It is one of those days in Tel Aviv. The sun beats down on you, taunting you, blinding you and making you question your sanity.
I duck into my favorite coffee shop, seeking refuge. I sit down, exhaling. A figure stirs in the corner of my vision, and someone asks if they can slip in next to me. I recognize the well-worn look of a member of that tribe that experiences the agony of wanderlust. Roaming from country to country, shedding parts and rearranging others as he goes. He sits beside me, taking in the scene. Nodding his head slightly with a half-smile at the young Israelis milling about in their fashionable haircuts, like he gets it. He asks me which way to the markets. Our accents and easy banter make it clear that we are from the same part of the world. Immediate allies.
At first, I give him the practiced and polished version, the one I know by heart from constant reuse. It has become like a favorite go-to shirt, one I reach for automatically because I know it will do the trick. It is the shortened telling that will elicit just the right amount of interest, but not too much, God forbid he should delve in too far. Not because I don’t want to share. Or because it makes me uncomfortable. Some things are just impossible to explain.
I lay down the facts: I’m 25. I moved to Israel three years ago. I graduated from college. My family still lives in New York. I joined the army, traveled around Southeast Asia, and here I am. In this coffee shop.
He shrugs his shoulders with that twinkle in his eye that people often get when I give them this narrative.
“Would you say that it’s easy to fit in, like you’ve become Israeli? Or do you always feel like an American, on the outside?”
Something about his focused stare, the deep nod with the closed eyes, tells me I can share. He understands. He has been here.
I mentally reel through video clips of memory.
I am in the army. The Israeli elections are coming up, and the air is rife with controversial debates. Each person fervently feels that his opinion is the right one. I am sitting at a picnic table outside with some commanders I know, and some I do not. Their comments offend me, and I offer up a counterargument. One that I do not know looks at me with scorn and spits, “How would you know? You weren’t here during the Intifada. You don’t have friends who were killed.”
I recoil. From the aggression in his voice, and because he is right about my not being here. That doesn’t make my opinion less valid. But I recognize that it is not tinged with a native Israeli’s experiences and history. It reminds me of lochamim, combat soldiers, one-upping each other’s service. “I closed Shabbat.” “Well I closed 21 days on base.” “You think that’s bad? I haven’t left base in 2 months…”
You don’t know struggle.
I am in a Chabad house in India. We emerge from between the emaciated cows, the jerky tuk-tuks, and the merciless sun, gathering here to feel a sense of home. An Israeli with a curly mop on his head and scars along his arms asks me where in Israel I live. I turn to say something to my friend in English.
He furrows his brow.
“Why is your English so good?”
“But you don’t even have an accent, achoti. Sister. You’re Israeli.”
The petite girl next to him asks what I did in the army. Her eyes light up. “I did that too! You must know Yael, or Maya, or Shira, they were in the course with me…” From within this tiny country, of course we find connections.
This identity crisis becomes constant conversation while my friend, also American-born, who moved to Israel with me, and I travel. Completing the post-army rite of passage.
We are walking down a narrow, crowded alleyway in Vietnam, our hiking bags strapped to our backs, our sweaty hair matted to our faces. We warily glance around at the hostel options, when we hear a snippet of conversation: “Ha-achsania hazot niret sababa. This hostel looks good.” We nod at each other and go inside, knowing we have found comrades. The Israelis checking in glance at our shoresh sandal-clad feet, the symbol of the Israeli traveler.
“Az miefo aten? So where are you from?”
We glance at each other, silently conversing with our eyes. You take this one. I took the last one.
“We live in Israel, but we were born in New York…”
Where are we from? We feel the need to explain our lineage every time. Yes, we speak Hebrew. Yes, we were in the army. Yes, we went to an American university, and no it is not like American Pie. We have an immediate connection with these people, a kinship. Yet we feel like impostors claiming complete sabra status, feel compelled to add the born-in-America addendum.
I look back at my fellow American in my favorite coffee shop in Tel Aviv.
An image surfaces in my mind, of one of my soldiers, his olive uniform drenched a dark forest green with sweat. He is limping over to me at the end of his masa kumta, the 70-kilometer hike in which soldiers receive berets and complete the first stage of training. He looks at me and says in exhausted awe,
“Tamar, ba’ima sheli, on my mother, you should get a sikat lochem.”
That’s the pin fighters get upon completing their training. But I wasn’t born a fighter. I just chose to be one. Isn’t there a difference?