Everyone knows what it means to make aliyah, but the opposite, to make yerida, is nowhere near as familiar--or as positive. Aliyah means ascension, either literally or spiritually; if you move to Israel, or if you are called to the Torah for a blessing, you "go up" to a higher place than before. Yerida--"descent"--carries a similar but spikier double meaning, best expressed by a 1990s joke, when large numbers of Israelis were working in New York:
A recently arrived Israeli is waiting for the elevator in an office building in Lower Manhattan. When the elevator arrives, it's full of Israelis employed at the various companies in the building. He asks: "Yerida?" ("Going down?") All the Israelis in the elevator quickly respond, "No, no, we're just here temporarily!"
As this suggests, the feelings of those labeled yordim, those who have "gone down" from Israel to live permanently elsewhere, are charged with ambivalence. Yerida is a loaded term for out-migration, and the weight of the load fluctuates depending on the speaker's Zionist sensibilities, socioeconomic class and political leanings. It also varies with the situation in Israel. Anxiety about yerida peaks at times when Israel is either stagnating economically, as in the 1970s, or facing an extra dose of danger, as during the second intifada.
"I don't hear the denunciation of yerida or the preoccupation with it that I remember from five or ten years ago," says Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland. "To call someone a yored is still a put-down, but it doesn't have that sting of betrayal, that implication that you're a quitter. But then Israel is doing better economically. So there aren't as many reasons to leave."
Biblically speaking, the first yored was Abraham, who "goes down" to Egypt in Genesis, as do Joseph and Jacob after him. While Egypt is geographically lower, classical Torah commentators inferred that Abraham was lowering himself morally; in fact, after he and Sarah are ejected by Pharaoh, they "go up" to the Negev. Following this concept, later rabbis identify a principle of yerida letsorech aliyah, "to sink in order to rise," roughly corresponding to the Alcoholics Anonymous insight about the value of hitting bottom.
Estimates of the actual number of present-day yordim vary wildly, partly for reasons of definition. (Who's to say whether those New York elevator riders were really going back?) Some 230,000 Israeli-born...