Learning Hebrew helps, but becoming Israeli is really all about how you tie your scarf.
I’ve been listening to the music from In the Heights, the Broadway hit turned movie musical that kept Lin Manuel Miranda busy before Hamilton. It’s a show about Spanish-speaking immigrants trying to get by in New York. I love everything about the soundtrack. The rhythms, the lyrics, the story that describes the pride and the struggle that arise from being born somewhere else. And despite the fact that I have no rhythm and that I did not leave the Dominican Republic in search of a better life, when I listen to this music I feel seen.
I moved to Israel when I was 36 years old knowing full well what challenges to expect, and with the clear understanding that I would never fully become Israeli. I accepted those terms, hoping that the rewards of raising my children in the Jewish homeland would far outweigh my temporary feelings of inadequacy and moments of embarrassment. To be fair, at the time I didn’t realize that by “temporary” and “moments,” I actually meant “constant” and “unending periods.” But I regret nothing.
Until recently, I imagined I was adjusting to life in Israel rather well. I pepper my conversation with Hebrew phrases. My wardrobe is slowly transitioning away from Old Navy and Target towards Fox and Chameleon. My four fingers automatically press against my thumb to signal a range of things from “Hold on just a second” to “You idiot, stop honking at me while my Waze recalculates!”
And then, without warning, my friends betrayed me and made me see myself in a new light. Little by little, they started tying their headscarves like Israelis. Now, I am a simple just-tie-a-knot-in-the-back-and-go-about-your-day kind of girl. It’s a look that worked for me in the old country. But Israeli women have transformed the scarf into a multi-layered, three-dimensional work of fashion mastery. They tie it on the top, they twist, they add height, and they look incredible. For the past five years I was quite content to simply admire them while they stood in front of me in line at the cheese counter, wondering with awe about the physics and the mechanics of their artful displays. But at a wedding over the summer, I noticed that in a mixed American/Israeli crowd, my immigrant friends were blending and passing as natives. They had wrapped and twisted themselves into looking like fabulous sabras. I suddenly felt like their greenhorn cousin, Balki Bartokomous.
A few weeks later I mustered up the courage to try this new look. I twisted and wrapped until I came up with something that I deemed passably Israeli. I skipped out the door to work (slowly, mind you, so as not to disrupt the temperamental structure on my head). I felt good and glamorous, like I had unlocked yet another achievement on this long path to acculturation.
When I got to work an Israeli coworker stopped me in the hall.
“Did you get a haircut?” she asked.
I told her I had not.
“New clothes?’” she wondered.
“No”, I said.
“Well, something is different about you. What is it?”
So I confided in her that I had tied my scarf differently. “I look more Israeli, right?”
She looked me up and down with sad eyes, touched me gently on the shoulder, and her mouth said “sure you do,” while her pitying glance said “poor, poor, Balki…”
In the opening song from In the Heights there is a line that says, “In the Heights I hang my flag up on display, it reminds me that I came from miles away.” I love that line, even though it is the opposite of my experience. I don’t need to fly the American flag to remember where I came from. I am reminded every time I open my mouth.
And while I am fiercely proud of my origins and my journey, I still often find myself wishing I could pass for a local. I am aware that as soon as I start a conversation with an Israeli they will immediately know that I am not from here, that I am simply another American who will say the wrong words and bruise their ears with my accent. My only chance to control the narrative is the five seconds prior to the conversation, and that is why the scarf has taken on such importance. In those seconds, I need my scarf to say all the things that I cannot — that I am a proud Israeli woman, that I am whimsical and fascinating, and that I am not at all about to botch my cheese order.
When you immigrate in your 30s, you are unlikely to ever fully blend. You will forever be a hybrid, a halfblood. At best, you will be a (whimsical) centaur with qualities from both worlds. At worst, you will be a middle aged, arhythmic American lady who is trying too hard to impress her coworkers and her traitorous friends. And sometimes, you will be just a girl, standing before the Israeli cheese counter boy, trying to buy shredded instead of sliced.
So wrap that scarf, hang your flag, and crank up the music. Speak your accented truth. Dance out of sync to your own drum. Remember — it was Balki Bartokomous who gave us the Dance of Joy! You are an immigrant. You are full of whimsy. And cheese. In every language and culture, that means you are winning.