Sfinge: A Must-Try Moroccan Treat

Chanukah has arrived! The Festival of Lights is observed by Jews all over the world. The holiday not only celebrates the miracle of one tiny jar of temple oil lasting eight days, but also the determination of our ancestors to fight for their independence from the Greek Empire. It is the ultimate manifestation of the partnership between mankind and the miraculous. As a result, it resonates deeply with modern Israelis, many of whom see the reconstitution of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel as a modern day miracle in the same vein as the story of the Maccabees.

As with all Jewish holidays, Chanukah traditions are packed full of symbolism. We play with Sevivonim, or Dreidels, a call back to the game that Jewish children played to hide their Torah study from nearby Greek soldiers. We light a Chaukiah, a menorah with eight branches, adding another candle each night to remind us that each day, we should strive to bring a little more light to the world. Most importantly, we eat foods fried in oil to remind us of the miracle of the oil.

While Jelly Doughnuts and Latkes, in Hebrew Sufganiyot and Levivot, respectively, are still the artery-cloggers of choice for most, I prefer Sfinge, a light, fritter-like Moroccan fried-dough that is both delicious, easy to make, and reminds me of my Moroccan heritage!

Shout out to Christine Benlafquih over at theSpruceEats.com for this recipe which has been my go-to for the last few years!

Ingredients

  • 2 teaspoons yeast
  • 1 1/4 cups warm water (divided)
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Optional: Granulated sugar or powdered sugar

Instructions

  1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water and set aside to proof for 10 or 15 minutes.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the flour with the salt and 1 cup warm water. Add the yeast mixture and stir vigorously with your hand or a heavy wooden spoon until smooth. The dough should be too sticky to knead or shape, almost like a thick batter.
  3. Cover the bowl with a towel and leave the dough to rise for 3 to 4 hours, until double or triple in bulk.
  4. In a wide, deep pot, heat 2 to 3 inches of vegetable oil over medium heat until hot.
  5. Set out a bowl of water. Dip your hands in the water, then pull off a piece of dough about the size of a small plum. Use your fingers to make a hole in the ball of dough, stretch the hole wide to make a ring, and place the dough in the hot oil.
  6. Repeat with additional portions of dough, until you’ve added as many sfenj as will fit comfortably in your pot; do not overcrowd. Wet your hands as necessary to keep the dough from sticking as you work with it.
  7. Fry the sfenj until golden brown, turning once or twice. Remove the cooked sfenj to a plate lined with paper towels to drain.
  8. Repeat shaping and frying until you’ve used up all the dough.
  9. If desired, finish the hot sfenj by dipping in granulated sugar or by dusting with powdered sugar.
  10. Serve the sfenj hot or warm; they lose their texture and appeal when cold. Sfenj will not stay fresh very long at room temperature; it’s best to freeze leftover sfenj and then reheat in the oven when needed.

This recipe should yield between 8-10 sfinge, although one year I managed to get 15.

Me, a Nice Jewish Boy, the year my Sfinge recipe yielded 15 servings instead of 10; my own little Chanukah miracle 🙂

Sfinge is a great way to introduce a new tradition into your Chanukah celebration and is sure to spread a little extra light at any Chanukah party, especially when it’s topped with powdered sugar!

Chag Chanukah Sameach!

Dispatches from Ulpan: Week 2

I must apologize for my lengthy absence. I’ve wanted to write, but I’ve just started the next leg of my journey and, as I’m sure you know, the reality of what we can accomplish sometimes falls short of our expectations. 

As I write this, I’m climbing into the heart of Haifa on another big, green bus; savoring a free moment after a long day of learning. Focusing on one subject, five hours a day, four hours a week is no small task on its own. After a more than two year absence from formal learning, it is evident that my mind is a little rusty. As I shake off the cobwebs, I am grateful to have an energetic teacher to learn from and intelligent, easy going classmates to learn with. 

The daughter of two Yemenite Jews, Galia, the Morah, is already one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her dark hair and skin are always complimented by tastefully colorful outfits, that, along with her smile, inject joy into every early morning. Her sense of humor, which sometimes comes at the expense of our mistakes, allows her to laugh as we mispronounce the Hebrew word for “education,” as the Hebrew word for “ovary,” or as we confuse the pluralization of Tzitzit, the traditional fringes worn by observant Jewish men, with Tzizim, the word for breasts. I have, without a doubt, never laughed so much while learning.

