Chapter 16: Spreading Wings

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[in what has become a tradition, this chapter was written on a bus between Baltimore and Canada, like most of the previous chapters. It’s a long one, probably because it’s more recent and the details, more vivid.]

I have long had a tenuous relationship with Israel. Israelis as a collective bug the shit out of me. Rude, bureaucratic, with very little sense of tact, sophistication, or anything that I perceived as culture. I never really was Israeli – despite being born there, Hebrew is my second language and I always felt like an American in a foreign country.

It’s worth noting that I have met many amazing Israelis. As individuals. Some of my closest friends are Israelis, and some of the awesomest people I know have the misfortune of being from there. But put them in a group and they bring out the worst in each other. Some of the nicest Israelis I’ve met are actually English speakers living outside of Israel. It’s like they realize what a shitty place they were in and extract themselves from it.

When I was religious, I was also essentially a Zionist. Not a political Zionist like those crazed National Religious folk who support the government, God forbid. No, just your standard Ultra Orthodox someone with an unhealthy attachment to a specific plot of land.

Israel, I was taught, Is The Most Important Place in the World™. It is primo real estate. God Himself has chosen it as His Royal Penthouse, the spiritual top floor of the universe with the best metaphysical views. God even had a kitchen installed in Jerusalem with real marble, gold trim, and stainless copper appliances. Only the best animal sacrifices were served to Him there, and he had All The World’s Prayers delivered to that mailing address.

So as much as I hated the day to day experience, this was still a special place, our land, our holy holy dirt pile. “Look, even the Christians say so! We make fun of them the rest of the time but suddenly we’re pleased as piss that they agree with our points.”

When I stopped being religious, any meaning that I had attributed to the place was stripped away and I was left holding a big steaming bag of camel turds. Or more specifically, living in one.

Suddenly, there was no reason to have to go to every government office at least twice – once to find out what to bring because their website sucked, and once to find out they were closed because they were “on a field trip”. There was no longer any deep purpose being on the phone for an hour waiting for some customer support and then have to yell at the person to actually make shit happen.

I distinctly remember being thrown around in the back of a crowded Egged bus, feeling part of a pathetic mass that was inhumanly being hurtled through the streets by a stereotypical asshole at the wheel.

Israelis, everyone loves to say, are like a cactus fruit: prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside. The reason they ask you how much your car cost and how much money you make in the first sixty seconds of meeting you, is because we’re like family. Israel, after all, is Home.

Well fuck that. I don’t want to be a part of that family. I won’t let family talk to me like they do. Yes, I’d rather experience the fake politeness that is the West than the daily grind of existence, the constant attrition that it is to live in the East. Even if the latter is more likely to help me out if I slip on a banana peel in Machane Yehuda market, I still need my four feet of space and my picket fence. Stay out of my yard, if you please, thank you very much. Not that please and thank you are words you’ve ever even heard of.

Living in Israel became a daily burden of existence. It felt like I had to fight extra doses of gravity just to lift my feet. It was like being in space without a space suit – constantly bombarded by radiation.

*** Sidebar: Shalom Tzvi Tries to Get a license ***

Case in point: getting a driver’s license in Israel is an expensive nightmare, which you wouldn’t know because they all drive like total assholes and specialize in killing themselves and others in the process.

Most Israelis subject themselves to this misery when they are young, vibrant, and are getting fucked by life anyway, i.e. when they are 17. Growing up Orthodox, I was taught that a driver’s license was the certificate of the Devil Himself, a gateway to the carnal pleasures of driving up north on Thursday nights and having a barbecue instead of staying in and studying.

So, it was only at the age of 27 that I decided to subject myself to over thirty 45-minute long sessions of terrible driving instruction at $40 a pop, with an all-star cast of driving teachers who yell at you when you make mistakes, and inspectors who fail you multiple times and make you a pay a fortune to retake it. This is the Israeli driver’s license experience.

After 30 lessons where I still hadn’t driven on a highway or learned how to park, I decided to put my driving lessons on pause after the teaching vehicle I was driving in was hit by a car while driving down one of Jerusalem’s many narrow shitty streets. I was hit by a driver zipping at high speeds down the opposite lane IN REVERSE, following which my teacher and the other driver pulled over and proceeded to yell at each other for 20 minutes.

