When you are an American living or traveling abroad, you gain the dubious distinction of being an ambassador for all things American. You may have experienced this. How “we” do things. What “we” think about Obama (or insert current president here). What “we” like to eat. Why “we” did or do this or that (insert controversial political move, celebrity or bad movie here).
I have been told — multiple times — that Americans are “childish” and “playful.” I’ll take that as a compliment, although the “childish” part stings. If it makes us childish to put giant, Styrofoam wedges of cheese on our heads when we go see the Packers play — well — guilty as charged!
I find, when asked about American culture, that I have become some kind of American avatar for Israelis — one which they can eagerly ask all the questions they want or make the criticisms they feel are true. I’m sure I disappoint because I can’t simply reply in blanket terms, without context. An American living in New Orleans is quite different than an American living in Los Angeles. Or New York; Minneapolis; Bar Harbor, Maine or Nashville, Tennessee. But Americans from all over the country sent truckloads of supplies to New Orleans after Katrina. That’s how we are. America is a huge country, with huge economic, social, ethnic and historic diversity. “We” like to eat lots of things. “We” like to do lots of things. “We” have very different opinions on almost everything. Mostly, we stick together.
America is deeply affected, to this day, by its origins. Absolutely. We were rebels. We fought the red coats and we won. We dumped the freaking tea into the bay. Our Civil War affected us deeply too; we collectively made a decision to remain one nation, even with our differences. Not all of us were happy about that decision. It tore us apart.
But huge numbers of Americans arrived on our shores long after these events of the past. Just as I arrived on the shores of Israel years after it was founded. And yet, I observe that both Israelis and Americans have been subtly affected by the ethos of our respective nation’s founding and subsequent histories. It is inevitable, it seems. The past is part of the fabric of the present and there’s just no avoiding that fact.
Americans — whether they have been in the U.S. for hundreds of years (as has my family) or five years, view the world through the manifest destiny, yippy-ki-yay, rebel, cowboy lens. America is fat, happy, vast and rebellious. We work hard. We believe we can do anything. We believe in bootstrap culture and getting things done. We are the nation of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Of immigrants like Albert Einstein and Christiane Amanpour. We put a man on the moon, and yet our postal service is inefficient and nearly obsolete. We gave rise to Elvis Presley and rock and roll. We have also given the world Kim Kardashian. I’ll go ahead and apologize for that right now. And America is no longer the greatest country in the world. Something we can’t quite wrap our minds around. In Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO series, The Newsroom, he makes this point, painfully.
America’s Puritanical roots rise to the surface with frequency. The abortion debate currently happening (again) in America harkens to our strict, stringent, Christian/Puritan/Scarlett Letter/Salem past. As does our weird relationship with sex and violence. In America, more and more graphic sex and violence have crept, with only sporadic protest, into our entertainment — but when a woman says the word “vagina” on the Michigan State Senate floor, she is banned from speaking.
Our uneasy relationship with sex runs deep. In America, the birthplace of Girls Gone Wild, Playboy, Hustler and a flourishing pornography industry, g-d forbid, an American enjoys gay sex or a polyamorous lifestyle. In order to be considered beautiful, a woman in America must compete with airbrushed perfection and anorexic models and actors. The popularity of AMC’s Mad Men pays tribute to the almost mythological power that advertisers hold over us; selling us images of perfection that are impossible to achieve but powerfully seductive to strive for.
The strange push/pull between American brashness and a sometimes debilitating desire to fit in, be good-looking enough, to not appear particularly hungry, broke or otherwise imperfect are uniquely American and deeply rooted. Remember the scene in Gone With the Wind, in which Scarlett stuffs herself before the barbecue, so she won’t eat much in front of the gentlemen callers? And then has to hold on to the bedpost as her servant (oh let’s be honest – her slave) laced her brutally into her corset? Americans have a strange relationship with perfection — we want it, we need it, we want to be acceptable and accepted.
In America we think of Israel as dangerous and violent and yet deaths by random shootings in the U.S. run rampant. You never know who might walk into the McDonalds in a state of break down and fire into the crowd.
America is highly unique — a nation among nations with a curious history and a hopeful/frightening trajectory. They say that America is the teenager of nations — rebellious, headstrong, fun-loving and impervious to the advice of others. But we come by that ethos honestly. We are a young nation and were founded by ideologues and rebels. We have a big playground, all to ourselves. We think big and yet our national parental roots leave us prone to guilt, awkwardness and self-consciousness. We so badly want to be taken seriously.
Americans share a common language of creamsicles and “Jack and Diane” and corn on the cob. We share a distrust of the government — on either side of the aisle. We cheer when the U.S. Olympic team pours into the stadium, a’hootin’ and a’hollerin’. We fill with pride when we hear the American anthem — even if our government drives us nuts. We love a good steak, we love our cars, we love our movies and celebrities.