Boy oh boy do her methods get results. In the past week my pile of flashcards has almost doubled in size and I feel my self-confidence growing with each lesson. The highlight of the class so far came last week when, M, an immigrant from Russia and the darkhorse for the title of  “Class’s best Hebrew-speaker,” thanked Galia. Because of the words she had learned in the first week of the class, she was able to understand her son’s teacher at their parent-teacher conference. Obviously, my heart melted. For someone like me, who has no real responsibilities yet, it is easy to take for granted that I might struggle at times, chalking it up to “The Aliyah Process,” but M’s story reminded me that learning the language is an absolute necessity if we hope to lead normal lives.

It’s funny, over the years, my mom, who made Aliyah as a twenty-something, would tell me stories from her time in Ulpan. I could never figure out how she remembered the details of such a small part of her time in Israel so vividly. After a week, it makes perfect sense, largely because I already have my own stories to share; tea parties in room 21, the Americans who help soothe my homesickness, and of course, the curious case of communicating with my Russian roommate entirely through Google Translate. In the coming weeks, I hope these stories can shed some light onto what life in the Ulpan is like.

Until then, I am happy, healthy, and so excited to be in the place of my dreams, working on something that will help me for the rest of my life.

Learn more about Ulpan in Israel here.

A Home for the Holidays

I. Cleaning

Of the many things I have looked forward to in Israel, spending the holidays with my family has been among the most anticipated. The last time I was home for the holidays was 2001. I was six and honestly, I can’t remember anything. As a result, I committed to making Aliyah before Rosh Hashanah, 5780, the turn of the Jewish New Year.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my Abba, brother, and I went to my grandparents’ house in the neighborhood of Canaan in Tzfat to clean. In a few days, fifteen people would descend onto this house to celebrate together. In the synagogue above the house, “Beit Knesset Beit Elokim,” which my Sabba Moshe had maintained with his brother Yisrael for decades, neighbors, many from the same village in Morocco, would come to pray in the same style as their fathers and grandfathers had. There was plenty to do.

Since I had last been in the house in Canaan, our lives changed completely. With the death of my Savta earlier this year, the pictures on the wall began to collect dust and the house waited, silently preserving memories. The soul that once animated the boisterous center of our familial life had, in the absence of my grandparents, gone dormant, rendering the structure still. The new year presented us with the chance to revive it.

As I walked through the house, sweeping up dust and debris into little piles, I had a few moments to think. I was still in the US when my Savta died. When it happened, I hadn’t seen her in nearly three years, and even then, she had long since lost much of her memory. The last time we said goodbye, in the hope of not confusing my Savta further, I told her that I was going home for the night and I would see her again tomorrow. Three years later, sweeping the same floors she swept, I felt I finally had a chance to say goodbye to my Savta Chana whose love transcended distance, time, and even death.

Gripping the same broom she had used a thousand times, I thought of the little woman I was lucky enough to call my Savta. She was tiny, barely five feet off the ground, but an absolute force. Her hair was a henna-dyed fiery orange that conveyed her ferocious vitality even after her body began to weaken in her old age. My Savtah’s hands were simultaneously the tools of a skilled artist when she cooked or baked for her eight children and twenty-four grandchildren, and lethal weapons when she pinched your cheeks, accompanied by a Kappara Aleicha or Nabibashk, terms of endearment for those she loved.

There is an inherent magic that places possess in their ability to connect us to each other. It’s why we return to the site of a first date to propose, or why we avoid that same place after a bad breakup. It’s why tourists flock in the millions to national monuments, and devoted widows bring flowers to their late partner’s grave. Places lock away vivid memories for safekeeping, until we return to explore and reminisce and laugh and cry at all of the wondrous moments we’d nearly forgotten.

II. The Brown Paper Bag

In the synagogue above the house, I followed along in the Siddur, trying to sing unfamiliar melodies. I’ve always thought the synagogue itself was beautiful. At its entrance, a staircase of more than a dozen steps leads worshippers into the center of a simple room. Red benches line the walls allowing those present to see each other, although few raise their eyes from their prayers, except to look longingly towards heaven. At the front of the room stands the ark. Behind its red curtain rest six ornately decorated Torah scrolls.

