Learning to Say (and Admit) “I Am a New Immigrant”
Anee olah hadasha. I am a new immigrant. This was one of the first things I learned to say in my Hebrew ulpan, or intensive language class. I had been in Israel for a month, but it had yet to occur to me that I might be an immigrant. I didn’t make Aliyah (which literally means ascent and is the term for when people move to Israel, typically for religious/Zionist reasons). But then again I did pack my bags, say goodbye to my friends, family, and job, and move halfway around the world. But it’s only for three years, so does that make me an immigrant?
I realized that for all intents and purposes it doesn’t matter if I am staying three or thirty years. My experience is that of a new immigrant. I moved to a new place where I had never been, didn’t have friends or family, and didn’t know the language all for the promise of new opportunities (medical school for my husband, writing for me). And it’s an entirely different sensation than being a tourist, or even studying abroad. Truly living somewhere requires that you interact with the place on the most basic levels. Most travel guides won’t tell you which grocery store has the best prices, or which vendor at the market has the best pomegranates. I had to figure that out on my own.
The truth is most travel guides won’t tell you much of anything about Be’er Sheva, the city in the Negev Desert in the South of Israel that we moved to. While it’s the fourth largest city in Israel, it’s not exactly a tourist destination. This means less English is spoken, and very few places cater to a foreign population. It also means that I had to dive in head first.
Since I relate to new people and places through food (I’m Italian-American and a food writer, after all) it makes sense that the first places I tried to negotiate were the supermarkets and the outdoor market, called the Shuk. I bought baking soda instead of sugar, sour cream instead of yogurt, cilantro instead of parsley. And at the same time that I was enthusiastically enjoying the foods of my new home – creamy hummus, fresh pita, crispy falafel – I almost immediately set about preparing the dishes of my old home. Meatloaf, baked ziti, and even Pad Thai came off my stove in my first weeks living in Israel. It’s funny how soon you start to crave familiar flavors.
And then there is the self-selected community that I have quickly become a part of. We behave like immigrants, getting together to speak in our mother tongue and celebrate the traditions from our homeland. For Halloween we all dressed up and paraded to a local dance club where the confused Israelis asked earnestly if we were part of a psychology experiment. And for Thanksgiving, the most American of all holidays, we stuffed nearly 50 transplants into a friend’s home for a potluck dinner. We did our best to prepare the traditional dishes we’d grown up with, roast turkey and brisket, sweet potatoes and cornbread. And while I missed home the most in that instant I was thankful to have a group of people with a shared culture to celebrate with.
It’s been a little over two months since I moved to Israel and every day I am more at ease here. Each week brings new discoveries, challenges, and joys. I am slowly learning Hebrew and feel more confident interacting with people, even when it means having to say “I don’t speak Hebrew.” Having traveled fairly extensively but never having truly lived in a foreign country (or outside New York State for that matter), I am thankful for this opportunity to experience the world from a different point of view and reach outside my comfort zone. And I have learned to admit that anee olah hadasha. I am a new immigrant.