An Aliyah Tale
This is a short story I performed at a poetry/storytelling slam hosted by The Stage in Tel Aviv.
After 8 years in Israel, I am returning to the United States in one short week. As many olim understand, when you make aliyah (what is aliyah?), you are constantly barraged with the question, “so why would you leave America and move here?” followed by a very quizzical look.
It’s to the point that when a first date asks me this, I cringe and have even considered creating a short landing page with my Israeli manifesto just to deflect this question and save my sanity and patience. (By the way, no one really understands why or believes you, no matter what your answer may be.) As I prepare to leave, I realize that maybe I didn’t fully understand what drove me here either.
I was born to the only Jewish cowboy from Long Island, NY and a blonde hippy shiksa who had an affinity for dating Jewish men. But you see, it was my mom’s own Jewish heart that led her to study with a rabbi for a year to earn her “Jewess” title and officially convert (according to halacha thank you very much). However, this modern love story, was short lived.
Shortly after I was born, my father began getting very sick — mentally ill. Heartbreakingly, in a scene that could’ve been taken straight from the cutting room floor of “A Beautiful Mind,” my mother left him with me in her arms and her dreams under her feet.
Schizophrenia is a very difficult disease to understand and it carries a lot of confusion and shame, at least it has for me.
After moving us to the small town in West Virginia in which she had grown up, my mother raised me with a very simple understanding of my Jewishness:
1) God loves you
2) You are special to Him
3) You are to be a light of His love
It is indeed, but without my Jewish family close by, or any real community (remember I was in West Virginia) it was hard to truly identify what being Jewish really meant to me. I navigated childhood and adolescence in Appalachia with a name that most certainly presented my breed while conjuring up very sophisticated jokes such as, “So if you’re named Tomorrow, is your brother named Yesterday?” Never. Ending. Jokes.
I somehow survived the bad jokes and cultural vacuum. My questioning began in college, where surprisingly for the first time in my life I was faced with anti-semitism. Back country folk lived down the street from me at school and just loved to use the word Jew as both a racial slur and a verb — but this was mild. After a night of partying too-hard, American college style, I found myself in an apartment that had a swastika flag hanging in one of the bedrooms. There was also the time that a “friend” pointed to a necklace I was wearing with Hebrew letters and asked, “What does that say? Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees?” What do you say in these situations? I chose silence.
When around people who would use these slurs, I started to reply “my family is from Russia originally” when questioned about my name or my background. I didn’t want to say Jew. That stuck inside me like a knife and helped propel my journey to find out what It means to be Jewish and also what I think about God.
I excitedly took my first trip to Israel at the age of 21, and fell in love. I loved the weather, I loved how free Israelis are and there was a deep longing in my heart to be a part of it. After a failed long distance relationship with a soldier (shocking I know) and 6 more visits back, I started contemplating the idea of aliyah. It took me many tears, all the courage I had, 4k dollars and two suitcases to finally give it a shot.
About 7 months into my Israel experience, I received a call that changed everything. My father was in the hospital and had been for the past two weeks. It was cancer, he was dying and had lost his ability to speak.
I rushed to New York to speak my final words at his death bed, begging God the whole way that my dad would at least be able to understand me. I was finally able to tell him that I was proud to be his daughter and that he was the best dad I could hope for — and really mean it. He heard every word and beamed as I spoke the truth that before was trapped inside of me. Paul Frumkin took his last breath 5 days later on December 20th, 2007.
I returned to Israel alone. After merely seven months of residence and no family within a 6 thousand mile radius, my friendships were still putting down roots and my “boy toy” at the time was 5 years younger and 10 years less mature. It may have been the most alone I’ve ever been.
I spent the next two weeks in bed, crying and eating from the bag of Snickers bars I had hoarded on my trip to the US. Amazingly, I managed to lose 10 lbs and scrape myself out of my bed to face my life in Israel alone.
Losing a parent is different from other losses. All of the sudden, a person who helped create you is gone, and that means anyone can go at any time and nothing is for sure. All of my years and thousands of dollars in therapy couldn’t stave off the waves of pain, regret and shame that flooded my heart after my father’s death.
Every holiday, every Shabbat, was a burden on my heart in a place where I had just barely begun a life. I had this thing with needing to remember him, needing to be sure that he wasn’t forgotten and his life wasn’t in vain. I was in the fire, facing the biggest issues of my life — my father and my identity. I had zero capacity for the normalcies of Israeli existence, like getting in shouting matches with shop owners, cut in line at the post office or told off by nosey strangers. This is when the part of me that had been dormant for my whole life began to awaken.
Before my dad got sick, he was extremely assertive, unintimidated and strong. He was a true New Yorker. You throw in the clinical crazy, and you have the perfect recipe for Israel survival. This strength bubbled up in me with each passing year, as I felt myself growing stronger and stronger and giving less and less of a shit about nonsense.
Before he passed, my father was so proud that his daughter had made aliyah and lived in Israel. For a man who had his life ravaged by a disease he didn’t ask for, that’s all he had. That’s what I was able to give him. By losing him, I have found the things he gave me in the crazy, amazing place that is now engraved on my heart. I found strength, beauty and I found myself.
After 8 years of struggling and laughing, crying and loving, smiling and grieving in this country that’s now one of my homes, I realize that I’ve found my roots. It can’t be taken from me and this identity that I didn’t quite grasp or understand has been fortified in me. Through my struggles and through the fire I see what I’m made of, I’m Paul’s daughter.