One of the hardest things I ever had to do as an American teenager growing up in New York City was to leave my comfort zone for the sake of joining the Israeli Defense Forces. Despite the fact I volunteered for one of the most famous armies in the world, I had absolutely no clue what I was in for and often became silent so much so that I didn’t even have a voice. To any Israeli, I may have been a “typical” American, but parts of my story were not all that typical.
1. I grew up like most teens, on the Hollywood image of army life.
2. I hardly spent any time in Israel as a youngster.
3. I knew some Hebrew as a new immigrant, but loved and enjoyed my privacy.
4. I grew up with a difficult but brilliant Mother who was a classical pianist virtuoso at an artist complex in the heart of Greenwich Village, in New York City. She was terribly scared of Israel and did not want me to have anything to do with Israel.
5. I also had an Israeli dad, but hardly connected with my Israeli side of the family. More than twenty some odd years later, I find myself rereading journals, notes and letters. I’m rereading to get back in touch with that younger self who was carefree, didn’t care whether Israel and the sound of terrorists frightened my mother. As I write my memoir, I’m again that eighteen year old American with long mousy hair who tried to get her immigrant card at Ben Gurion airport but was denied because the ministry of Absorption official said, “We don’t deal with army cases here, so you’ll have to go to the Tel-Aviv office.” From that battle, my first real taste of Israeli bureaucracy, the next twenty four hours was a make or break as I traveled kilometers to join my new “garin or group” of men and women smack in the middle of the Negev desert with whom I would ultimately, serve for the next two and a half years. As a new immigrant and soldier, I had to quickly find a way to cope with the silence of not being able to process a first hand experience in my mother tongue. We all can fathom the sacrifice involved in leaving one’s home country and as a third culture kid, I can relate to this quote: “Third Culture Kids tend to develop their identities while living abroad, thus blending their “home” culture with the culture of the world around them.” Only the problem was, there wasn’t enough familiar to remind me of home. So I stayed silent.
Silence as a “Good” Thing
There are many situations where silence can be both a good and bad thing.
1. In the IDF for example, I sometimes spent more time observing than responding. It helped me to process new and difficult experiences without having to react all the time.
2. Very quickly, however, I saw that if I wanted to get my rights as a lone soldiers or argue that something was missing from my rights, I’d have to be assertive.
3. I took time to emotionally connect to people. When you’re an immigrant trying to fit in, you have to give yourself the time to seek out the societal and cultural norms. Israel is a very aggressive and militaristic society and often I found myself just observing. Often these silent words found their way to the pages of my journal.
Silence as a “Bad” Thing in the IDF
1. Being perceived as the “a-habal” or “idiot” that you didn’t intend on coming across because you aren’t doing, moving, running, helping or reacting.
2. You aren’t as garrulous as the other soldiers who are used to shouting and talking loudly. You often misconstrue their conversations and body language because you don’t always know what they’re talking about, but at a later point, you give up on feeling like the outsider, but suddenly you find yourself being asked, “Mah? What?”
3. In such a small, socially connected country like Israel, there aren’t that many moments to seek out privacy and quiet. The country simply isn’t built up that way. So from the very beginning, I found myself in a cultural clash.
Writing about the Silence
Now, I write from my silent warm apartment in Pittsburgh about those early days. Why did I really want to leave New York City? What was my real motivation in serving the army? Could I have found a better way to cope as a new immigrant serving alongside a bunch of men and women from other countries who were also set on doing the army? Each scene I write of my memoir brings me closer towards figuring out if my own silent voice was partially cultural, societal or something else.