today’s News

In my Holocaust education class today (I am in graduate school for Jewish Education), our professor gave out a survey called HEEQ. It’s used to gauge the resilience and engagement a student can handle when learning about the Holocaust. After completing the survey, those of us who wanted to could share their answer to the questions. One of them was:

“During this unit, have you thought about the Holocaust in connection with reading/watching the news [regarding] current events?”

Of course, there was no way of knowing that today would be the day that a deal would be reached between the Free World and Iran. The truth is, today isn’t the first day I’ve thought about Iran in this way. For a while, negotiations have smelt more like Neville Chamberlain than Winston Churchill, and the sad thing is, I got used to it. I’m not one to look at current events and say, “see, there’s another holocaust in the making,” but I am one to look for similarities in history, and from this side of the 21st Century, appeasement doesn’t seem to work in the long run.

Really, more than saying something, I’m asking something: What can I do when I feel as though history is repeating itself? The props, techniques, and characters are different, but the plot is nothing new.

I don’t have an answer other than live each day for the gift it is. Stand up for your (my) values. Choose a life of responsiveness and responsibility. In a small effort to cope with the weighty question above, I’d like to start posting quotes from a book that changed the way I think and speak about pretty much everything, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Every day, his ideas find me, in the the newspaper, books, podcasts, conversations, and especially prayer. Here’s a good one to start with:

One's Own Way

 

A Touch of the Divine on July 4th

Timing is everything.

It’s a platitude that excites me — sometimes with strokes of anticipation, and sometimes with strokes of dread — but never with  apathy. Time’s impact and influence on our lives is astounding, even in its inevitability. As I’ve often heard in R’ Aaron Rakeffet Rothkoff’s classes, every event in history – whether it’s international, communal, or personal –  comes down to the alignment of three factors:

1) the right person

2) in the right place

3) at the right time.

If you ever think about how timing must proceed ever so precisely in order for life’s opportunities to occur, it’s pretty mind-boggling. Divine, really. That’s how I know that G-d is paying full attention to my life, anyway.

Friday night, which also happened to be erev Fourth of July, after our guests had gone home and the leftover food had been wrapped and stored, my father pulled out two bulging manilla envelopes. He had recently gone to visit his mother (my Savta), and had come back with historic family photos and documents from her collection. We’re talking 80 year old family portraits, weddings invitations, Yiddish diaries, and a six-generation family tree with the names of family members I have yet to learn about. Where to begin?

My fingers first went for a yellowing, folded up piece of paper. My father had mentioned that among the assortment of documents was my great-great-grandfather’s naturalization papers from the State of Arkansas. I’ve heard many stories of Jechiel Tzvi Eckstein – how he came to America to serve as the rabbi in Little Rock, how he left half of his growing family behind in Jerusalem so that he could make ends meet, how he wanted nothing more than to return to Eretz Yisrael – but until that night, I had never held something in the original that was once his. And of all the things I got to hold that night, just hours before the Fourth of July, was the paper that granted him American freedoms.

Naturalization1

Naturalization Statement from the State of Arkansas, c. 1927

Hilda, mentioned in the last line, is my great-grandmother.

Picking up that paper any day of the year would have been exciting, but picking it up to the distant buzz of Independence Day fireworks was Divine. Without the sacrifices my great-great-grandfather made in order to support his family, I don’t know if I’d be here, a Torah observant Jew in the 21st Century. Without the freedoms and opportunities allowed to him in this country, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. G-d bless the USA.