JERUSALEM, Oct. 3 (JTA) — “At my old shul in D.C., during the week you’d see Joe Lieberman and everyone would call him ‘Senator Lieberman.’ But on Yom Tov and Shabbat, he was always just Joe.” My roommate Chaim shared this with me as we were pulling our freshly dry-cleaned white shirts from the plastic, getting ready for Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem. I loved the story because it shows the Jewish holidays as the great equalizer. These days allow us to move away from our different jobs and roles and return to our true selves. The story resonated with me on a personal level as well, considering my thoughts leading up to the High Holidays. Having recently made the move to Israel, I’ve found myself forced to define who I am and where I’m headed. Those questions keep pushing me uncomfortably toward what I will be doing here, instead of who I am here. It was as if in the past there were no distinction in my head between what I did and who I was, that these two separate realties were actually one. Maybe because I’ve been learning full time in yeshiva since I moved to Israel, instead of working a nine-to-five business writing job as I was in New York, I’ve gained a greater awareness of this distinction. But even when I distinguish between who am I and what I’ll do for a living, I still need to answer both questions. This fear must have left an imprint in my mind because the Rosh Hashanah prayer for parnasa, or sustenance, seemed to stand out this year. I saw clearly that the only element of my faith for the future that is lacking concerns my financial destiny. Unfortunately, I think my fears are justified: The Israeli economy is still swirling downward and cutbacks are taking place at every level; unemployment is at an all-time high. Around me, my fellow immigrants are stretching themselves in new directions to make it in Israel. Lee Wolfe, 39, was involved in project management and business development for an Internet startup before he made aliyah from Toronto in 2000. After 15 months looking for work, Lee took a position as a clerk at the government’s coins and metal department, answering complaints from customers who received damaged or incomplete products. Not only is it a big step down in responsibility, but his salary is only “slowing the leak” in his expenses, he says. “After deductions, I make a little bit more than I did as pin boy at the bowling alley I worked at in high school,” Lee says. Lee’s experience isn’t uncommon. Alicia Rabin, 24, recently made aliyah and started looking for a job in Jewish communal work. So far, she hasn’t had much success — so she took a job in sales at a real estate office. “I never would have done real estate in the U.S., never,” Alicia says. “In America, I had to be connected to the Jewish people as much as possible. Here I could work in a donut shop. In Israel the point is to survive; my main job is to live here and make a life here.” But Alicia still hopes that, as her Hebrew improves, she’ll find work that matches her passions. “It’s hard to let go of my identity as Alicia the social worker. I hear this little voice saying, ‘If I’m not doing Jewish communal work, who am I?’ ” I hear the struggle of my friends so clearly, and I also am concerned for my own future. So, in an attempt to broaden my horizons and make ends meet, I’ve taken on several obscure freelance writing projects, including a women’s seminary newsletter, where I attempt to describe their trips to breast milk banks and soup kitchens. But that’s only the beginning. A few weeks after settling into the dorm room at my yeshiva, I was arranging piles of absorption papers when the phone rang. “Hi Jonathan, this is Tamar Yonah from Arutz Sheva Israel National News Radio. I’m in change of doing the ‘Aliyah Show,’ and I got your number from Baruch.” I assumed that my friend Baruch, the station manger, had mentioned my name as a new immigrant to be interviewed on the show. But that wasn’t what Tamar wanted. “I was hoping that you could host today’s show, because our normal host couldn’t make it,” she said. For a moment, I couldn’t respond. “Um, I don’t know if Baruch knew this or not, but I’ve never done radio before. I’m really a print journalist,” I said. “Oh, that doesn’t matter,” Tamar said. “The only thing is that you need to get some guests for today. We need someone for a personal aliyah spotlight, a general feature . . . ” I was petrified, but told myself that if I’m going to make it in Israel I’ve got to diversify. Within 30 minutes I had guests lined up and had transformed my room into a radio studio. I sat by my desk and spoke into my cell phone. My elbows shook the table as I shared my aliyah journey, did product promotions and interviewed families about how their American electrical appliances worked in Israeli outlets. It wasn’t a paid gig, but — as Baruch wrote me later that week — “You can put ‘senior radio host on Israel National Radio’ on your resume.” The odd jobs have only been getting odder from there. One morning, a friend asked me to give him a buzz with his trimmer. I had never cut anyone’s hair before, but how hard could it be to move a buzzer around someone’s head? Surprisingly, I gave his head a near perfect trim, and even the back of his neck had nice, curved edges. Other guys in the yeshiva soon recognized my barbering talent and starting hitting me up for similar service. I didn’t have the heart to charge them, but I’m thinking that maybe I should buy my own supplies and start a little barber business outside my dorm room. “Do you think you could show me how to cut hair?” I asked my own barber as he was giving me a trim. “Just bring in a customer and we’ll see what we can do,” he said. “And if you ever wanted to open a place like this, all you need is about $20,000, and then there’s rent and insurance, and you could do it.” Actually, I was just hoping to make a little extra money at the yeshiva, but who knows what I may have to do to make a life here. That’s because, for me, it’s not about what I do here but the fact that I am here. My friend Lee said it best: “Money is one thing, and the rest of life is something else; my life is here.” As new immigrants, we may not ever get our dream jobs or earn our dream salaries. But we know that we have something more important: We know that we are not business people or writers or social workers. We are Jews living and struggling in the Land of Israel. By returning to our homeland, we have reclaimed our true selves. What a great feeling going into this new year, knowing exactly who we are.
SIGN UP FOR THE JTA DAILY BRIEFING