Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

8 Av 5760 - August 9, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Song of Ascent -
An Interview with an American Immigrant

Part I

"I myself feel very good. Like I very much belong here; an Israeli in every way. I can't change the view of whoever thinks of me as a chutznik, a kind of `defect' which they pin on me. But I don't mind living with it till one hundred and twenty," laughs Dassi, a `new' immigrant, only twenty-odd years in the country.

"When I go back There for a visit, my nice friendly, familiar friends greet me along with warm and loving family. The environment and mentality are so familiar and remembered by me. Yet, despite this, I feel like I don't belong any more. On the other hand, when I'm here, they call me `Amerikaner.' That's how it is; I feel like a person without an identity, without a name, not in my native land and not in Israel."

Almost all Israelis have an acquaintance, a neighbor or a family member who is "a new immigrant" like Dassi. The Hebrew Bayit Ne'eman decided to explore what a chutznik like her has to say about the absorption ropes, the emotional and practical rungs that she had to climb. Dassi attests that her story is one from real life. She agreed to tell it so that the natives of the country could increase their sensitivity to the old-new immigrant, know what she went through and intuit what she needs from them in terms of empathy and help.

Childhood Without Ice Cream

I was born in Pittsburgh, a large city in American terms but a small town in Jewish ones. For the small Jewish population there, two schools were sufficient: one run by Chabad but very general in its curriculum and patronized by the chareidi element, and a modern Day School. My strongest memory as a child is connected to, of all things, ice cream. In all my seven years there, I never tasted ice cream. In my time, there was no cholov Yisroel ice cream and the bit of milk we had, we obtained from the father of a friend of mine who went to a farm every few days and watched a cow being milked by a gentile. He supplied us and a few other families with this personally supervised kosher milk. His wife made white cheese from the milk, which we bought from her -- that's how they made a living. But in all of my years of childhood, I never had the pleasure of licking real ice cream.

My parents were certainly missing more important things than ice cream, but that was partly compensated for by the warm family atmosphere that reigned among the few religious families that lived in Pittsburg. Nevertheless, the time came when they decided to pull up roots and move away, together with the children who had been born there, further inland and westward, but not to a large chareidi center. When my brother reached bar- mitzva age and my parents sought a yeshiva for him, it was a toss-up between a four hour plane ride to one yeshiva or a six hour plane ride to another, in New York. They chose a third option: to go with him to a place of Torah. This is how we finally came to move to New York when I was twelve, and up till the time I made aliya, that is where I lived.

I finished four years of high school and went off to Jerusalem where I learned for a year in a seminary for foreign students. That was a special year, one of elation. At the end of it, many girls declared that after their weddings, they would live only in Eretz Yisroel, even only in Jerusalem, and a few narrowed it down even further to -- only Kiryat Mattersdorf.

Today, three are in Baltimore, two in Monsey, two in Cleveland and so on down the line -- all excepting Mattersdorf. I, myself, did not want to develop any illusions. My father was no gvir and I couldn't establish any facts. But there was no doubt as to what my choice would have been, given it.

A Ben Torah -- No Matter of What Origin

At the end of the school year, we spent the last Shabbos in Bnei Brak before going back to America. We davened in Ponevizh and I remember that at the end of the prayers, I stood by the mechitza directly opposite the oron kodesh and prayed with all my heart: "Ribono Shel Olom, You know what You have chosen for me. I only ask that he be a real ben Torah so that I can dedicate my life to his Torah - in any place he chooses!"

You can imagine how I felt a few months later when a shidduch was suggested -- of my husband of today who was studying in Yeshivas Ponevizh at the time and who was determined to remain there to study. I felt a wonderful closeness to Hashem, for here, my prayer had been answered! This unknown candidate's stock went up sky-high in my opinion, even before I ever met him.

My dream of making aliya came true six weeks after the wedding. I was offered jobs, as well as an apartment in Jerusalem, but my husband made it clear that for his Torah there was only one place - Yeshivas Ponevizh in Bnei Brak. I knew that I would follow wherever he decided to go. It wasn't Jerusalem. The Bnei Brak of twenty years ago was primitive compared to today. There were few stores and a poor selection of merchandise. There were hardly any air conditioners and even a fan on a stand was considered an extravagant novelty.

I landed from a spiritual high of "The Holy Land" to Bnei Brak below, but it was a soft landing. The first rule, I told myself, was approximately this: "Listen, lady, everyone has difficulty adapting anywhere. Don't pin your life's problems on the country. You are faced with a challenge of the burden of income, together with raising children and running a home. All this is so that your husband can sit freely and study Torah -- shivti b'veis Hashem. It's not an easy challenge, it's true, but every woman is faced with it in every corner of the world, and it's important that you separate the issues from the beginning. But in order that you remain in the right direction of `Seeing the goodness of Yerusholayim,' you must seek the advantages of settling in Israel. If you steer in that direction only, you'll reach your goal, and you'll really have it good here." It's true that it's not easy to live far from your family, but as someone who grew up in America, I was already used to huge distances, and you can always bridge them by telephone, letters and infrequent visits.

Transience Reduces Stress

When we arrived, they told us that it was not a good idea to live in Ramat Elchanan because it was too far removed from "home base." I laughed inside. This is called distance? I didn't see any problem. What eased the distance and my approach to additional issues was the fact that from the outset, we had come only for a few months -- which, in the meantime, have turned into more than twenty years, therefore, I didn't feel the pain of parting at any time. After all, everything is temporary. We're going back soon. That's how I felt for many years, and this gave me legitimacy to live the way I wanted, to be a little different. Anyway, that's how the locals saw me, and if this was so, I could really feel and even act differently, all in my own good way.

I don't have to be like anyone. I am not in competition with any group or society; I don't need to impress anyone. I am what I am. Had I lived in Lakewood with five classmates, I might have felt the need to be like them in my furnishings, dress, lifestyle. But here, I'm the American, and it's no big deal if I have no fancy sofa, if there are no chairs in the kitchen and we sit on simple stools or my kids wear hand-me- downs from relatives. And when there's no competition and no societal pressure, life is much easier. And when there's no pressure to get this item or that one as fast as possible but to wait for the bonanza to fall from Heaven, which it occasionally does, it turns out that there are many things that are not necessary in the short run, and there is a different order of priorities. I preferred, in the time remaining after work, to do another puzzle with the kids or read a book, and I postponed washing the floor for a couple of hours, or a couple of days... I don't think my house was less hygienic than the average house in Bnei Brak. I do like to think that our home atmosphere was more casual and relaxed.

To be continued...


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