The story behind the synagogue’s founding is a rather incredible one. In the 20th century, nearly 250,000 Moroccan Jews came to Israel. Their arrival was a combination of persecution and ideology. Among these new Israelis was Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeria, more commonly known as the Baba Sali. The Baba Sali was a master Kabbalist and Torah scholar of the highest order. Within the Sephardi community, stories of the mystic’s seemingly supernatural gifts are ubiquitous. One such story took place in that same house in Canaan.

After settling in Netivot, the Baba Sali set out to visit the members of his community throughout the country. Tzfat was home to significant Moroccan community, including my Sabba Moshe and his brother, Yisrael, who knew the Abuhatzeria family in Morocco. When the sage came to Tzfat, he always stayed with the two brothers. What are today separate homes were, at the time,  little more than two rooms, separated by a curtain.

On the first such occasion, the pair rushed to prepare the space for the Baba Sali. Yisrael, who owned a corner store in the neighborhood, brought dozens of bottles of Arak, a fennel-based liquor, to the house. The Baba Sali was known to give his blessings by pouring a small shot of Arak for each of his devotees. Thousands of people came to seek out his spiritual advice and so, logically, a lot of the drink was needed.

The wall of the room in which the holy man would receive his visitors was lined with bottles of the Middle Eastern alcohol. As the story goes, upon entering the room, the Baba Sali did something peculiar. He took a single bottle of Arak, opened it, and placed it in a brown paper bag. He handed the bottle to his assistant and instructed him not to put the bottle down until the last person had been in to see him. As the pilgrims entered the room, the bottle continued to yield, pour after pour. It was miraculous. The bottle seemed to never run dry. Finally, when the last person had seen the mystic, he instructed his assistant to remove the brown bag and set the bottle down. When he revealed the bottle, it was empty.

These visits happened nearly a dozen times over the course of twenty years. It was on one such occasion that the Baba Sali instructed Sabba Moshe and Yisrael to build a synagogue above their joined houses. 

It was in this synagogue that I sat alone on the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah. While the other worshipers had gone home to eat and rest, I slipped away from my family for a few moments of privacy with my thoughts. As I sat, I spent little time thinking about the miraculous story of the Baba Sali. Instead, I thought about Sabba Moshe. I stared at the spot in the synagogue where he always sat. I thought about his absence and I cried. I cried because of the loss I felt—that my family felt. I cried because of how unfairly suffering seems to be distributed. I remembered him making silly faces at me during Shabbat prayers and squeezing my hand like a lemon when I went to shake his and I laughed. I scanned the room for a brown paper bag, that I might place these memories into it and make them infinite.

III. Time Travel

On Erev Rosh Hashanah, my family gathered around the table as they had so many times before. I was grateful to be there. We made blessings over pomegranates, apples dipped in honey, and dates. We ate salads and fish and chicken and lamb, all the while laughing at each other’s little jokes and jabs.

After the meal, the cousins decided it was time to go on the walk that we’d always take around the neighborhood to help us burn off some of the excess food and stretch our legs. For some odd reason, we made a left turn instead of a right one. This was strange because, as far back as I can remember, we had always turned right.

As the walk went on, I couldn’t let go of our left turn. Had things changed so much that we had forgotten which way to turn? Why were we walking backwards?

I think now, that we walked backwards because we’d hoped to unwind time and return to the days where our memories were made. The mystics and cooking and handshakes and meals together have combined to elevate this home to a place of holiness. At times, such a special place with such treasured memories makes moving forward feel impossible. How could we ever leave those things behind? 

The most obvious lesson of Rosh Hashanah is that time, no matter the circumstances, presses forward. My hope is that the future holds as many memories as the past. I hope that this house can always be a meeting place for my family in times of celebration, and a place of comfort in times of grief. I hope that this house is always our home, and I hope that one day our children know that when they go for a walk in the neighborhood, they should always turn right.

