Thursday, October 30, 2003

The Israeli in Me

OK, I admit it: I didn’t want to leave.

This past summer, after seven weeks on the road – the longest consecutive period I’ve spent outside of Israel in the nine years since we moved here – I was starting to get comfortable in California.

To my own shock and surprise, I could actually see myself living back in the States again. Going to Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm every day, catching the latest movies at the multiplex at night...

OK, even my kids know better than that. Whenever any of them expresses a comment like “America is so much fun – you get to go to theme parks anytime you want,” we politely remind them that if we lived there, really lived there, our routine wouldn’t be all that much different than in Israel: school, homework, Shabbat, friends.

Beyond the vacation fantasy, though, I could feel myself starting down the slow but steady assimilation process…the same one we had embarked on when we left for Israel in 1994, only in reverse.

I had no idea it could happen so quickly.

And so it was becoming easier, even a bit liberating, to imagine buying a home in the Carmel Valley neighborhood in San Diego’s North County, where some one out of every three new homes is purchased by a Jewish family.

We could send the kids to the nearby Jewish Academy and join the local synagogue with the “Rockin’ Shabbat” services on Friday nights.

The allure of the open roads, the comfortable living and bountiful shopping, not to mention close proximity to grandparents – had it finally swayed our Zionist resolve?

After all, we had been living the California lifestyle for seven weeks and it wasn’t so awful. Who said that life has to be hard in order to be meaningful anyway?

Just before we were scheduled to get on the plane to come back to Israel, we had dinner with a couple of very close friends. We met Sol and Debbie 18 years in Israel. We studied and worked together. We’ve been to each others’ simchas. We’ve been there for the tough times, too.

A year ago, Sol and Debbie became the only family we knew who left Israel because of the “situation.”

I don’t blame them.

On the contrary, I’d probably have done the same in their circumstances: living in a West Bank settlement that had been targeted on more than one occasion by terrorists. Where just going out at night was a life or death decision.

They’d had more than they could take and needed a break. A year. Two. Maybe more.

While barbequing up a plate-full of kosher steaks for our two families, Sol and I got into some of my feelings of creeping assimilation. Always insightful – and probably thinking more than a little about his status of self-imposed temporary exile – Sol stared me down through the charcoal haze.

“That’s all very nice and I imagine you could probably be very happy here,” he said, “but do you think at this point, you could really take the Israeli out of you?”

The Israeli in me? What was the Israeli in me, exactly? I mean, it’s not like I was born in Israel. I grew up not that far from where the steaks were steaming. I still have many more years of the old country in me than the new.

How hard could it be to swap one identity for another? To assimilate back to where I came from? What would it take – a few more weeks or months? A year tops.

And I thought, half as internal soliloquy, half in defiance to the challenge: it could be done.

As I left the barbeque, however, still pondering the existential nature of “home,” news was coming in about terror attack.

I was at once both paralyzed and panicked. My budding assimilated self told me that this should only serve to further my feelings of dissonance and distance from my adopted homeland. And yet I couldn’t help finding myself desperate for more information about the attack.

Was there anyone we knew in the attack?

Where did it happen?

What was the reaction on the street in Israel?

Were our friends scared? Angry?

The Israeli in me wanted to listen to the local radio. The Israeli in me needed to be a part of the community that was experiencing the pain and horror of it all in real-time.

The Israeli in me had spoken.

One exhausting thirty-hour plane ride later and we were back. The crushing, invigorating, utterly overwhelming humanity that is Israel hit us full-on, starting with the taxi driver from the airport shouting into his cellphone: Moti, efoh atah, totally oblivious to the fact that some of us were experiencing third degree sleep deprivation.

Within a matter of hours after landing, there was a problem with Aviv’s kindergarten that has to be sorted out that very morning, multiple phone calls (“Welcome back,” “Can Amir have a play date?” Can you join us for Shabbat?”), one dead car battery, two blown out light bulbs, a computer that wouldn’t start, and hourly news bulletins on the progress of yet another nationwide general strike (well, at least that was expected).

The pace at which things move in this turbo-charged little country is like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world.

In synagogue, we were literally bowled over by friends.

“How was the summer?”

“Did you love Prague?”

“Are we meeting up in the park as usual?”

“How’s your jet lag?”

Jet lag? Who has time for jet lag!

You know, it might take seven weeks for the process of assimilation to begin in America.

In Israel, it seems, it’s all over in all of about seven minutes.

We were home.

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