As I lie on my manicured lawn in the shade of an evergreen tree, I listen as an ice cream truck passes my home, reminding me of the 23 summers I’ve spent on Mercer Island, a small and quiet suburb of Seattle. People call Mercer Island “Moishe Island” because of the number of Jews who live here. But even in a public high school that was largely Jewish, my 12th grade math teacher knew me as the “Israel girl.”
“Stop talking to your neighbors, Israel girl!”
“What’s the answer to the equation—Israel girl?”
“You have another question, Israel girl?!”
He knew my name was Ellie, but thought it was funny to call me “Israel girl”… and I didn’t even want to stop him.
You see, in 12th grade, I had just come back from my first trip to Israel, a summer science program at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. Like many before me, I was immediately captivated by Israel’s people, culture, food, language, weather, and that inexplicable buzz you feel when you visit Israel for the first time, as if you’re falling in love.
In fact, that summer, I was hospitalized when my madricha(guide or supervisor) noticed she could see my heart beating out of my chest. At 200 beats-per-minute. I was in love! As I devoured bag after bag of Bamba for the first time from my hospital bed, I smiled as I crunched away. Even in what should have been a scary situation (hospitalized for the very first time, in a new country, my doctors speaking a language I did not understand, awakened at night by a beeping noise every time my heart rate went over 220), I was blissful. When my friend (read: Israeli crush) picked me up from the hospital, we danced by moonlight outside of the hospital as we waited for our ride.
When I got back to Mercer Island, I simply could not stop thinking (and talking, obviously) about Israel. This was coming from a girl who hated being Jewish as a kid—I used to put off going to Sunday school by dressing in one short skirt after another that I knew my parents would veto. Even this serial wardrobe change was more appealing to me than learning Hebrew prayers, talking about Judaism, and preparing for holidays that I didn’t connect to.
At the time, if you had told my friends or family that in the next 13 years I would visit Israel seven times, would be on the board of a five-college Hillel, minor in Jewish Studies, begin a pro-Israel club, write as a journalist for the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought, work on two Jewish start-ups, and become an Israeli immigrant, they would have burst out laughing. And yet, there I was, just six years after my Hebrew school fiascos, blabbering on to my neighbors in math class about how funny it is that the only place where Israelis find squirrels is in the zoo. Yet here I am, six years after that, making aliyah to Israel.
Now you are probably wondering: Why would this girl move from a comfortable life in suburban America, with a close-knit family, safe neighborhoods, and an easy life—to Israel, where she has no family, doesn’t speak much Hebrew, and plunge into a world of the unknown. And second, what is this “Israel girl” doing on my JNS.org news feed?
Well, this Israel girl has many reasons for moving to Israel that she wouldn’t expect anyone to understand who hasn’t had the chance to visit and get to really know the land and people of Israel, behind the headlines. But as a journalist who is thrilled and honored to be chronicling her aliyah journey and life in Israel in this new column, she hopes to help you understand, even if you haven’t had the chance to go.
Israel girl, also known by her real name (Eliana Rudee), was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer, during the war with Hamas. Now, she is bringing you a weekly column—dubbed “Aliyah Annotated”—describing her first-hand experiences as she navigates Israel’s trials and tribulations and shares the thought-processes that follow. Through these articles, she hopes to beam the light of her journey as a new Israeli. Her accounts of life in Israel will provide insight into the complexities of Israel’s culture, politics, economy, philosophy, and religious landscape, which are interwoven and vital to grasp in order to understand the Jewish state.
So get ready to follow her experiences, which are sure to be challenging yet exhilarating, terrifying yet hilarious, and everything in between.
Lehitraot, until next week,
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She published her thesis in Perceptions and Strategic Concerns of Gender in Terrorism. Follow her @ellierudee.