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New book decodes Israeli culture to Americans

By Cindy Mindell

WEST HARTFORD – Jason Alster was in an Israeli movie theater when he decided to write a book. He was watching “Under the Tuscan Sun,” a film version of the memoir by American writer Frances Mayes, who moves to Tuscany in search of a new life.

Alster, a Hartford native, made aliyah in 1984. “During the movie I realized that I had had similar experiences while moving to and living in a Mediterranean country,” he says. “I too started anew, acclimated with the locals, and had funny and enlightening encounters with the characters I met. I became conscious that I was now really a part of this corner of the world. Couldn’t I write a book about it?”
Alster moved back to the U.S. in 2007 and published “Leaving Home, Going Home, Returning Home: A Hebrew American’s Sojourn in the Land of Israel” in 2009. It’s a guidebook of sorts, he says, not just for Jewish readers, “but for anybody interested in learning about Israeli culture.”
After earning degrees from Yeshiva University and the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey), Alster worked in neuro-electrodiagnostics in the college’s neurology department and researched sleep disorders at the New York University Medical Center.
In 1984, at age 28, he moved to Israel, where he continued his work on sleep research and eventually became an expert in biofeedback, using the technique to treat sleep disorders, psychiatric disorders, ADD/ADHD, and learning disabilities.
After 23 years in Israel – where he served in the military, married and divorced, raised two daughters, and published two books – Alster started thinking about returning to the U.S. He had a life-threatening medical issue that defied treatment in Israel. He had several creative projects that he couldn’t complete there. He decided to move back to his home town.
“Leaving Home, Going Home, Returning Home” traces that journey, and offers a unique perspective on what is quirky, endearing, baffling, and infuriating about Israeli culture. Alster also looks at changes in American and Israeli cultures over the last two decades. For one, he says, Israel is becoming like any other modern nation in terms of its attitude toward immigration. Natan Sharansky, director of the Jewish Agency for Israel, recently announced that the agency is changing its focus from promoting aliyah to strengthening Jewish identity. “Most people say, ‘That’s nice,’ but they don’t understand how groundbreaking that is for Israel,” Alster says. “Historically and religiously, a Jew should make aliyah – the Right of Return is a very basic tenet of Israel, and in the past, Israeli officials visiting the U.S., would encourage aliyah. A couple of million Russian Jews immigrated and there is no longer room.”
“When I first moved to Israel, Israelis would say, ‘You’re joining the cause, we’re surrounded by Arabs, we need every single person,’ and I felt that I was part of the spirit,” Alster says. “When the Jewish Agency changed its focus, and aliyah was taken over by organizations like Nefesh b’Nefesh and Birthright, Israelis said, ‘We don’t want more people coming and taking our jobs. We’ll give you identity but you don’t have to stay.’ In my last year in Israel, you could cut the feeling with a knife.”
Upon his return to the U.S., what most struck Alster was the change in race relations, one factor that had led to his decision to leave in the ’80s. “In the ’60s and ’70s when I grew up in West Hartford, there were riots and incidents and the war in Vietnam,” he says. “America is quieter today and the race relations are way better, even for a Jewish person. No one mentions the difference between being Jewish or not. Growing up, friends would ask, ‘Didn’t the Jews kill Jesus?’ and I don’t hear that at all today. That’s partly because Israel has more of a presence: many people have visited or worked there or know someone who has, and they admire the country. The news from Israel is not all bad and many know what’s going on. When you meet an Israeli on the street here, it’s like meeting a person from any other foreign country.”
Another notable change is the Israeli attitude toward those who choose to leave the country, once referred to in Hebrew as “yordim,” or “those who descend,” equivalent to treason. The stigma has disappeared, Alster says. As for his advice to those moving to either country, or back and forth, as he has, “You have to make home and self-actualize no matter where you are,” he says. “If you can do those two things, you can acclimate anywhere.”

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