The Precarious Art of Identity
And learning to count yourself in.
I stopped hating Israel when my mom came to visit.
Whether it was realizing that fried eggplant in a pita is a pretty cool thing to get to eat on the regular, or that I live less than two miles from the Mediterranean Sea, showing someone else around was the role reversal I needed.
You see, my Hebrew isn’t great. I tend to get shoved to the back of the line because my Midwestern manners prevent me from pushing first (it’s a push or be pushed world out here in Tel Aviv). It takes me an hour to read a menu. The shards of broken Hebrew I’ll stutter out at the doctor are scarier than the appointment itself. Sure, Israelis tend to speak English, but that doesn’t mean they like to, and it certainly doesn’t make things easy. My boyfriend is usually the one to save the day, but this time around he was at work, and the job fell to…
If you read that in a small voice, you read it correctly. It’s my mom’s first time visiting Israel. She doesn’t know a lick of Hebrew, so all that menu reading, place-in-line asserting, bus-route inquiring my boyfriend does for me suddenly became my job. I was the one who had to read the menu aloud at the restaurant, who had to tell the gruff guy at the falafel stand what we wanted when he barked at us. And looking up which bus to take when and where from? Yep. Me again.
Through all this newfound independence, I realized something. It’s not that I couldn’t do those things before my mom came to visit; it’s that I didn’t want to.
When I’m stuck in my endless broken-record loop of complaining about life in Israel, I resist any actions that might help me fit in. Making Aliyah is a strange experience. Native Israelis tend to expect you to fit right in to their society, while at the same time treating you as an outsider. It’s not that they try to alienate new immigrants — it’s just what happens. Humans notice differences, for better or for worse.
Out of those differences, humans create identity boundaries. Life inside the boundaries is life inside your comfort zone. When you’re surrounded by people just like you, you’re steeped in what feels natural. You don’t have to think too much about your identity. It’s when boundary lines start to collide, though, that things get interesting. It’s here where our identities start to assert themselves.
The clashing boundaries don’t have to pertain to anything serious. In fact, it could be something as simple as etiquette standards or speaking volume that bolsters a certain aspect of one’s identity. For example, a Korean visiting the United States might feel very conscious of their own cultural identity when entering a friend’s home for the first time and realizing that no one has taken their shoes off. In the same way, I often feel conscious of my identity as an American when an Israeli blurts out something that would draw gasps in the United States. This consciousness doesn’t mean that one culture is better than another, though, and these feelings of identity can involve both pride and shame — sometimes even at the same time.
So, you can imagine how things get confusing when you’re trying to feel comfortable in two different identities at once.
The thing is, I have felt often over the past two years that native Israelis would like to squelch the American identity out of me. Whether this is actually rooted in reality or is just my imagination, the more the American part of me feels squashed, the more it resists. It sometimes even fights back with a vengeance. The fact that my American self is not even what you’d call “patriotic” is beside the point. Every time an Israeli tells me I’ll have to learn how to push in line, I feel my American identity simmering, getting ready to rise up in protest. There’s no flight — just fight.
That’s why when my mom came to visit and I was jolted into navigating Israeli society for the benefit of someone else, things started to shift. I no longer considered myself an outsider. I started to count myself in.
I found myself explaining Israeli street food, pointing out local restaurant gems, and bargaining at the shuk. The first time we caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean peeking at us from beyond the edge of Allenby Street, I grinned with pride, gesturing so my mom wouldn’t miss it. When we took our day trip to Abu Snan, I marveled at the eagerness I felt. Somewhere along the way, without my having realized it, this identity — this Israeli identity — had somehow become mine.
My Israeli identity may never look like my boyfriend’s does. It may manifest itself in entirely different ways and at completely different moments. It may be faint some days, and on other days, it may come barreling through like a bus driver down King George. It may need a tourist to guide, to coax it out of hiding.
I now remind my American self that it can relax its fight for survival (since I’m fairly certain I won’t be shoving into grocery lines anytime soon). I can also remind my Israeli self that it’s okay to be a little different. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to being an immigrant. Most importantly, though, I’m reminding both aspects of myself that they can not only coexist, they can even have a lot of fun together.
And from now on, when I talk about Israelis? I’m counting myself in.