By the time I got over that trauma and was ready to resume lessons, my theory exam had expired. I traveled to the other end of the city to retake it, only to find a sign on the door of the exam office that they were closed that day – it was national Fuck You Day, and I had missed the memo. Wait, every day is Fuck You Day in Israel.

Then the driving testers of Israel went on strike for several months, causing a huge backlog of new drivers who needed tests. Fuck You Day had morphed into the Jewish year of Not a Single Fuck Given. My driving teacher stopped answering his phone.

I decided to get a motorcycle license instead. They need less lessons, are easier to practice for, and I’d be able to actually afford a fucking vehicle once I was done (Israeli cars are taxed 100%, meaning they cost almost twice what a car costs in the US). I traveled repeatedly to the other end of the city. I paid for, and took, the required lessons. I took the first half of driving exam, where you do figure-eights without your feet touching the ground.

I completed mine successfully. They failed me anyway.

After moving to America, I have only the following observations to add:
• I get my license easily within a month of moving to the US.
• The worst American drivers don’t come close to the average Israelis, I saw more almost-accidents in one day of driving in Israel than I did in all my time in Maryland, a state supposedly notorious for its bad drivers.
• Fuck you, Israel

*** End Sidebar ***

I couldn’t handle it any longer.

I needed to get out of that place. It represented all the oppression I’d been through. The stress of constant violence compounded on my constant existential stress. The religious fanaticism I abhorred was never more than a few feet or headlines away.

I was done. So very very done.

So I made the hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life: to leave my kids in another country and move alone to the US. It’s a decision I feel a constant need to justify, to myself and the myriad of judgmental people – mostly family members – who thought what I was doing was a. insane, b. immoral, c. selfish, d. all of the above.

The way I see it, there was nothing left of me to do any parenting if I stuck around. I needed to establish my own identity, some sort of internal semblance of well-being, if I was to be of any use at all. I needed to establish a life of my own, which I straight up didn’t have, before helping others build theirs.

So fuck all those people who think it was fine for me to have kids at 22 without ever having worked a day in my life but suddenly have opinions about what it takes to be a responsible parent.

***

I said goodbye to my kids and friends and moved to Baltimore, where I knew a shit ton of people who had all somehow come through Aish before settling there, and where the real estate market was good – that was something I wanted to get into.

I arrived in early December, 2016. It was a few days after Trump won the elections, and a few days after Baltimore’s latest in a long line of shitty mayors assumed power. Just to give you a frame of reference.

I had a single suitcase and a few thousand dollars in my bank account. I also had $80,000 in debt, accumulated over years of living just beyond our means with me in the role of sole breadwinner and failed entrepreneur. I was met at the airport by a friend, who let me stay in the basement of a house he had up for sale for the first six months.

It was bitter cold in Baltimore, but I hit the ground running, and, with no driver’s license or car, I started taking the city’s shitty public transport to get around the city and Ubering to meetups and networking events. To put things in perspective, most Jews in Baltimore have never taken the city’s public transportation once in their entire lives.

Those were dark times, full of stress over affording everything, constant rejection from credit applications due to insufficient credit history, and being away from my kids. I’d sit every morning in my basement room and cry for an hour while I meditated. There was no end in sight to my current situation. I had taken a giant leap into the unknown.

My dream was that somehow my kids would end up in America as well. I felt that ultimately their lives would be better outside the shithole called Israel, just as mine was. I had the goal of building them a better future but I had no clue as to how that would actually come about.

I was constantly comparing myself to my absent father. Was I just as unavailable as he had been? Would my kids be as angry at me as I was at him? We usually fuck our kids up subtly, realizing it retroactively. It’s rare to deliberately make a decision that you know will make things worse for them. Try explaining to a five year old that you don’t see them anymore because you couldn’t tolerate one more day in the country you were both born in.

