May 11, 2006
Search for Similarity in Aliyah Tales
"Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel" by Liel Leibovitz (St. Martin's Press, $24.95).
When the Pilgrims were making their way to the land that would become America, Liel Leibovitz's German ancestors were moving to the Holy Land. A cultural writer for The Jewish Week, Leibovitz is a ninth-generation Israeli, now living in New York City. His own story of leaving Israel -- for now -- and his constant grappling with that question is the back story for his compelling and original book, "Aliya: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel," in which he profiles three families who made aliyah at different points in Israel's history: 1947, 1969 and 2001.
Since 1947, approximately 100,000 American Jews have made aliyah. Last year, 3,100 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel, an increase of 15 percent over 2004, and the highest number since 1983. In fact, aliyah numbers have been rising steadily over the last three years, with a lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence and an improving economy.
Through detailed, intimate reporting about his subjects' lives, Leibovitz describes their motivations, but comes to understand that stated reasons aren't enough, that the "real answer simply isn't available to the cognitive facilities. It must be felt. It is sensed when one walks down the streets of Jerusalem, realizing that one's ancestors walked those same streets centuries ago." As he explains, it's a spirituality that has less to do with texts and ritual than with "the air and the hills and the sea."
Leibovitz is not a character in this book; his politics are not expressed. But the book is the narrative he lives and thinks about daily, albeit with a twist, as he says in an interview. Rather than asking about why he decided to leave Israel and live here, he ponders, after living in America and coming to know the American Jewish community, "why people who seemingly have it all would leave a comfortable place for a place that's still unsafe."
Now 29, he traces the intellectual journey that led to this book back to his childhood in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. His fascination with things American began when he was about 9 years old and visited relatives here; he was awestruck by the variety of food, television shows and movies. He remembers his absolute shock when he learned that these same relatives were making aliyah, giving up America.
After serving in the army and attending Tel Aviv University's film school, he moved to New York, first working in a hardware store and then as a senior press officer for the Israeli Consulate. He later enrolled in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
"As much as I wanted to pretend that I was cosmopolitan at heart, once I came to live here, I realized just how Israeli I am at my core -- it's more biological than ideological," he said. "I thought furiously about what my move meant, as opposed to the move of my cousins."
At Columbia, when he began thinking about a book topic, he had no doubt about its theme. He spent two years researching, making 11 trips to Israel. To find the three families, he interviewed 180 people.
Stylistically, "Aliya" is in the tradition of serious nonfiction books by journalists that look at the events in ordinary people's lives as a way of illuminating the historical landscape. Perhaps the first and best-known contemporary book in this genre is J. Anthony Lucas's 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Common Ground," which told the story of the court-ordered desegregation of Boston schools, through the stories of three families.
Leibovitz is a fine storyteller, and he succeeds in capturing the character and mindset of his characters. His three families represent the three main waves of immigration: the first, between 1947 and 1952, including people who had experienced World War II in some way; the second and strongest wave, between 1967 and 1972, inspired by the Six-Day War and the American sociopolitical culture of the late 1960s; and the third wave, from 1980 to the present, when the largest group of immigrants were Orthodox families.
Betty and Marlin Levin, an energetic couple now in their 80s, moved to Israel in 1947; their voyage by ship was their honeymoon. In New York, Betty worked as Hebrew teacher and Marlin, who fought in World War II, was a journalist and photographer. They were both passionately moved by the struggle for a Jewish homeland, and Marlin, after fighting the Germans, questioned how he could sit back while his own people were on trial. After arriving in Jerusalem and finding things not quite as they had pictured, the Levins were still determined to love their new city -- "where strangers were virtually nonexistent" -- and did. Marlin immediately found work with The Jerusalem Post and on his first day on the job, witnessed an explosion in the street. He continued to cover the city's struggles as the nation was founded and war broke out.
Mike Ginsberg first moved with his mother and brothers to Israel before the 1967 war and they returned to the United States; he moved back in 1969, inspired by the Six-Day War. He fought in the Yom Kippur War and settled on a kibbutz in the north, where he has helped repel terrorist attacks. Over the years, he has spoken to many groups of American tourists and now is always moved when some young American-born Israeli soldier says that hearing Mike inspired him to make aliyah. He doesn't think it's necessary for every Jew to move to Israel. "The most important thing, he tells anyone who will listen, is to make the Jews united, in the United States and all over the world, to make them united in their support of each other and in their love for Israel. That, he says, is what he lives for."
Sharon and Danny Kalker, the parents of four children, are the most recent arrivals -- they moved to Israel from Queens in 2001, settling in Hashmonaim, a community just outside the Green Line. Making aliyah was something they considered for many years, and they were inspired by their oldest daughter's decision to stay following a post-high school year there. Their religious and working lives are quite different than they expected and eventually very satisfying, although in the course of getting adjusted to their new lives, their marriage breaks up. Leibovitz explains that he gave them the option of not appearing in the book once they decided to divorce, but they chose to have their story told.
What the three families -- who never met one another -- share is a passionate commitment to Zionism and, on a certain level, to Judaism, Leibovitz explains. He also points out the tremendous hardships all have accepted: All of them, in different ways, have dodged their share of bullets. But for the most part, these are not people who questioned their decisions to move.
At home on the Upper West Side, Leibovitz and his wife, an American who has lived in Israel, speak a private blend of Hebrew and English, and move among several communities. He has come to believe, like Mike Ginsburg, "that it doesn't matter where you live, it matters what's in your heart."