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So far away: digital flags and deliberations

Did leaving Israel mean forsaking those who died so that we can live in our own country?

These days, the week and a half in spring that encompass Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) in commemoration of our fallen soldiers and victims of heinous acts of terror, and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) are, for me, the most meaningful days of the Jewish calendar. Thinking about the 6 million, and then our fallen soldiers and the victims of terror, the tremendous milestone of Israel’s 65th Independence Day becomes even more significant.

These days, when the essence of who we are is distilled into ceremony, song and, ultimately, celebration, are the days when it is most difficult and painful for me to be far from Israel.

As an American-born Israeli who lives outside of Israel, these days are full of emotional turmoil for me. Of immense pride on Israel’s 65th birthday, of the sorrow of lives lost, and of no small bit of internal conflict about who I am and where I have made my life. Conflict that is always present, but that is most intense on these days of national commemoration and celebration.

I’ve written before about the struggle of a dual identity, and what it means to straddle two countries and two cultures. To be outside of Israel on these days is to feel an acute sense of agitation and alienation, of loss and of longing.

I realized today that on Israel’s 65th birthday, the only Israeli flags I will see are digital ones. On these days, a keyboard and monitor take on the role of community for me and provide a second-hand and somewhat sad sense of connection.

Yom Hashoah is shared by Diaspora Jews and Israelis. Yom Ha’atzmaut is celebrated – to some extent – by Jews all over the world. The day that I find almost unbearable to be here is Yom Hazikaron. American Jews, for the most part, don’t understand it and cannot relate to it.  They just don’t have any frame of reference that can imbue it with meaning.

I am a translator and interpreter – and I like to think that I am a very good one. As I watch the Yom Hazikaron commemorations, it occurs to me that the very best interpreter would not be capable of translating the tangle of poignancy and shared emotion of this day in a way that a non-Israeli could even start to unravel.

How could I ever explain the singular significance of Yom Hazikaron to my friends and neighbors here in the United States? And how can you comprehend Yom Hazikaron when you live in a country where Memorial Day is a day for sales and for barbeques? Is there any other people anywhere in the world that mourns its sons and daughters in such an all-encompassing and heart-wrenching way?

I had the great privilege to serve in a legendary unit – Paratrooper Battalion 202. On Yom Hazikaron, I think of the boys from the unit in which I served during the First Lebanon War. About those who became men long ago, and about those who will remain forever boys.

Two countries. Two cultures. During my army days, I often felt like an American girl who didn’t quite fit in. During these days, here in the Diaspora, I feel so achingly Israeli.

Why did I leave Israel? After many years, I eventually wanted to raise my children closer to my immediate family in the United States, and not oceans and continents away. Ultimately, once my son was diagnosed as autistic, any lingering idea of returning to Israel was shelved.

On a personal level, I believe that living in the United States and raising my children here was the right choice for me. I’m enormously proud of the outstanding young adults that they have become – strong Jews and first-rate human beings with a deep and profound connection to Israel.

I have wonderful children. I have attained no small measure of success in my field. Yet, I realize today the magnitude of the price that I have paid. I live in a place where there is nothing about my surroundings that tugs at my heartstrings, and where I stand alone on Yom Hazikaron, facing nothing but my television screen during siren and prayer, and connected to the country I love via Facebook.

I can read Yediot and Maariv and Haaretz on my computer. I can watch Mabat and the various ceremonies on the Israeli Channel via satellite. I can listen to Galgalatz on my iPhone. (I confess that I have always felt secretly guilty about enjoying one aspect of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron – the quiet, contemplative and intensely meaningful music on the radio that is the soundtrack of our national days of commemoration.)

The computer feeds my mind, but it doesn’t feed my heart.

Israelis tend to draw sweeping, wholesale conclusions about those of us who have left, instantly decreeing that Israelis who choose to live elsewhere are nothing more than greedy, money-hungry materialists who are willing to give up their homeland to seek a more comfortable life abroad. That is simplistic and judgmental. It serves nobody.

Life is complex. There are many reasons why people leave or remain abroad – family considerations, special-needs children and other circumstances. The years fly by, and as life’s pressures multiply, it no longer seems feasible to return.

Notwithstanding, on Yom Hazikaron, I feel that I owe the obligation of honesty. For the truth is that I gave up living in the place that I feel most passionate about. I traded Jerusalem for suburban New Jersey. On a certain level, on these days, I feel like a fake. A poser. I wonder whether by leaving, I have removed myself from the people of Israel, and I question my right both to mourn and to celebrate as an Israeli.

These days, for me, are painful days of cheshbon nefeshof personal accounting. Because while I believe that my decision is a legitimate one on the personal level, on a national level, deep inside, I fear that I did not do the right thing. By leaving and making my life abroad, have I betrayed the Zionist dream, in which I so ardently believe? Have I forsaken those who gave their lives so that we can live in our own country? Do I still have the right to take part in this overwhelming day of national mourning – and in the day of celebration that follows it? Do I still belong to the State of Israel? Am I still a genuine part of that which I hold most dear? Have I given up all of that forever merely by virtue of the fact that I live elsewhere?

On these days, and on every day, I continue to struggle with these questions. I still do not know what the answer is. Just being honest enough to publicly pose these thoughts is a difficult step forward for me. But one thing I know for sure: no matter how long I live abroad, I will always remain bound to Israel with all of the strings of my soul.

May the memory of our sons and daughters be for a blessing, and may all of us rejoice in the momentous occasion of Israel’s 65th Independence Day. No matter where we are.

About the Author
Rina Ne'eman is a translator and interpreter, and the managing director of She is a proud Israeli and an avid amateur photographer. Follow her on Twitter @rinaneeman or e-mail her at