I took myself to the beach the other day. I can do that in the beginning of November, because I live in Israel now. That’s one of the many reasons we moved here four months ago – I’m done with winter. But, of course, that’s one of the superficial reasons. There was also the desire to be near family, the adventure of trying something different, of realizing a dream almost two decades old, the opportunity to give our children a rich Jewish life in the land of their ancestors. You know, the usual reasons why people make aliyah.
Fueled by those reasons, I was able to plough through reams of paperwork, spend hours on the phone with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, tag team with my husband to fix up and sell our house (along with everything in it), find a new house in Israel using only the internet and WhatsApp, psych up my children for an international move, and finally – finally – get us all on the plane to the Holy Land. These reasons also helped me keep my spirits up during bidud (quarantine), pull a bar mitzvah together two weeks after our arrival, furnish and stock a new house, and install the kids in a new school. It was exhausting, sure. But it was also exciting, daring. In the throes of such chaos, you can’t help but feel alive.
So it was a mystery to me why, four months in, everything began to feel heavy. Just getting myself and everyone up and ready for the day felt like an olympic chore. I was aware of biology at work; after months of running on the high of adrenaline, the body cuts off the supply and goes into hibernation in order to recover. That explained the exhaustion. But there was something deeper than that. Something I couldn’t put my finger on.
Which brings us to the beach. That day, I took my shoes off, put my airpods in, and let the waves lap around my ankles. And as I walked, I asked Hashem, “What is going on with me?” Why was it that I was living a dream I’d nurtured for as long as I could remember, but I couldn’t seem to muster a spark of joy? Why did it feel like I was living underwater?
As I walked gingerly across rocks crusty with dried seaweed, it struck me that this feeling was not new. In fact, I had been living with it for years, since my mother died. Like the tide, it came in hard during certain seasons and retreated far out during others. It was something I had learned to live with for so long, I’d almost forgotten it was my constant companion.
What I was feeling was grief.
I’d expected many things about aliyah: the hassle of bureaucracy; the ups and downs of life as an immigrant; the struggle of integration. But I’d been so sure that our decision was the right one, that I hadn’t considered what I’d be losing in order to make it. I didn’t anticipate that I would grieve the life I left behind in order to build this one.
But I do. I grieve having my best friend nearby. I grieve knowing how to operate in society, in my first language, as a person I knew (and liked) well. Making aliyah means taking a wrecking ball to the person you thought you were and rebuilding from the ground up. It’s a daunting task, no matter how old you are. My wise 11-year-old said it best: “I don’t know who I am in Israel yet.”
What I realized that day on the beach is that grief is part of the process of aliyah. While moving to Israel has been wonderful and exciting, doing so has required me to let go of the life I knew, which is a death of sorts. This doesn’t make the decision wrong; it just makes it real. That is the difference between having a dream and living one. There is no perfect life, be it here or in the States or the UK or wherever I find myself. But if I want my life to have meaning, I must be willing to grieve whatever I choose to give up.