The summer I was 16 — high on Hava Nagilla and hookups with hot Israeli soldiers — I fell head over heels in love with Israel.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t expect to fall in love with Israel that summer. In fact, I didn’t even want to meet Israel. Instead, I wanted to spend my summer strolling the 3rd Street Promenade with Aimee and Emily. I wanted to sit by the phone and wait for Matt Rodriguez to (finally!) realize he liked me and ask me out. I wanted to go to movies, and buy clothes at Forever 21, and paint my nails Popsicle Pink, and hit Mar Vista swimming pool with a bottle of Sun-In and a bathing suit my parents would never allow carefully hidden under the Nirvana T Shirt I’d wear as a coverup when I left the house.
In other words, I wanted to be, like, super original.
But my parents had other plans. (They actually wanted me to be original, for real.)
“Oh, you’re going to Israel,” my mom said, and just like that I was unceremoniously dropped off at LAX along with 120 other Jewish American teenagers from LA. We were to spend the next eight weeks discovering our roots in Israel.
I fell in love slowly — almost by accident, near the fields of Kibbutz Gezer. Get your mind out of the gutter, people. It was during Havdallah services, after Asher lit the candle and all of us were gathered in a giant circle, singing and swaying side to side. With Shoshana and Esther — my two closest friends from the trip — on either side of me, I felt engulfed in a sense of belonging that I had never known before.
At that moment, while we sang the prayers to welcome in the new week, I realized that this was where I wanted to be.
The next seven Havdalot passed in the proverbial blink of an eye. Every morning, we all gathered on a small grassy hill near the dorm rooms and did morning prayers — accompanied by Jonah on the bongos, it didn’t matter that we didn’t know what every word meant; we had the spirit, the ruach! After every meal, we sang Birkat Hamazon, and we pounded the tables with zeal while the kibbutzniks gaped at us (think Jane Goodall and the chimps).
Our trip to the Kotel was “spiritual” and “meaningful” and “fucking awesome.” (Um, you guys? The Israeli spoof on the Taglit trip is so spot-on it isn’t even funny.) And then, way too fast, I was back at Ben Gurion Airport, wearing my olive green IDF shirt and rocking a huge Magen David. And while I grudgingly handed over my passport to the girl at passport control, I swore to her that I would return to Israel someday.
“Sure, everyone says that,” she said, stamping my passport in staccato syncopation with the snap of her Orbit chewing gum.
But while others may have said it, I was naive enough to believe I actually meant it. And while the rest of the group sang “Going going back back to Cali Cali” as we flew over the smoggy expanse of Los Angeles, I closed my eyes to keep from crying.
Over the following year, I was homesick for Israel. I ached for that combination of hutzpah and Hebrew that would always leave me flying high. I would visit the twisted alleys of the Old City in my dreams, the ceilings of the shuk draped in a rainbow of gauzy scarves stitched with ancient coins (I never looked closely enough to see that the labels all read “Made in China”). I missed the smell of cologne and falafel wafting through the Tel Aviv night.
But more than anything — even more than missing the sheer exhilaration of being sixteen and half a world away from my parents — I missed feeling connected to being Jewish. For the next year, I wore my Tsahal T shirt, and felt like a total badass when I explained that “those funny letters” were Hebrew, and stood for the IDF. I alternated between my silver Magen David and my gold Chai, depending on the occasion and on which eyeshadow I put on. I cruised Ventura Boulevard looking for falafel stands with my Israeli friend, Sharon. I started teaching at my synagogue, eager to share my knowledge and love of Israel with my students. I no longer rolled my eyes when my parents insisted on saying the bracha before our meals. For the first time in my entire life, I got it: Being Jewish meant that I belonged.
I think a lot of American Jews feel this way when they return from Israel. I think a lot of us have this sense that we’re all family — a kehilah — and that we have each others’ backs.
But this is so not the case.
Wow, I wish it were. I really wish it were. I wish I hadn’t been so naive as to think that moving to the Jewish homeland would mean that I was coming home. Because being Jewish isn’t a ticket into the in-crowd in Israel. In fact, many of us American olim hadashim are seen as usurpers, living off of the government, taking jobs from “real Israelis” and never fully immersing ourselves in the native language of our new home. (Sounds like every Republican gripe in California. Only it shouldn’t be this way because, after all, we’re all Jewish and Israel is our homeland and Kumbaya. Oh wait, Kumbaya isn’t Hebrew.)
Ok, so can I get a Hava Nagilla, people?
Recently, a friend of mine with (Jewish) stars in her eyes told me on Facebook how lucky I was to be living in Israel with so many Jews who would “take care of me” during my divorce. I threw up a little in my mouth. But when I was sixteen, I probably would have said something similar and meant it. Still, bullshit is bullshit. Whether it’s kosher or not.
Oh irony. Let me tell it to you: Being in Israel makes me feel less connected to My People. And less Jewish. Because now that I’m living here, I understand this: When I was in the States, being Jewish meant something. It meant you were part of a minority group and you looked out for each other. During Passover, I’d unload my matzoh at the checkout aisle, and the clerk would give me that subtle nod and wish me “chag semayach.” And we’d share a secret insider smile while she ran my credit card through the machine. A simple “shalom” at the falafel stand on Ventura and Balboa meant a free drink. We were all mishpucha and it felt great.
But in Israel, being Jewish is not something imbued with the same significance and meaning. While Roz Focker may have said “our People do not kill ducks,” in Israel, our People can be whores and thieves and mobsters. Our People can kill. Each other. “My people! My people!” We are no better than anyone else. This means that when yet (another) starry eyed M.O.T. kisses the tarmac at Ben Gurion airport, they’re about to get slapped upside the head with a dose of reality: Maybe the Israel of the past was different, but unless your uncle is friends with the guy at the bank, or your cousin dates someone at Misrad Hapnim, you’re going to be waiting in line just like everyone else.
OK, maybe that’s the point.
Still, for the most part, I don’t feel at home. I don’t feel that sense of comfort and security that I’ve sought. And I’ve found that the ones who have my back here are other immigrants — olim hadashim like me who have fallen in love with Israel with varying degrees of perseverance and dysfunctionality. And the Israelis who have taken me in — the people at work, a few friends from the kibbutz, and new friends who have made for wonderful dinner and coffee companions — are beautiful exceptions that prove the rule.
And here’s what I realize: Once upon that summer night, I didn’t fall in love with Israel. I fell in love with American Judaism. With the community that I knew all along. And now, transplanted, my roots will desiccate unless I figure out a way to adapt to the foreign soil.
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Sarah Tuttle-Singer wishes to assure her readers that she is here to stay.
An alternative perspective on the trials and tribulations endured by new olim can be found here.