I am a bona fide hybrid. Growing up in an Israeli household in the U.S, Australia and Japan, my education is a mixture of international school systems and homegrown chutzpa.
At home my parents would speak to me in Hebrew and I, embarrassed or confused or just dead set on being the American I thought I should be, would answer defiantly in English. Since I can remember, Friday night was designated to family, no matter how many parties I had to miss that I was convinced would lead to parental-inflicted social suicide. When I sauntered down the stairs at the age of nine carrying my American Girl Doll and the cutout Christmas tree I had made for her, I was plopped down in front of some crackers and herring while my mother explained to me that being Israeli meant being Jewish, and while Molly may very well celebrate Christmas, in this household she’ll be joining in to our candle lighting on each night of Channukah. I screamed and cried at the injustice. My mother retied her apron (“One fish, two fish, three fish, gefilte fish”), turned up the Arik Einstien and back to her matzo ball soup and let me pout.
When my father’s first international assignment moved us to Australia, I became what I’d always wanted to be – the American. I would tell my charming peers of the fifth grade class that I was from Pennsylvania (“Translyvania? Are you a vampire or sumfink?”), and gloat while they paraded around me asking curious questions. I was already so different as an American that I forgot about my Israeli background, and promptly marched home declaring that from now on, I will speak no more Hebrew.
Unexpectedly, though my Israeli identity got lost somewhere beneath piles of Archie comics and gymnastics leotards, my Jewish identity was forced to poke its little head out. My brothers and I were attending the Sydney Church of England Co-educational Grammar School – yes, it is exactly as pretentious as it sounds – and were required to attend Mass every morning before divinity class. I was and am no big believer, but what I did know is that no, thank you, Jesus is not my savior. And no, that’s very kind, but I would prefer to eat my own lunch than pieces of Jesus’s flesh and blood provided for me by the school church.
The day my brother was suspended because he refused to bow his head in prayer, my mother pulled us out of that school so fast their crucifixes blew off their necks.
After spending a few uneventful years in a tiny International School outside of Sydney, my parents whisked us away again to the American School in Japan. It was here that I became first aware of how people identify themselves according the simple notion of ‘home’. And here where I realized that I, the American-Israeli-Australian, didn’t really know what that word meant.
What was more shocking to me was the fact that my obnoxious stubbornness at the age of ten had stolen four years of Hebrew from my life. And though I understood much of what my parents were talking about, they too had lapsed into the convenience of English. On the first day of school in Tokyo when I was asked where I’m from, the first place that popped into my head and out of my mouth was Israel. As soon as the bell rang I was passed a note in Hebrew. I looked over to its source and she smiled knowingly – “we are from the same home!” – and I panicked. It was absolute gibberish to me. I smiled apologetically, turned beet red and whispered, “I don’t really speak Hebrew.” It was mortifying.
I became fascinated with the notion of identity. I would rationalize that I was international, a part of my mother’s endearing title of the Wandering Jews, but it wasn’t enough. I felt disconnected, in limbo. I would say a shy “ahlan” to my Israeli contemporaries at school and then pretend to be busy doing something, anything, that would get me out of actually holding a conversation and exposing my total un-Israeli-ness. I latched on to the other Americans, pretending to be in touch with the last five years of gossip I’d missed out on while watching Home and Away and listening to Kylie Minogue in Australia. I was an American-wannabe with a subtle Australian twang whose mother packed her pita-and-hummus sandwiches for lunch. The classically lost high school tween, in a city that resembled Manhattan on steroids.
Everything changed the day my mother dragged as two hours outside of Tokyo for the one Yom Hazikaron Ceremony in the country. Hebrew fluttered around me and I, embarrassed as usual, tried to hide that I was the only one there glaringly out of place. The ceremony was beautiful and poignant; I remember watching the screen and chastising myself for neglecting to acknowledge this inseparable element of who I am. On the way to the car I said to my mom, “From now on, I want you to speak only Hebrew to me.” We decided that any time one of us spoke English we’d give 25 cents to charity.
By the end of the first month we could have funded a new synagogue, and by the second a well-to-do day care center. By the third month we had begun to get into the swing of things, and I realized how much I’d forgotten over the years. Instead of making me feel more Israeli, if anything trying to communicate in Hebrew made me aware of how much I couldn’t, how many words I had to substitute with English and a quarter. But it did make me realize that I wanted to learn – I needed to learn – in order to justify to myself who I thought I was.
When I finished high school and my dad suggested that I spend a year in Israel “getting back to my roots”, I thought it was the perfect plan. I’d go, speak Hebrew, eat Shachar chocolate spread and finally validate the only sense of “home” that had consistently resinated in my life. I signed up for Young Judea Year Course and booked a one-way ticket.
It was not my first time in Israel. In fact, it wasn’t even my tenth time in Israel, as I had spent every summer since I could remember at the wave pool in Kochav Yair with my cousins, making popsicles out of grape juice and reading Junie B. Jones. But when I arrived at Ben Gurion airport and was directed towards the group of iron-haired, pearl-earringed, pink Juicy sweat suit wearing American Jewish post-high schoolers I could not have felt more out of place.
I spent the next year traversing between my Israeli boyfriend’s apartment and wherever I was required to be on Year Course. I was again labeled as the American but this time I resented it, wanted to shout out “No! I’m not! I eat za’atar on my salad!” But I knew that in their eyes I would never be one of them completely. I learned Hebrew. I bought a dictionary and sat in front of my mirror and practiced my rolling “resh” and my subtle yet penetrating “ch” until my throat shaped itself to accommodate its roots. I held long, in-depth conversations with people who were shocked to discover I had grown up outside of Israel. The program ended, people said goodbye to each other from the gates at Ben Gurion and I stayed. Held on tight. Snubbed everything and everyone not organically Israeli. If I’m doing this, I thought, I’m going to do this right.
I joined the army, and spent two years whining and moaning and loving and hating every godforsaken minute of that filthily exhilarating place. I had but one relapse and I remember it well. I had been in the army for two months and we were on field week. I had just finished guard duty and was returning to the hole that I’d dug in order to sleep in. My M-16 (the long one, not even the sexy short one) had banged my thigh for the billionth time. I rebelliously turned on my cell phone and had a message from my best friend in America, telling me she had just been accepting into her top sorority choice. I remember the sand, the moon, and the darkness. And I remember looking at the sky and saying out loud, “What. The Fuck. Am I doing here.”
But I’d done it. I’d become the Israeli I’d wanted to be. I had converged and identified. I had changed the language in which I communicate, the slang that so accurately described my most inarticulate emotions. My transformation was complete and I felt. Incomplete.
I’d like to say that it was then I realized that one’s identity is so much more that that silly notion of home. That home is what you create for yourself, where the people you love are, where you laugh and cook mediocre dinners and cry to your friends and put your head down at night. That ‘home’ was just another phrase to make us feel insufficient and insatiable and that I finally overcame my silly obsession of fitting in.
In reality, it took a few more years for me to arrive at this point. At the point in which I can live in Israel, in a run-down apartment in Tel Aviv (It has “character”), and feel that I am proud to be a concoction of cultures that identifies with neither here nor there. My friends are Israeli and international. We speak Hebrew and English and eat hummus and attempt to recreate the Mexican food that is so depressingly lacking in this country. I am not Israeli, American, Australian, or Japanese. I have taken from each of those cultures elements that I respect, cherish, and feel a connection to. I’ve also disregarded elements that I am less inclined to be a part of who I am. I am not embarrassed to speak English or Hebrew, and don’t get offended when someone tells me I “look American”.
I am not longer trying to fit in. In all honesty, I realize how rewarding it has been all these years to stand out.