We know that New York City is the greatest city in the world. We grew up with television, with a sense of invincibility, with having to mow the lawn and wash the car. Some of us also grew up with crack, alcoholism, abuse and urban decay. Some of us of grew up in ghettos wishing we had a lawn to mow, or in coal mining towns, strip mined by corporations, mired in depression, unemployment and toxic water. We like to stop at the Piggly Wiggly or 7-11 and buy slurpees and candy. We love the freedom of that. We go to McDonalds and Pizza Hut by the millions and then obsess about our bodies, dieting, yoga, pilates or running.
We are indeed, open, friendly people. Among other reasons, this is because we are safe in America, from external or existential threats. We have fought for our country and we’d do it again. We are proud to be Americans. We know we’ve made mistakes, but our intentions were always good.
When Americans ask me about Israelis (and they do, with great curiosity and frequency) I hesitate to opine. How do I know? I’m only one person. I haven’t met EVERY Israeli nor is that possible. I do not feel qualified, really, to have opinions about a people and a country I am new to. And yet perhaps I am uniquely qualified. Eyes wide open and all of that.
What I do find, is that Israelis and Americans actually have strange things in common. Bear with me.
Like the US, Israel is also a very unique nation among nations. As Americans know, Israel is the size of New Jersey. Or Orange County. For Americans, it’s surreal to imagine how small Israel is. There are no states. No counties. No governors or state senates. Here, everything is centralized and efficient. You can dial four digits to reach a particular cell phone service. There are only two or three dialing codes here. For an American, Israel is almost like a play country, a mini country, like mini golf. Except the stakes are very high.
Israel was not born of a ship full of pilgrim/rebels, fighting the status quo. Israel was born of the Holocaust, a fact that cannot be ignored here. For America, the destination of so many refugees of the Second World War, Nazi Germany was a distant, distasteful chapter that we entered into only reluctantly and which gave rise to decades of prosperity in America. We did not, as did Europe, have to rebuild from the rubble and try to put the nightmare behind us while building museums out of death camps to serve as a reminder.
Sometimes, on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, I hear old men play haunting klezmer music on the violin, a hat on the ground in front of them. The sound of it breaks my heart; the music is a reminder of an entire culture wiped off the planet by the Nazis. Israelis share a horrific past, almost total annihilation, and exist now only out of the sheer will to more than survive but to thrive.
Israelis are affected by the traditions of Judaism, whether or not they practice. They are people of the book. The most modern, liberal Israeli is still likely to call his mother frequently and spends Shabbat dinner with family. Israel consists of both highly religious Orthodox Jews and completely modern, unaffiliated Jews. In this one country, you can find liberal and conservative kibbutzniks, after hours electronic music clubs, a robust drug culture, intellectuals, the black-coat wearing ultra-orthodox, ancient roman ruins and army bases prepared to fend off yet another missile from Gaza.
It seems odd to Americans that Israel is a Jewish state, given that America was founded on the principals of separation of church and state (that’s not going so well, by the way). But the diversity of the population in Israel would surprise Americans. Everybody is from somewhere else. Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Georgia, Russia, Spain, South Africa, South America and on and on. Everybody came here for a reason – to live a Jewish life in freedom. There is an uneasy, ironic sort of safety here. No more pogroms. No more death camps. Never again.
Are Israelis more blunt and assertive than Americans? Resoundingly yes. As an American woman raised to “be nice”, this has been a huge culture shock. You have to have a tough hide to live here. Getting offended is not an option. You give as good as you get and then and only then will be you come to be respected and get any semblance of what you want. A parking spot. A good deal. Your place in line. Your rights.
Israelis haven’t had the luxury, really, during their short, very tumultuous 60+ years of being a nation on the brink, to be anything less than brutally honest and frankly assertive. Israelis do not hesitate to inform you of how wrong what you are doing is but will also not hesitate to help you.
One favorite saw of Israelis is that living here is like living in a small village. Everybody knows everybody while in America, you can live by a neighbor for years and never say hello. I have not had that experience in America, probably because I am the talkative type, but it is true that people you barely know here, once you have earned their respect, will bend over backwards to help you. The good of one is the good of all. Israelis can’t afford to live another way. It is a survival trait; Israelis live with existential threats as a certainty. If there isn’t an intifada now, or an attack now, it is inevitability and everybody knows it.
Israelis come by their common personality traits honestly – a national identity born by dint of geography, geo-political realities, founding philosophies and past as well as day-to-day experiences. They are born of their dreams and their failures. They strive to overcome the past and yet cannot seem to escape it. Just like Americans.
What are Israelis like? A warmer, more stubborn, impassioned, blunt, cynical people who also believe in miracles would be harder to find.
What are Americans like? A warmer, more optimistic, continually evolving, hopeful, jaded people who fervently believe in tomorrow would be harder to find.
But that’s just my opinion. One American, in the Middle East, trying to fit in and make sense of where I am and from whence I came.