The Art of Talking to Yourself on Public Transportation

Shortly after arrival, I was in dire need of a haircut. After having the unruly mop on my head immortalized in my 10-year Israeli I.D, I quickly made my way to the nearest barbershop. As I waited for the bus to pick me up, I came to the anxiety-inducing realization that my vocabulary would limit my ability to be specific about my hair, a subject I tend to be specific about.

My Hebrew, in most commonplace circumstances, suffices. I can order food, ask for directions, make small talk, and swear proficiently. I’m proudest of the swearing. Even when it comes to hair, I know the near-complete lexicon of men’s haircut words; short, sides, long, top. But how do I say fade? Or taper? As I boarded the bus, my anxiety was quickly overpowered by my sheer (pun intended) determination not to sound like an idiot. 

“I’ll be damned if I let, ‘Can you taper the back?’ be my downfall,” I thought to myself, and quickly began cross-referencing various hair-related words with the Morphix dictionary app and Google Translate (I know, a surefire path to success).

As the number 4 bus began its convoluted route through the neighborhoods of this old city on a hill, I began practicing the pronunciation of these new words over and over again. Once I felt comfortable with the words I tried to translate past conversations with barbers so that I might be ready for any scenario.

It was at about this point that I paused and stepped outside of myself. I thought about what my co-passengers must have seen as they watched a grown man whisper and mumble to himself in public. I was embarrassed by the thought that someone on the bus might be judging me, either because they thought I was a crazy person who was talking to himself, or, worse yet, that I was some silly immigrant who didn’t know how to ask for a haircut.

I stopped for a second and looked around to see if anyone had noticed my strange behavior. Not only was no one paying me any mind, but as I started listening to the conversations on the bus, I noticed Hebrew being spoken with Russian, Amharic, and Mizrahi accents. I was on a bus full of immigrants, all of whom needed to, at one point or another, get their first haircut in their new country. Suddenly, struggling to get my haircut became a weird, minor rite of passage that all new Olim had to endure. In hindsight, I do wish I had brought a notebook and a pen so as to seem more like a diligent student or inspired, albeit eccentric artist, rather than the resident oddball who whispers to himself about haircuts.

The great irony of this story is, of course, after briefly being asked about what I wanted, the barber began bragging to the customers in line about how quickly he cuts hair, so as to service as many customers as possible throughout the day. The haircut, unsurprisingly, was bad, and no amount of explaining in any language would have changed that fact. I went over to my cousin’s house the next day, and he fixed me up as best he could. 

It’s odd. One rarely thinks about–or at least, I didn’t think about–all of the really simple things that you have to relearn in a new place. To put it in different terms, it’s incredible to realize all of the things we take for granted in our daily lives, in a place where we are totally comfortable. It also makes me realize how fortunate I am to have the task of finding a decent barber my most significant struggle to date.

Leaving on a Jet Plane (For Real)

Many years ago, when I imagined what this day would look like, I envisioned myself singing the John Denver classic, “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Sure enough, as I opened my eyes this morning, the song began playing on repeat in my head.

Now, I am sat at gate E3 in Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport waiting to board my flight to Israel. I figured today would be a good day to record some of my thoughts and feelings for posterity.

All week, I have felt a relative sense of calm. No major moments of doubt or panic about my decision. For the first time in my life, I managed to pack my bags throughout the week leading up to the flight rather than the night before. In my eyes, that is a major accomplishment.

Leaving my mom at security was, as expected, the hardest part of my decision to date. She has been so incredibly supportive of my decision, even though it puts 7,397 miles, and a 10-hour time difference between us. I am so grateful to have a mom who has always encouraged me to follow my heart and, more importantly, to embrace change as it comes. When we first moved to the US from Israel, she always would say that change is a good thing. It has taken me all of my life to realize what levels of depth that little platitude held.

Once, I thought it meant that when things change, they get better or easier. Over the course of time, however, I came to realize that change is not a good thing for the ease it brings. Rather, the goodness of change is that through the challenges it brings, change presents us with an opportunity for growth. It is only with the discomfort and struggle that accompany great change that great growth can happen.

Here then, I sit, confident in my decision, and a little uncomfortable, eager to see what growth awaits with this great change.

Dear Love, thank you for waiting.

Dear Love,

Thank you for waiting.

