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Feeling Israeli – Whatever That Is

view Photo credit: Johannes Schenk on Unsplash

We're all Israeli because we live here. But when did you start feeling Israeli? Whatever that is.

When I made aliyah in 1970, I was twenty-one, single and alone in the country. I was captivated by the mystique, the aura of what it meant to be "Israeli", influenced surely from movies and the Six Day War. After seven months on a kibbutz ulpan, I managed to become a candidate for membership on a new moshav in the Jordan Rift Valley – Bikat Hayarden. This began my journey to be "admitted" into what I perceived as the Israeli society.

Surely immersion into this group of twenty young, single people, only recently released from their compulsory army service, veterans of the Six Day War, living on a border, building a new community would make me Israeli – make me like them. We were all living temporarily under kibbutz-style conditions: small prefab living quarters, communal kitchen/dining room, shared work roster, shared cars, and, for the men, guard duty and for the women, radio room duty.

I was an anomaly in the group. The majority had left the kibbutzim and moshavim where they had been raised in order to heed the country's call to settle the new borders and to create a new community. What credentials did I have to join them? I guess it was Zionism. But that wouldn't be enough, I feared. I needed to transform myself into my perception of "Israeli". Whatever that was.

The chaverim were unknowingly a great help. Their blunt comments were like mallets chiseling away at my American habits. I welcomed this "shaping", as how else would I know how to be Israeli? Whatever that was.

There were no "rules" on how to wash your floor (but really there were: use lots of water and "sweep" it out the door), how to cut your salad, how to bake cookies. There was just a clear "wrong way".

"The chaverim won't eat a salad like that," one reprimanded me after I had cut large chunks of tomatoes and cucumbers Southern California style. Or: "The chaverim don't eat cookies like that," said another who saw my chocolate chip cookies in the huge oven in our communal kitchen. Great. A precious bag of chocolate chips wasted.

But who were these chaverim who all possessed the same culinary demands? They were the children from the "Ingathering of the Exiles" – Jews from all over the world who had been gathered into Israel when their parents left the Galut like I did. They, however, were the proud sabras, the native-born in the Land of Israel. Thanks to their immigrant parents, our small community represented Morocco, Yemen, Iraq, Tunis, Eastern and Central Europe. How did all these immigrant children from so many backgrounds all become so aligned against my Americanisms? Why didn't their blend of traditions, foods, and behaviors include mine? Was it because my contribution was foreign, untried, unwanted? I didn't ask.

My Hebrew was improving. Immersion is great but doesn't lead to instant mastery of a language, and without the language, you are on the outside. I had difficulty following the small talk when we were eating together or hanging out in our clubroom. I could manage most one-on-one basic conversations, but in a group with several talking at once, bursts of laughter, jokes beyond my comprehension, the use of army slang and the mixture of Hebrew accented with correct pronunciation of ayen and chet, I zoned out. Language confusion controlled me. I sometimes spoke in English thinking it was Hebrew: Why isn't he doing what I asked him to do?

Then I'd realize I had been speaking in English. Most of the chaverim had a basic understanding of simple English but many knew no English at all. I admit that despite early linguistic challenges, landing in a Hebrew-speaking environment with no outlet for English led to my becoming fluent faster than most English-speaking immigrants.

Like many of the singles who came to live on the moshav, I met my (first) husband there. Marrying Avramik would be more than a regular commitment. Our marriage would be a package deal. I would be committed to the farming life on a border moshav that we dreamed about. We depended on each other. Each couple depended on their friends and neighbors. If you didn't fit in, you were not voted in. You didn't have to like everyone but without good friends, you would only exist, not live.

I married Avramik. I drove a tractor. I planted and picked fruits and vegetables. I carried an Uzi submachine gun whenever I left the moshav on my own. My Hebrew improved so much that I could understand the static-filled radio calls and was added to the roster of all-night duty in the radio room. I was a citizen. A full member of a moshav. A Zionist pioneer. Wasn't that enough to feel Israeli? Whatever that was.

So why did I fold the baby clothes in the exact way the Sabra women (daughters of Yemenites, Moroccans, Russians, etc.) did? Who made that the "Israeli" way? I didn't like to wash the floor with so much water, but oy, they shouldn't find that out. So, I'd just fill a bucket with water, make sure no one was watching, and pour the water on the steps of our room. Perception is everything.

The joke was on me. As far as the chevre were concerned, yes, I was different, said "g'li" for bucket instead of "d'li", I ate fresh corn on the cob with salt and butter, and preferred the chicken breast to the dark meat, but I was Israeli. Why else would I be there? With improved Hebrew came more confidence and the ability to sit on committees. When I was elected kitchen manager, which included dealing with suppliers and menus, no one worried any longer about having to eat tasteless American food. They knew I craved the local cuisine with middle eastern spices and anyway, I was the manager, not the cook. We all took turns preparing lunch for 30 to 40 people. And cleaning up.

Soon, there were more couples than singles and more candidates applying all the time. The moshav was growing and successful, and in 1975 we moved from our temporary site to the valley below, close to Road #90. We now had our own homes and our own land. Our communal days were thankfully behind us. We bought a wall-to-wall carpet (very American!) for our living room. Now there was no need to dump water out the door! I cooked the way I knew and learned from my Polish mother-in-law and my South African sister-in-law and anyone else whose food I found tasty.

The more I lived on the moshav, the more the aura and mystique of my early days faded, revealing normal, everyday individuals, some to be revered, emulated and some definitely not, like in any society.

I was voted to head the absorption committee, the committee that interviewed and screened potential candidates for membership. My neighbor and I wrote and mimeographed a moshav newsletter. I can't believe I was writing in Hebrew. I became the spokesperson for the moshav in Hebrew and English, and I interacted with politicians and journalists from Israel and from around the world.

So, when did I feel Israeli? I know now that it was the first time I said "we" when talking about Israel because the feeling was always inside me. I was just too blinded by a conception in my head that I had to be accepted by "them".

I was trying to be something that no one had a right to define. My "whatever that is" came into focus. "Israeli" is us. We are the Ingathering of the Exiles. Just look at the names of our hostages, our soldiers, our murdered family and friends, even if we don't know them personally. There are many names that I can't pronounce that represent many diverse backgrounds, cultures and ways of being Israeli. There cannot be one definition. And yet we are one.


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Monday, 20 May 2024

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