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The Road Not Taken

In my unusually large, far-flung, contentious, loopy contingent of maternal first cousins, the quandary of aliyah, or not, at one time or another, has possessed—pierced—nearly all of us.  And this is so despite the great divergence in our ages, interests, temperaments, the cities where we were raised, and even the surprisingly diverse degrees of Jewish education, traditional observance, or Zionist affiliation in our upbringings.  Oh that!  Our upbringings: those forever-imprinting, overheated parental homes!  It is surely whimsical to wonder, as I sometimes do, if this familial braid of indecision, so improbable a multi-generational tic (true, we are here, but should we—shouldn’t we really be there?), like so much else unspoken (and usually dismaying) that we know we have in common, is rooted in the genes.

It was my mother’s account that our grandfather—to some of us, Zeidy, to others, Grandpa—had had, as his first love, the Hebrew poet Dvorah Baron, that they were pledged, not only to each other, but also to aliyah: that they would leave Russia and go to Palestine together.  He dawdled; she went. And that hesitation, his, would scrape along for at least two more generations.  The aliyah-unready hazzan remained in Minsk and went on to marry our grandmother; her sister, our great-aunt, would herself leave for Palestine only a few years after.  (And think of that: She stayed!  No back and forth deal, either.  An authentic Second Aliyah halutzah!)

Still, how lucky did we get!  Through a mere stroke of fate, the no-longer dawdling hazzan was turned down, but only at the very last minute, from the cantorial post in Budapest he’d so avidly pursued (ah, the glamour of the great Hapsburg capitals!).  At home, in the impoverished Polish shtetl, the post he’d long impatiently endured, his older children were learning Hungarian.  Leave!  Leave!  And why not?  Hardly a decade before, when the First World War’s contending armies had crisscrossed that miserable backwater (think Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories), it was already clear: Jews, find an elsewhere!  But where?

The thwarted hazzan had a brother, only one (naturally they’d quarreled), and he was already living in America.  Next stop for our persevering grandfather: New York Harbor.  Weren’t we lucky!  Unlike that long, long string of children—all those rancorous siblings, the steamy swarm of aunts and uncles so immiserated in youth—we were born in America. Safe.  Safe.  Opportunity ours through birth alone.  Leave all that?  To live where?  Teachers, neighbors, even close friends: count those raised eyebrows!  If you’d said Paris, well! . . .  Who hadn’t known the ravishments of French movies, been made moony with Gauloises dreams?  But Israel?  A tiny far-away sliver of a country forever surrounded by enemies?

Just as Americans know the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken,” so Israelis can sing the Raḥel poem “El Artzi” (“To My Country”).  Though Frost considered his celebrated poem “tricky,” no matter how you read it, its burden is personal: Two roads “diverged in a wood”; the poet can take only one.  For Raḥel (Second Aliyah), no road yet exists, nor are there surrounding woods.  These she must create, with her own body.  Brooding regret and pride joust in this early Hebrew poet’s plaint; she can claim no “heroic deeds” for her country.  Only this: “My hands planted a tree/Along the Jordan’s quiet shores.  My feet forged a path/Through your fields.”

Zionism, too, had its rhapsodic seductions.  An austere ethos, stirring in its simplicity—to work the land, the land of Israel itself, its ancient natural features, their strange beauty in need, aching: hills, crags, fields, olive trees, grapevines, wild flowers.  That whole landscape, “the country” really—alien for city kids, ordinarily a fleeting summertime zoo, the country, but this one, exotic with text and history, beckoned uniquely.  All the iconic Zionist imagery: halutzim, kibbutzim, tractors, orchards, cornfields swaying in the wind—everything jubilantly celebrated in Israel’s music and dance, all of it utterly remote from our school-day lives, still, how resonant!  Finally (or is that first?), the exhilaration, the sheer wonder of peeling past reality’s skin into the miraculous: a revived Jewish nation, an established Jewish state.  Which could defend itself.  Could all that merely reflect the unfulfilled shadow-life of our parents?

In time, a few cousins did go, but they came back.  Home.  To America.  Yet consider the intense way we attend to the news.  Who could doubt that lodged somewhere in an internal purse or back pocket, we could still, most of us, extract a worn guilt-printed Chinese menu of life’s unusual exigencies or commonplace interruptions that kept us staying put.  Here.  Home.