As a kid, I could not wait to meet you. I would see you in movie theaters where couples nestled into each other’s arms as soon as the lights went dim or in school hallways where my classmates dove head first into your crystal clear waters. You were mesmerizing, but always just out of grasp. That only made my desire to meet you stronger. When it finally happened, I was in awe. You shone so brightly when I held you in my hands, I couldn’t bring myself to look away. In my eagerness to finally meet you, I burned myself and another like a child playing carelessly with an open flame. For a long time afterwards, I thought I had blown my chance at knowing you, and so I sulked and mourned and longed for lost love. 

I realized that, eventually, all wounds heal and that one day, I would get another shot at knowing you.

I’ve had to put off our next encounter for some time now. I decided a couple of years back that in a short time, I would move across the world and build my life in the place I’ve always felt closest to you, Love. As a consequence, I resigned myself to believe that you and I would not cross paths again for some time, but I never stopped looking for you.

I always thought I saw hints of you in every date I went on, every phone number exchanged, and every chance conversation, hoping I might be lucky enough to see you again. They were all wonderfully intelligent, kind, beautiful souls who, no doubt deserved to meet you and know you much more than I. It’s hard though, to try with another to find you knowing how rare it would be that, given the circumstances, our paths would cross. I’m afraid that while you may be able to move mountains, moving people into an entirely new life in an entirely new country still seems to be out of the question.

Nevertheless, I still wrote you songs and poems and letters, all to remind me that one day, we would find each other again.

Sure enough, we did, just not how I expected.

When I announced my move, you sent me an outpouring of support and encouragement from a community of friends who surprised me with their kindness and sincerity. They told me they were proud of me. They told me they were excited for me. Most meaningfully, they told me they would miss me and that they loved me.

I’m not sure why you surprised me. I found you in a rather obvious place—among a group of people who care deeply for me, and for whom I care deeply. You were there in movie theaters where we howled at the absurdity of Marvel’s post-credit scenes and around Shabbat tables where we carved out our own traditions. In marching band practices where we worked to perfect our shows and during weekend escapades where we never managed to accomplish much of anything at all. At a strange little summer camp in New Hampshire where days felt like weeks, months felt like days, and a friendship bracelet from a nine-year-old felt like a lifelong promise.

And so, Love, thank you for waiting for me to realize that you come in many forms and that you are never more than a phone call away.

To my friends who have made my time here in Las Vegas, in Hartford, in New Hampshire, and in Boston so special, thank you. I love you and I know I’ll see you soon.

Sincerely,

Liel

On Roller Coasters and Dealing with Fear

With just over one month until the move, I spend most of my days in a state of excitement. It’s a bit of a frenetic excitement as there’s still so much left for me to do, but all told, I experience it as a positive emotion. The prospect of moving is rightly a thrill. New places, new people, and a new life to build all await me and often times, I catch myself grinning ear to ear as I think of all of the possibilities.

Hidden away in all of this excitement is a single fear from which all of my other negative thoughts and nerves stem. It’s a fear I’ve had since before I decided to move. On its most terrifying days, it has all but blotted out my excitement.

What if the Israel I know and love isn’t the real Israel? What if, in all this time I’ve been gone, dreaming about the land and its people, I’ve created a caricature of a country that could never live up to my expectations?

To answer these questions, I had to ride a roller coaster.

From birth to 18 years old, thrill rides terrified me. The thought of strapping myself into a gravity defying metal death machine petrified to the point that, for a time, I refused to go to amusement parks. I could not be reasoned with. I was a child controlled by fear.

To this day it’s unclear what prompted it—perhaps a new found courage, or just the changing tastes of a person growing with age, but eventually, I went on a roller coaster. Then another, and then another. My fear, it appeared, was conquered. That is until last week when, as a perk of my job, I went on an outing to an amusement park in New England.

As I sat, strapped into a ride with a particularly long ascent, I felt my heart begin to pound. I noticed too, that my hands had started to sweat, and all sorts of wild questions about the safety of the ride started swirling around in my head. Just as the ride’s extended climb reached its peak, I realized there was absolutely nothing I could do about the impending drop and in that moment, a wave of euphoria swept over me. I laughed and hollered all through the ride and even managed a smile just before the automated camera snapped our picture. 

