Leibel, Aaron. “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s”, Chickadee Prince Books LLC, 2021.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
When I first heard about Aaron Leibel’s “Figs and Alligators”, I was very anxious to read it since it coincides with many of the years I lived in Israel. I did not, however, think that I would be as affected by it as I was. All the memories of my years in Israel came rushing back and I laughed and I wept as I read. Simply written and conversational in tone, I could have been sitting in the same room with author Leibel and comparing notes.
Did you ever wonder what makes a person change his life so completely that he is willing to move to another country, learn a different language and become a part of a culture that is radically different from everything he has ever known? I am not sure you get the answer to that here but you do get insights into living in a war-torn country during a historical period. Moving to Israel soon after the Six-Day War Leibel (as did I) goes through severe culture shock. Unless you experience this yourself, it is very hard to share but he does so with all of the nuances of relocation and adjustment. Making Aliyah (the Hebrew term for moving to Israel) was a big step back then since it meant leaving behind comforts that so many Americans enjoy but which had not reached Israel. It also meant becoming a part of society that is foreign and somewhere between European and Middle-Eastern with new ways of doing things that are very different than we did here at the same time (no credit cards, stoves and washing machines were rare, a six-year wait for a telephone, compulsory military duty, the inability to stand in line and so on). It is a rude awakening that hits the new citizen all at once. But there are also great rewards. Leibel and his family (wife and three daughters were there for twenty years and those years were often frustrating, often gratifying and always challenging). It is very difficult to put into words what is to be “a stranger in a strange land” yet Aaron Leibel succeeds in doing so beautifully. Unlike the Israel of today, arriving in the first quarter of the state was very different. I went to build a nation, the home of my people and so I was willing to live with the sacrifices I had to make to be part of a new and vibrant society. So did Leibel but he also had his responsibility as a husband and father which made it much more difficult.
When Leibel met his wife, Bonnie neither of them considered Israel as an option in their lives. Aaron was Jewish, Bonnie was not. a move to Israel seemed very unlikely. She hailed from a solidly Protestant family, and while he was Jewish, he was ‘completely detached from the Jewish people. After converting to Judaism, it was Bonnie’s idea to move to Israel and the story begins. We read about learning to speak Hebrew and this is where the book gets its title. The Hebrew words for figs and alligators are very similar. I was reminded of riding on a bus in Jerusalem and still learning Hebrew. I told the lady sitting next to me as we neared my stop, “Excuse me, I need to give birth” instead of “I need to get off of the bus”. The word for to give birth and to get off are very similar and I did a bit of mispronunciation.
Leibel shares his experiences of living in Jerusalem and on a kibbutz, where he worked at an apple orchard, of serving served in the Israel Defense Forces for 14 years, of being recruited to become a spy by Israeli intelligence. We go shopping with him and we buy a house, learn about the educational system and largely forget about the Jewish religion. We watch Israel mature from a small, somewhat insignificant country into a country to rival others, a major military power and a scientific nation. We experience war and peace and war again, become familiar with the tactics of terrorists and deal with the bewilderment of Israel’s economy.
This is the Israel that was and I read with feelings of nostalgia and memories. Looking back can be quite difficult and I refaced so many of the problems that I dealt with while living there. There is humor and pathos on every page but above all else is the author’s honest retelling of a time that is now gone; a time when idealism ruled and was often fulfilled.