But: then there’s Cousin Chava.  At last, aliyah for real!  She and her husband did forge a path: a whole life and family, two more generations whose home, in fact, is Israel.  Such a close, busy life Chava has!  Such a maze of infinite connections!  An unrestrained dizzying just-done list.  Work, visits, cooking, Pilates, lectures, meetings, more, more. New hectic goings-on always.  Exhausting!  When do they sleep?  The “full Jewish life,” is that it?  But sometimes as we chatter on the phone, Chava starts with alarm when, from my end, she hears sirens.  No, not a terrorist attack, only an ambulance wailing down West End Avenue.  Who would ever say that hers, or any Israeli’s, is an easier life? And yet, and yet . . . .  Of course, Israel is a completely different place now.  Malls, super-trendy nightclub Tel Aviv, amazing tech startups—and every possible social, political, religious controversy alive and brutally kicking.  Add the ominous: She’d just gone “to pick up our gas masks at the shopping mall with the rest of Israel.”  The rest of Israel.

Professional concerns aside, Chava is a grandmother several times over; sometimes what I hear from Jerusalem is a pure grandmother story.  Try this one: Her baby granddaughter had watched her older sister come home from kindergarten crying inconsolably.  At this, the little one handed over her own pacifier, saying,  “K'ḥi!”  Here!  Take it! For one maddened moment on the phone, I thought: a baby, and already she knows the correct verb form!  Perhaps it was the dissonant stun of that infant grammatical feat that had me muttering to Chava about the push/pull ghost of aliyah, never truly articulated, that had haunted our family for fully three generations.  It took her aback (had our connection gone dead?).  Finally: “It’s true, you’re right . . . I just never thought about it that way.”  And why would she?

In my generation, we are American, and proudly so.  Would a life in Israel rather than the American lives we embraced have been more likely to make us—oh, say the foolish word—“happy”?  Is that really the question?  Was it ever? Those utilitarian Israeli produce baskets we recall—white-gold and brimming with a surfeit of fruits: Did their bounty merely seem to waft up a deeper, richer sweetness, a life-sweetness, in the face of perpetual adversity?  Could—should—an inner voice have piped up just a little louder, even generations ago: That little dot on the map?  Ancient, yet alive again?  It’s yours.  K’ḥu!  Here, take it.

Johanna Kaplan is the author of Other People’s Lives, a collection of short stories, and O My America!, a novel. Her books won the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and were finalists for the National Book Award. Her essay, “Tales of My Great-Grandfathers” appears in the Schocken anthology Who We Are: On Being (and Not Being) a Jewish American Writer.

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Helene Aylon on August 24, 2012 at 12:33 pm (Reply)
The Road Not Taken is poignant. It is my own ambivalence, so well expressed by Johanna Kaplan. What if?? I tried to describe this tug in my own memoir, because it indeed was the nucleous of my existence after a Borough Park girlhood that would define my life thereafter extending to the future generations.
Martha Mendelsohn on August 25, 2012 at 2:34 pm (Reply)
This essay brilliantly captures the dilemma of so many American Jews for whom Israel has its seductions, both mythic and authentic, but who balk at the prospect of actually living there. For them aliyah often remains a missed(and regretted) opportunity.
Nora Yood on August 26, 2012 at 9:00 pm (Reply)
I enjoyed reading this insightful essay. I share a variation of Johanna Kaplan’s dilemma. Educated during the 50’s in a modern Orthodox yeshiva by fierce Zionists, I was taught that the miracle of May 1948 demanded aliya as the only option for an authentic Jewish existence. Although my parents sent me to that school, they did not subscribe to its philosophy, and certainly did not envision the future of their offspring in some distant, primitive place.
My brother and I, however, caught the fervor, which remained a dream deferred until her he located to Jerusalem twenty years ago. I wondered if I, too, could make such a bold move. Would living in Israel elevate the mundane, mindless obligations that consumed my days to something noble and heroic? There still would be shopping and laundry, sitting in traffic, paying the bills, but these activities would no longer be the main plot line in my life’s drama but a minor subtext as I joined those in the historic rebuilding, after a millennium of yearning, of a Jewish homeland.
Over the past two decades, I have travelled to Israel often, not as a tourist but as part of a family whose members live and work there, ride the buses, serve in the army. I have come to realize that my heart may be in the east, but the rest of me remains firmly rooted in the soil of these United States. I would like to thank Ms. Kaplan for reminding me of a starry eyed teenager who once imagined herself among sturdy, muscled chalutzim greening the desert during daylight, dancing the hora at dusk, and sitting around a campfire , passing ther finjan and singing well into the deep , dark night.

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