As we were welcomed back to the loading station by an aloof teenager in khaki shorts, I had a moment of remarkable clarity, likely spurred on by the adrenaline in my system. My fear of roller coasters was still alive and well. What had changed was my relationship with that fear. Rather than allow it to paralyze me, I realized that fear is an absolutely necessary component of any good adventure story. The rush of riding a roller coaster is only possible because of the healthy dose of fear it administers. Any good thrill ride has mastered the art of tension and release.

(At this point I feel compelled to say that I too was disappointed that this realization came on a roller coaster, the most cliched device of all fear-based metaphor, but unfortunately, we can’t choose the scene for our revelations.)

Here, then, are a few lessons that roller coasters have taught me about my fears and worries and that I hope a future version of me takes the time to reflect on, especially on the days when he is doubting his direction.

1) I have definitely built up Israel in my head into something that it’s not, and that’s okay.

The truth is, when it comes to my move, there are likely some expectations I have that are unrealistic. Much like during the roller coaster’s ascent, when we are given too much time to think, wild ideas sprout wings and, if we aren’t careful, can carry us away into the most frightful corners of our imaginations. That shouldn’t; however, be allowed to distract us. Adventure is had, not when things are perfect, but when things are imperfect. As with all adventures, there will be things that fall short of our expectations while others far surpass them. The thing that makes the future special is that it is full of surprises.

2) When something is frightening, letting out emotion is a good way to expel some excess energy.

On my last roller coaster, I caught myself laughing as I flew around the turns. There wasn’t  anything particularly funny happening, but I think that in that moment, laughter was my body’s way of spending some of the nervous energy that had been building up ever since I strapped myself into the seat. To my future self, when you are in difficult situations, allow yourself to be emotional. Laugh, cry, scream if you must, but don’t get off the ride before you’ve fully experienced its lows AND its highs.

3) Smile in pictures, your mom needs to see that you’re happy.

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. If you don’t look happy in pictures, your mom is going to ask you why you aren’t happy, and then it’s going to turn into a whole thing. Don’t let it turn into a whole thing.

Musings On Discomfort and Belonging

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. 

At 19, I was convinced I was going to move to Israel. Fresh out of my first year of college, I visited the country for the first time in nearly four years. I surprised one of my cousins at her Bat Mitzvah. It was incredible having so many loved ones gathered in one place, but I recall feeling disoriented seeing my family again after such a long time. Faces change. Personalities change and with them, relationships. Four years is too long. I was convinced then and there that I would drop out of college, leave my life in the States behind, join the army, and finally be in the place I belonged.

My Abba had other ideas. As much as I’m sure it hurt him to say, he encouraged me to go back to school, finish my degree and only then return. My youth and idealism—some might say naiveté—were tempered by his unexpected practicality. I returned to the States, certain that I would graduate with a diploma in one hand and a return ticket in the other. But as with most things in life, my plan hasn’t quite gone as I planned.

Opportunities following graduation would pull me in a different direction, but my sense of belonging—of where I was meant to be never changed.

What is it to belong? We belong to our families, social groups, and locations, all of which form the basis of our communities. In a perfect world, belonging fully to any community means being completely in tune with its language, customs, and practices. In this way, individuals become the caretakers of their communities’ cultures.

What do we do when we belong to multiple groups? How do we handle the care of multiple identities? This has been my struggle as a dual citizen; a member of two communities with distinct cultures.

I was born in Israel, making me a citizen by birth. Consequently, I am not considered and Oleh Chadash, or new immigrant. Rather I’ll be a Katin Chozer, a minor returning. All told, the differences are minimal—no municipal tax break or airport Aliyah guides to help me acquire health care. And yet, something about the term implies that I possess an inherent Israeli-ness, even if only in a legal sense.

One of the most intimidating questions surrounding my move is simply, “Will I be Israeli enough?”

In 71 years, Israelis have formed a distinct culture in the world. They have their own slang. They have their own sense of humor. Their daily life has its own rhythm. Sabras, those born and raised in Israel, have their own swagger which, when accompanied by the Israeli, “Ehhhhhh,” makes them impossible to miss ambling through a bustling airport.

One of the drawbacks to being raised an Israeli outside of Israel is that my exposure to this culture came in micro-doses. Two months here, three months there, sometimes with years in between. As a result, my sense of comfort and connection with all the things Israel far exceeds my ability to navigate the nuances of the society. I feel largely like I missed out on the things that make Israelis Israeli.

