What is an Israeli?

“He is making a mistake.”

The speaker was my friend from Ramat Gan, who visits Boston from time to time. He was referring to an acquaintance who lives here.

“He and his wife are both Israeli,” he said. “They go back to Israel once or twice a year, they do what they can. But already the kids don’t celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut. They celebrate July 4th. They will become American.”

Ah, yes, a common mistake. Many Israelis make it. Many non-Israelis too.

We’ve grown friendly with some young Israeli families who have been part of our community while they studied here for a couple of years and are now going home. The other day Ilan told me, “We were going to go back anyway, but when we were talking the other day, and our oldest, Eyal, didn’t know what miluim is, we really knew it was time to go back.”

Israeli identity was in the news in the States not long ago when some American Jewish groups raised a kerfuffle over Jewish Agency ads targeting Israeli living here and encouraging them to go back to Israel. One ad not very subtly suggested that their kids would intermarry if they stayed here. American groups objected strenuously. Many of their members are intermarried now. How dare the Jewish Agency suggest that was a problem!

So let’s see where we are:

Being Israeli: Barbeques on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Reserve duty.

Being American: Intermarriage.

It’s easy – and cheap – to trivialize people’s deeply-felt need to answer the question of which group they belong to. (Though you have to admit that the intermarriage argument is rich. You have to be pretty Jewishly clueless–not to mention deaf to irony – to use that one.) But just because the question of what you are and where you belong is important doesn’t mean it’s easy to answer.

Despite all the cant about diversity and roots, here in America assigning identity is often both incoherent and ridiculously shallow. Take a category on every application form: “Hispanic.” What is that about? It doesn’t even mean Spanish-speaking, since many third-generation Hispanics speak Spanish the way my children speak Yiddish. Yet if Hispanic means having your family origin in a Spanish-speaking country, what does a Spaniard have to do with a Chilean have to do with a Guatemalan?

My office is not far from the Massachusetts town of Lawrence, which once had many shuls but is now largely Dominican. Not long ago the Dominican mayor of Lawrence was in the news because of municipal corruption. “What do you think of that guy?” I asked a patient with a Spanish surname.

“Why should I care?” he said. “I’m Puerto Rican.”

I see identities shifting before my eyes all the time. Dutiful grandchildren come to the office to translate for their zaydes and bubbies – from China, from Cambodia, from Russia. The old-timers laugh nervously, ashamed that they can only squeeze out a few English words. They got here too late in life to be able to make other people understand what they are saying or even know what they are talking about. Their grandchildren are polite to the oldsters, but you can see that they have no intention of having this problem themselves.

I once had a student whose features left no doubt that her origins were from the Indian subcontinent.

“Where are you from?” an impertinent patient asked her. She understood perfectly what he wanted to know.

“Indiana,” she said firmly.

Identities evolve. There will be Israelis for a long time, and American Jews too, in one form or another. Meantime, individual Jews will decide they are American, or Israeli, or they will go back and forth, or opt out, just as they’ve always done. They may decide that being this or that means something different from what it used to, and if enough of them think so, they may even nudge the whole category a bit, this way or that. And their children? As any parent knows, who knows what the deal will be with kids anyway?

I can think of many words to describe this confusing process.

But “mistake” would probably not be one of them.