Let My People Be

I was no more than a girl when I left my home and my family in Johannesburg and made aliya to Israel. It was here that I built my home and birthed my children and, somewhere in-between, earned my university degrees. At one time, I lived with Israelis in student lodgings, broke bread with them in the campus cafeteria and earned pocket money cleaning their homes. Somewhere in-between, I attended lectures and wrote all my exams and papers — in Hebrew. The one exception to the rule was my dissertation.

Actually I had hoped to do it in Hebrew, for activist reasons, and composed my proposal accordingly. Still not confident enough, I sent it to a native Hebrew-speaker to check my grammar and having incorporated her suggested improvements, I officially submitted it. Only to be met with a new list of corrections, largely pertaining to the changes I had made as per the earlier set. So there I had it, in black and white and red all over: “You, my dear, are a chulnikit, and on that basis, and that basis alone, we Israelis will continue to correct you, forever and ever, Amen.”

It’s not only your grammar they will aim to fix. Try parenting against the flow of accepted local practice. I dare you to nurse your babies beyond the accepted time-frame, keep them out of institutionalized child-care, and believe in early bedtimes for youngsters. And when they give you grey hairs and if you choose not to palliate the damage with a color wash, you are likely to be regarded as something of an alien. Still, nothing will set you apart like your foreign accent.

“Why don’t you do as Ilana Dayan did?” suggests a friend. Originally South American, I am told that Dayan attended rigorous training sessions to rid her speech of any foreign vestiges, thus paving her way to local TV stardom. Now I’m thinking — Ilana Dayan, like thousands upon thousands of others, came all the way from far away to pledge her allegiance with the Jewish State. And yet this talented and intelligent journalist would never have been allowed to appear, let alone make it, on the local scene as long as her accent was “foreign.” It’s a chutzpah!

I don’t want to lose it. Losing my Jo’burg accent would be for me a shedding of part of my identity, akin to draining the pigment from my skin. I decidedly want to retain my peculiar pronunciations and my distinctive habits, like listening to Juluka, encouraging my kids to write school projects on Nelson Mandela, and dressing them in the springbok rugby jerseys periodically sent by my mother-in-law from de heim. I don’t want to undo who I am in order to fit into Israeli society but I also don’t believe I need to be considered any less Israeli for it. Isn’t that what the in-gathering of the exiles is all about?

We have all learned of the collective notions on which this society was originally built. We also know that these have long been surpassed by virulent, sometimes cruel, capitalistic, individualist and occasionally purely narcissistic themes. But the wind from the West has also blown in a greater respect for human rights and acceptance of diversity and it is in this vein that I demand, not a new identity, but a new name. Call me an Afro-Israeli, in the way of the Afro-Americans, who, for all their specific cultural markings, are not considered any less American. Call me an Anglo-Israeli. Call me a Pioneer. But pray, don’t denounce me as not Israeli enough.

About the Author
Omi Morgenstern Leissner (PhD) was born and grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the late 1980s, she joined her five older sisters by making aliyah. She has a number of academic degrees earned at universities in Israel and New York. She lectures and writes on women's rights, particularly in contexts of health and reproduction. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children.
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