Sunday, December 22, 2002

Assimilation: a Sabra Perspective

My essay “Five Rules for Staying Alive" – published at the beginning of the month in response to the terror attacks in Kenya – generated a lot of response (review it now by clicking here). It seems my anti-assimilation message touched a nerve.

However, it’s one thing for me, someone who chose to throw his lot in with the Israeli people, to talk about how the events in Mombassa strengthen my resolve to stay in Israel. But what about someone born here?

I recently had a chance to talk this over with Irit, a colleague from work. Irit is a sabra, through and through. Her response surprised me.

In “Five Rules for Staying Alive,” I wrote how, if the choice before me were to assimilate completely into the non-Jewish world in order to avoid danger, then that’s not something I could live with.

Irit, on the other hand, said she would jump at the chance.

It wasn’t just a theoretical discussion. After her son Tomer was born, Irit proposed to her husband in all seriousness that they do just that: go off to someplace where they could raise Tomer with no connection whatsoever to Israel, to the army, to terror.

The difference is that while I might be able to slip off and disappear into the great American melting pot, I don’t want to.

Irit wants to, but can’t.

“What am I supposed to do?” she explained to me. “I look Israeli. I sound Israeli. I act Israeli. I’ll for sure speak Hebrew with my son. We have relatives in Israel and we don’t want to cut him off from them. We would never be able to blend in completely.”

And even if they tried to the best of their abilities to blur their heritage and culture, dropping Hebrew, abandoning family, moving to Mississippi and substituting “y’all” for “nu,” what then?

“I’d be afraid that my kids would have nothing in common with me,” Irit continued. “They’d be so American, but that’s not my background. I’d always be the immigrant mother.”

“That’s exactly how we feel in Israel sometimes,” I countered. “Merav is always complaining that her parents embarrass her with their accents and all their English-speaking friends.”

“The difference with you, Brian,” replied Irit, “is that you want your kids to be more Israeli than you.”

Of course she’s right. We moved here quite purposefully, in order to start a new line of the Blum family in Israel. For family back home, this has always seemed a betrayal, a not-so-subtle slap in the face. Their parents struggled to immigrate from their Old Country to North America in order to enjoy greater prosperity and freedom. And then what do we go and do? It seems like we’re turning our backs on everything they worked so hard for.

We’re not. We greatly value our North American upbringing, the values of democracy and equality. If anything, we’d love to see those values catch on more in Israeli society.

And while maybe once I thought that opportunities were limited for Jews in a non-Jewish land, that a Jew - let alone a religious one - could never grow up to be President of the United States, with Joseph Lieberman set to run in 2004, who knows?

But despite our warm and enduring affiiliation with the place that nurtured many of our most cherished beliefs, we also feel that our line somehow skipped over this other Promised Land. So if we have the opportunity to bring up our children here, along with the desire (not a small thing in and of itself), how could we look ourselves in the mirror each morning and say – yes we believe in it, yes we can do it, but maybe someone else can take this particular one on.

And truth be told, I don’t believe Irit entirely. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe there really are a lot more Israelis than I realize who would love to just get the heck out of this place. But every Israeli I ever met in the U.S. always talked (usually in Hebrew) about how much they missed their homeland, how they were going back, soon, soon.

And many have returned. Is it just that one’s core culture extracts an irresistible attraction? Or is there something more, something yearning even in the soul of the most hardened I-Hate-Israel Israeli that knows what we have here is special and worth preserving?

Everyone has choices. Irit could still leave. She and her husband are both highly educated, their children still young. But she doesn’t. She professes existential misery, but she doesn’t seem all that miserable to me.

And so we muddle on together, immigrants and veteran Israelis, building our lives in this dangerous land, some of us believing that what we’re doing is critically important to the future of the Jewish people, and others just believing that this is home.

And, as we continue to assimilate steadily onward into Israeli culture, the distinction between these two motivations blurs ever further.

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