The kicker of course is that to whatever extent that I am Israeli, it has made me deeply uncomfortable with certain elements of the American society in which I live. The work/life balance. The penchant for passive aggressive responses. The de-emphasis placed on the importance of family. The list goes on. 

Ahead of the move, one of the realities I’ve come to accept is that no matter where I am, I will never feel completely at ease. In fact, I’m quite sure that in the entirety of human existence, no one has ever felt completely like they belonged, nor should we. Without discomfort, there is no room for growth.

Another reality I’ve come to accept is that on a heart and soul level, I know I belong in Israel; to Israel. For better or for worse‒but I think for better‒this does not absolve me from experiencing the natural discomfort anyone would feel before and during a move across the world. Otherwise, I’m still not quite sure about the relationship between belonging and discomfort other than that one exists.

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. The cynic in me says that nothing belongs anywhere and we’re all just victims of circumstance. Discomfort is a product of a ruthless world. The mystic in me says that nothing is an accident, and that discomfort is simply a catalyst meant to encourage us to fulfill our unique purpose in the world. As with all things, on most days I’m somewhere in between.

The Things We Leave Behind

In preparation for the move, I’ve been purging. Pants, shirts, shoes, furniture, books, and knick-knacks. Nothing has escaped my Marie Kondo-inspired wrath. With each pair of old, worn sneakers deposited in the trash or article of lightly used clothing dropped into my local donation bin—because I’m a good person—one question nagged at me. “When the heck did I get all of these things?”

I’ve known since I arrived in Boston nearly two years ago that this year, I would be moving to Israel. Consequently, I made a concerted effort to live without collecting stuff. At times this meant living with bare floors or blank walls. A cherry wood dresser or a decorative pillow was often the difference between a minimalist, twenty-something’s bedroom and a cold, unwelcoming cell in solitary confinement. Were it not for one roommate’s prodigious decorating skills, the entire house would have felt like an asylum.

Collecting, try as one might to resist its cluttered clutches, is inevitable. A picture to give the bare wall some life. A rug for the wood floor so my feet might ease into the cold New England mornings. Birthday gifts from friends. Chanukah gifts from friends. A new shirt for that theme party next week. A coffee table/bench/shoe rack, a multipurpose treasure retrieved from a curb during Boston’s famous Alston Christmas. Stuff adds up and that is okay. Constant shopping and hoarding are unnecessary, but acquiring things along the way is a byproduct of our natural urge to build a home. We’re not unlike birds in that respect; darting around, looking for things to add to our nests.

More surprising than all of the things I had collected over the years were all of the things I parted with that held sentimental value. Of note, a pile of t-shirts acquired throughout high school and college, memorabilia from performances and adventures around the world.

I wore one such shirt while celebrating Holi in Jaipur. What started as a plain-white-T was quickly dyed pink during the water fights, as were my teeth, a gentle reminder that I should keep my mouth shut more often. The decision to part with the shirt came only after a friend from that same trip promised to periodically remind me of that day. The thought of losing that memory is just too painful.

It’s not that I have an affinity for stained, 100% cotton. Rather, the shirt, and others like it, preserved fond memories, physical reminders of great moments or accomplishments. But they were still only t-shirts, and when push comes to shove, there is only so much room in the suitcase. Getting rid of a few shirts hasn’t erased the memories they held, but it has offered some much needed time to reflect on the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done.

One of the realities of moving across the world—of uprooting ourselves—is that when we come out of the ground, we are bound to leave behind a few leaves.

For now though, I feel lighter, and for good reason. Today my possessions reside in one suitcase and six small boxes. I’m hoping to make it five before too long. Things are becoming easier to leave behind. People are still hard, but I’ll save those thoughts for a different time.

Why Now? What Making Aliyah Means in 2019

A little over a year ago I started telling people that I was planning on moving to Israel. Without fail, their first question was, “why?”

It’s a fair question. Practically speaking, the United States would be a better place to build a life. It offers more economic opportunity, social mobility, and a lifetime of friendships, not to mention the freedom from sirens and rockets overhead. In the States, I understand how to find work, how to pay taxes, how to date (sort of), and how to read and write and speak with ease. The US is familiar. Israel, in many ways, is still unknown.

