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Flags, shirts, and independence

It has been eight years since I moved here, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving almost every year, July 4th has been a challenge for me to connect to

Wednesdays are usually field-trip days in the tour guiding course I am attending, and for the past year, my Wednesday wardrobe of dry fit shirts, zip-off pants, floppy kovah tembel hat, and hiking boots reflected that fact. Over the summer months, a combination of the burning Mediterranean heat and a burning desire to save money has forced us indoors for multiple sessions on Islam and Christianity, and allowed me to dress like I would on a normal day.

This morning, faced with a variety of options compared to the normal white, gray or red of my Champion athletic gear, I pulled out my kelly green “I’m a drinker, not a fighter” T-shirt, determined to display my (adopted) Irish heritage, and elicit some laughs from the one or two Israeli Guinness enthusiasts in my course.

Shirt picked out, I headed to the bathroom to begin my daily morning rituals. Maybe it was the blue of the toothpaste, the white of the toilet, and the red of the hand soap. Whatever the reason, as I brushed my teeth, I was reminded of today’s date, and began to wonder if I shouldn’t make a fashion choice that might represent my actual roots.

It has been eight years since I moved here, and while I have celebrated Thanksgiving almost every year, July 4th has been a challenge for me to connect to. A day of thanks is one thing, but “How shall we sing foreign songs in the land of the Lord” and celebrate another country’s holiday?

Nonetheless, as I began to wash my face, my brain was flooded with holiday imagery from my childhood. Fireworks and sparklers, marching bands, fine feathered friends, ice cream sandwiches and Eskimo pies. Every Fourth of July was a time to enjoy the company of family and friends, and my parents always made sure that we celebrated.

But I look better in kelly green, and what exactly is proper attire on American Independence day? I began to work my CVS-brand Apricot face scrub into a lather, thoughts churning in my brain as I unclogged my pores.

Last week, as I was bartending, a group of American lone soldiers, tanned from shifts in the sun, and wearing self-tailored, low-cut army T-shirts, walked in and placed their orders. Looking me over in my button-down, double pocketed, plaid shirt, one of them asked me if I was new to Israel.

“Umm…yeah, eight years.”

“Oh,” he responded, “I’ve only been here for three…but you look so American!”

The Tower of David is seen behind an American flag (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
The Tower of David is seen behind an American flag (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

I have never been one to conform entirely to a society’s style, to bury a part of myself so that I might fit in. Though I embrace the new culture that I live in, I have always been the “American”- be it in yeshiva, the army, school, or even in my current apartment — and have embraced my role, playing it up with stereotypes, Southern accents, and apple-pie enthusiasm.

But it’s hard to connect to American Independence day when you’ve already had a mangal (BBQ), drank your Goldstar, and danced in circles a couple of months earlier on Israel’s Independence Day. My interest in America these days, like my desire to vote in the upcoming presidential elections, stems from issues that are, in a way, peripheral — my parents’ economy, my sisters’ education, and of course, Israel’s security.

The closest I get to a direct connection with American politics are the effect of Obama Care on my visiting health insurance, and the Jimmy Carter article in a Rolling Stone back-issue that I’ve been reading on the toilet. The closest I get to connecting with life there revolves around memories of my first 16 years and my visits to family.

I dried my face on my cheap, shukstandard towel, and returned to my room. Raising my green shirt over my head, I paused, and recalled the last summer I spent living in the United States, a summer spent at a Zionist sleep-away camp. On the morning of July Fourth, we gathered, like we did every morning, to raise the Israeli flag next to the government-mandated stars and stripes. Before we sang “Hatikvah,” one of our counselors walked into the middle of the gathering and addressed the group:

I know that many of you are thinking that July Fourth is a “Diaspora holiday” that has very little place in the religious-Zionist ideology of this camp and your lives. As someone who has made aliya, I can tell you that since moving to Israel I have begun to appreciate the important role that America has in our fulfilling that ideology, and the important role that my American childhood has played in my life. Israel is home, but America has given, and continues to give us a lot, and we have to appreciate that — especially on her birthday.

Placing my fake Irish pride back in my dresser drawer, I am once again, unsure as to what to wear.

That same “last summer,” a friend of mine tie-dyed my shirt with red stripes and a blue square in the corner. Throughout my first few months in Israel, I wore it constantly — Uncle Sam’s sore thumb among my native Jerusalem high-school friends. After enough washes in Israeli water, the blue and red bled together, and I was forced to toss it when I realized that my flag had become a big pinkish-purple mess of confusion. That was the closest I had ever been to owning an Old Navy flag T-shirt.

Rummaging through my closet, I found an old shirt of my mother’s, with the outline of the contiguous United Stated under the capital lettering of her old youth group. The color scheme worked, and its baseball T-style in Hebrew translates as “hultza Amerikait” — “American T-shirt.” Lacking a better option, I figured that at the very least my clothing was American in spirit. With my red and blue Indians cap on my head, I entered our classroom.

“Wow, Yoni!” two of my classmates exclaimed in Hebrew. “You look so American today!”

Arms thrust in the air in exaggerated enthusiasm, I let out a triumphant yell:

Happy frickin Independence Day!

About the Author
Yoni Zierler moved to Israel in 2004, for his last year of high-school, and officially made aliyah a couple of years later. He is a licensed Israeli tour guide, who loves connecting others to the beauty and history of the land. Yoni is a proud alumnus of the StandWithUs fellowship, who loves reading, music, and playing harmonica in his spare time.