So I video called them daily. I uploaded 140 bedtime stories to YouTube for them to watch (First one: “Oh the places you’ll go”. Last one: “Bruce’s big move”). As much for my own sake, to feel less shitty about myself; and for the sake of people around me, to judge me less; as it was for them to have a connection to their father.

My first months in Baltimore were a study in contrasts.

How easy it was to get a driver’s license.
How polite customer service was.
How abundant America was, and how privileged people were about it – complaining about meaningless things, consuming on an unparalleled level, and not taking advantage of all the good that surrounds them.
How much further my intelligence, personality, and entrepreneurship took me. You still have to work hard in America, but you see much greater results when you do.

I almost started crying when I walked into the local library, a shitty little hole that was still infinitely bigger than any English section of a library in Israel. I grew up with an insatiable appetite for books and not enough access to (or time for) them, what would my life have looked like if I had grown up near a library like this one?

I actually started crying after taking my first hike through one of Maryland’s many magical parks. Surrounded by mist, stillness, and the sound of a flowing river, I had never experienced such beauty in my life, and yet for my fellow Americans, this was a straightforward 15 minute drive away. Like a hug after going too long without touch, I felt the retroactive pain of the absence of this beauty, of this expansiveness, of this space to be free, be myself. So I sat down on a log and sobbed into the fog.

Within two weeks I was offered two jobs through some networking I did on a local Facebook group. I took a position as a web designer at a local startup, where I still work to this day.

I had spent years in Israel dreaming of real estate investing and educating myself as much as I could, mostly through podcasts. I had then networked locally for months to make connections and understand the local market.

Six months after moving, I bought my first house. $10,000 down and I was the proud owner of a single family home with its own backyard – unheard of in Israel. In what was to become the norm, I was given hell during the financing stage and was given a shitty interest rate, but I still rented out two rooms in the house and ended up living for free.

Just over one year later I was the proud owner of four houses. A simple statement to make, but the amount of financial stress that put me through, and the logistical efforts involved –from managing contractors to dealing with bat infestations – were huge contributing factors to me spiraling into a depression that lasted months.

I have so many stories. And many of them involve Craigslist.

  • – The catering gigs I took when I first started out and needed extra money.
  • – The time I tried buying a used bike in a shady parking lot one Friday night from an African American man driving a pickup truck while wearing a Na Nach Breslov Kippah (I didn’t buy the bike, but I wished him Shabbat Shalom when he drove off).
  • – The time I used a week off from my day job to work for a contractor renovating a house; he later became my contractor on my own projects.
  • – The time I tenuously presented myself as a real estate photographer and connected with a local commercial developer who ended up mentoring me, signing me to his brokerage, and having me build two of his websites.

I visited the kids as often as I could, which turned out to be every four months. The first summer, they flew in to visit me for five weeks in Baltimore, and I was able to give them a taste of the better life I hoped they’d one day have.

We had a great time. We took road trips. Visited families, museums and theme parks. Most importantly, we were together again, and the difference in their happiness was tangible. The trip turned into a pilot trip, becoming a serious discussion about them moving to America to be close to me.

I had always said I’d live anywhere in the world for the sake of the kids – anywhere other than Israel, whose shittiness was beyond my emotional capacity to bear. The original suggestion was for them to move to Baltimore, but over time it became apparent that Canada would be a much simpler transition for all involved parties – since we are all Canadian, and arguably a better place to raise a family – since America is currently in the throes of Becoming Great Again. And so, on July 1st, 2018 – Canada Day – I packed up once again and moved houses for the sixth time in three years.

The destination was Hamilton, Ontario. And as I drove out of Baltimore for the last time with everything I cared about in the trunk and back seat of my car, I felt the darkness, the stress, the hopelessness, melt away. It was time for yet another beginning.

Full chapter list (Available in eBook Form)

  1. Kindergarten
  2. Cheder
  3. Mishna
  4. Good and Evil
  5. Gemara
  6. Yeshiva Gedola
  7. Ramat Shlomo
  8. Beitar
  9. More of That
  10. The IDF
  11. Mitzpeh
  12. Darkness
  13. Independence
  14. Shitting on the Parade
  15. Light
  16. Detox
  17. Spreading Wings
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