Becoming an Israeli citizen was easy. Becoming Israeli is the hard part.
I feel like I am going through a rough patch in my relationship with Israel and my Israeli friends, neighbours, colleagues and fellow inhabitants of this little strip of hotly contested land. It has been almost a year and a half since we left Ben Gurion Airport as newly minted Olim Hadashim (“fresh meat” as my former Ulpan put it, with a smile).
When I wake up in the mornings and head out the door, I’m usually thinking about whether I’ll make the bus rather than the fact that I have woken up in our new home in Israel. It’s not to say I don’t have that thrill anymore. It’s just that it doesn’t happen as often in my typical day. The daily routine has a tendency to take over and sideline the sense of wonder that seemed like it would never subside when we first arrived.
We could communicate better
I also feel like we don’t talk much, Israel and me. More specifically, it feels like I just don’t know what to say. I literally don’t have the words and that leaves me feeling like an outsider. Sure, people still try help me (most of them anyway) but the last month or so have definitely been Very Bad Hebrew Months for me.
On top of this communication issue, routine stuff seems to take up a lot of mental and emotional bandwidth. Consider your day-to-day pressures and stresses and add a factor of partial knowledge of the language it is all expressed and handled in. It can be more than a little intimidating at times.
Thankfully, my recent staycation with my mother gave me a break from my daily routine and much needed perspective on what living in Israel means to me.
Connecting with Israeli life
On the third day of our mini-break during Chol Hamoed Pesach, we all took a trip to Jaffa and walked around the market. It was my first time there and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pretty pleasantly surprised. The market stretched across a few streets and felt so typically Israeli. In one section people sold just about anything that wasn’t biological and breathing. Some sold old cameras, coins and other antiques. Others, usually next door, sold old fax machines and other junk that probably hadn’t served a useful function for about a decade.
We had terrific Shakshuka in a little Greek restaurant across from stores selling old fashioned film lighting equipment and an eclectic collection of vinyl LPs, only some of which I recognised.
We decided to head for the Jaffa/Yafo port and were given directions from a shop owner in typical Israeli fashion. He dismissively told us not to bother with “this Waze” and to just walk straight ahead over a couple roads. It was the sort of direct, helpful and somewhat no-time-for-nonsense advice I have come to identify as typically Israeli: direct, somewhat arrogant but motivated by a desire to help. That short conversation was a highlight of the day for me because it seemed to epitomise what it is to be Israeli for me.
Going back to where it all began
From Yafo, we took a bus to the Palmach Museum for a tour. If you haven’t been to the Palmach Museum and you’re interested in the early years of what became the IDF, you can’t miss it.
The museum is experiential and follows the journey of a group of immigrants to Israel as they join the forerunner of what became the IDF; battle the British and, later, Arab armies to secure Israel’s independence. The exhibits are a combination of themed rooms, video footage and reimagined conversations between the group as the conflict progresses.
Unlike most Israelis who have lived here for some time, I haven’t had the experience of fighting in a conflict or losing people I care about to a war. Just the same, following the story in the museum affected me profoundly. I could never compare what I felt going through the museum to what millions of Israelis have and continue to experience but, at its essence, I felt a connection of some kind to the tragedy that unfolded before us.
Watching the group’s story progress and remembering what I have learned about the conflicts leading up to the War of Independence left me with the strong sense that this is also a part of my history even though much of it predates me and my family has no direct connection to it.
I left the museum feeling a stronger connection to Israel’s history than I ever did to South Africa’s history. Israel’s history is the latest chapter of my people’s history.
Part of our reality
Now that we are here and living here, we face the same threats that our neighbours and friends do. Israel’s enemies don’t draw distinctions between new immigrants and born Israelis. We’re all Jews, we’re all Israelis.
We watched one of the memorial services for Yom HaZikaron one night this last week and one of the speakers mentioned how military service and speaking Hebrew are integral to Israeli life.
Our children may well serve in the IDF when they are old enough. I hope it won’t be necessary for them to serve but if the history of our people is any indication; one day they will be drafted and we will add the experience of seeing our children step into the harm’s way. I don’t look forward to that at all. I don’t think any parent does. At the same time, were it not for the young men and women who have done that, and continue to do it, we wouldn’t live in the only Jewish state.
For now, our kids’ biggest challenges are improving their Hebrew, doing their homework and finding time for all their friends.
When I think about them, Israelis feel a lot like an extended family, most of whom I don’t know and may never meet (some, I probably don’t want to meet). You have all sorts here. Many, like our friends, are hard-working, family-oriented people who continuously help us out and smile on the rare occasion I break out some Hebrew in my very Anglo accent.
I have also come across the Sabras with their tough exterior (mostly when dealing with me) and that sensitive, inner warmth (mostly when interacting with our kids). There are the Haredi who look like they have trundled out of the 18th century and who most other Israelis tend to leave pretty much to themselves. When I think about the personalities I have encountered, it’s a lot like taking your extended family of mixed nuts and expanding it into a population of millions with multi-faceted cultural and linguistic quirks to keep things interesting.
I sometimes think about how few Jews there are in the world and how much energy other groups spend trying to keep us down and push us around. It probably explains a lot of why Israelis tend to be so, well, Israeli. When you are a nation that waited thousands of years to be re-established and has had to fight every day since then not just to survive, but to thrive, you can understand why Israelis can be a little challenging at times. Becoming Israeli is also a lot to do with internalising that history at a visceral level.
Still, becoming Israeli doesn’t come naturally for me. I enjoy how Israelis tend to be pretty frank with each other. On the other hand, my limited Hebrew remains a stumbling block for me. I understand more than I did before but not knowing pretty basic words can be extremely frustrating, depressing even. I feel like I am missing some vital “Israeliness” ingredient. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it.
There is so much to love about Israel and, like any family, it can drive you absolutely crazy more often than you may like. On the other hand, I have had so many experiences that leave me amazed that we live amongst such compassionate and engaged people.
I have so much to learn about being Israeli. A lot of that will come as my Hebrew improves (לאט לאט). As for the rest of it, becoming Israeli, maybe it comes more naturally the longer we live here and experience more of what it means to be part of this feisty nation.
Postscript: A few words from my wife
My wife recently published a related post on her blog simply titled “Home” that is worth reading too: