So it hit me the other day – we’re leaving, and our extended family isn’t coming with us. My sisters, who have been around for every major milestone… well, they won’t be. This isn’t really news to anyone, and this isn’t the first time it’s come to me in a sudden, shocking moment of panic. I expect it’ll keep hitting me, over and over and over, until we actually leave.
Things were different twenty years ago when I first decided to make aliyah. My sisters were annoying teenagers and I was somewhat estranged from my non-religious extended family in general. Plus, I had grandparents and great-uncles and great-aunts and I don’t know how that made it easier, but I guess I figured with the kind of momentum you feel in a big extended family, they would all go on without me and I’d move on to fabulous new adventures.
There’s no big extended family anymore. I guess it was an illusion, those 20- and 30- person seders and memories of childhood events surrounded by semi-strangers. The older generation, my grandparents’ generation of great-uncles and great-aunts, is almost gone. And with the loss of my father and his brother, even my mother’s generation feels shockingly depleted.
The family seders are very small nowadays – and my own nuclear family too big to slip away without anyone noticing. That’s the other thing that’s different: back then, it was just me. If you’re single, you can slip away more easily. Now it is me with Ted and four beloved nephews, nieces, grandchildren, great-nieces and so on. Our little 6-person family generally constitutes the bulk of any family event we turn up at.
Despite a couple of cousins who have figured out a way to reproduce, the rest of my generation have been pretty slothful about getting on with the task of producing the next generation. Will there even be any family left, once we’re gone?
If you are considering making aliyah, do it before you have kids the rest of your family becomes attached to. And before your sisters grow up into amazing, accomplished, kind women of substance. And before your mother is both widowed and orphaned in the same month, so she’s left coming to you every Shabbos for dinner and hoping every Shabbos and Yom Tov afternoon that you’ll drop by to invite her to the park or out for a walk (at least, I hope she’s hoping for it, as opposed to dreading it!).
Do it as soon as you can – before you grow up, because it is a Very Painful Thing.
Friends of ours made aliyah to Mitzpeh Netofa (where we’re NOT going, but close by!) this week, and the husband spoke at shul before they left. He mentioned the much commented-upon verse where Hashem first speaks to Avram in parshas Lech Lecha, saying, “לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ”, get up n’ go from
- your land
- your birthplace
- your father’s house
This friend pointed out that the order seems reversed. When you’re travelling, what order do you do it in? You leave your house, your city, and eventually, your country. This is the logical order, the physical order.
But emotionally, the order is different. It’s easy enough to leave your land – file the paperwork, tell Revenue Canada you’re not going to be filing Canadian taxes anymore. Whatever it is, you just fill out a form; it’s simple to do.
Leaving your “birthplace” is a bit more of a hassle – at a time when many of us don’t live in our actual birthplace, this involves selling or subletting a house, transferring utilities, selling the car, cancelling your phone. You have a lot more local ties, there’s a lot more paperwork. This is also the level at which you say goodbye to your community, your shul, so it’s a bit more painful.
But leaving your family, your “father’s house” – well, that’s the really wrenching part, and it’s nowhere near as neat as packing up your household worth of stuff. There are loose ends you can never tie; old people you’ll never see again; young people it may be years before you meet again; stories you’ll never really know the end of (will they get the Eglinton Crosstown LRT built or not?!? well, okay, maybe that’s more city-oriented).
The comfort is that there are things like Skype and cheap long-distance phone service and facebook. It’s still expensive to fly, but it’s safe, and in so many ways, Israel has never been closer.
My great-grandparents never got to Israel; they would have needed to travel for weeks, maybe months, to get there, and the route would have been dangerous. If they arrived safely, it would take weeks for a letter to get back home letting everyone know they were okay. Or not okay, starving or malaria-stricken, I don’t know.
My grandmother told me that after she married my grandfather, they sent wedding pictures back to Nowy Korczyn (Neustadt), his hometown in Poland. They never got a reply – almost the entire family died in those fuzzy years of no contact, the black box that was WW2 Europe. But at least we know with a reasonable degree of certainty that that extent of losing-touch can never, will never happen again.
At least if I have anything to say about it.