My initial answer is true, albeit a bit clichéd. “Israel is my home,” I say with confidence. It is the place I was born—the place where, despite all those challenges, I feel a sense of belonging, of community, of family.

For most, this answer suffices and the conversation carries on to other topics. On rare occasions, someone will ask me a second question, one that I feel is more relevant than ever.

“Why now?”

I could answer this question on a superficial level by saying something about the importance of social integration to my chance of success in a country notorious for its prickly people and unforgiving bureaucracy. While true, my answer fails to get to the heart of the question, which I believe is actually two. The first—is it safe to be a Jew in America in 2019? The second—if so, why would anyone leave?

In November, I wrote about my grandparents’ journey out of Morocco. Now, as then, I believe there was an ideological component to their move. For many, hearing that Jews were building a state in their ancestral homeland made the dream of returning home from exile a little more tangible and filled them, little by little, with a hope that they too might one day return. Still, when Jews of the Middle East finally left for Israel, they did so largely as refugees.

Like all refugees, my Sabba and Safta were fleeing growing insecurity in their country of birth. This persecution prompted them to leave their microscopic Moroccan village in 1950, nearly 20 years before the end of the Arab world’s mass Jewish exodus which, all told, resulted in the displacement of nearly 850,000 souls. Jewish history is, in many ways the story of refugees fleeing from persecution to persecution. Rome. Spain. France. Great Britain. Germany. Iraq. Tunisia. Iran. Russia. Poland—to name a few.

Today, in the U.S., there is a sense that this insecurity is again creeping into the mainstream and hatred of Jews is again becoming normalized, if it ever wasn’t. In the past year alone, we’ve faced attacks in our houses of worship and on the streets of major American cities. Our graves and our schools have been desecrated by symbols of hate meant to intimidate us into feeling like outsiders. Antisemitic canards have been employed by prominent members of both major American political parties while simultaneously taking up the mantle of defender of the Jewish people to score cheap political points. It may be incorrect to say that the familiar sense of insecurity is creeping. Rather, it seems to have arrived with the fanfare and splendor of a great ruler returning to his kingdom, forcing us to confront our deepest paranoia—perhaps our safety is not guaranteed.

Then again, maybe it’s not about safety at all.

I know dozens of Jews who have never considered leaving the States. Perhaps it’s fueled by naiveté, but in spite of these hardships, they have never experienced the fear to which I am referring or expressed any serious concern for their own personal safety as a direct result of their Jewish identity. Their belief is that the U.S. will continue to be a safe place to be Jewish for the foreseeable future, a result of their lived experience in a time of unparalleled American comfort.

Who is right? The paranoid or the naive? As always, the answer is somewhere in the murky gray area between the two extremes.

It is correct to say that Jews need always to be vigilante. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has articulated, antisemitism is a virus which can mutate and spread at a rapid pace, and it is our responsibility to remain watchful, not only for our own safety, but for the safety of all marginalized groups. Where antisemitism goes, all other forms of hate will surely follow. On the other hand it is true that the US has afforded Jews unparalleled opportunity and prosperity. Healthy skepticism of our institutions and leaders, matched with our responsibility to improve the world can ensure that the US remains a safe place to be a Jew.

This now begs the question, if the US can be a safe haven for Jews, why would anyone leave? The answer, in fact, lies in the very security and prosperity we’ve experienced in the States.

I often wonder if my grandparents’ feelings about Israel changed at all because they came in search of refuge. Was the spirit of early Zionists conferred to them? Did they feel as though they were liberating themselves and taking their destiny into their own hands or was their liberation a consequence of the absence of choice?

As Jews living in America in the 21st century, we have a privilege that virtually no prior generation has had—that is total agency. With that agency comes the power to choose for ourselves and for future generations, to never be refugees again. I have a chance to take advantage of a unique and non-guaranteed opportunity as a Jew to go to Israel out of an immense love for my home and not, like my grandparents, in search of refuge.

When I’m asked why I’m moving to Israel or why I’m moving now, the answer is simple. I am among the first people in generations who has the opportunity to choose. How then could I choose anything else?