Stuck at the Israeli-American border
Americans, when they move to Israel, they become more Israeli over time — you know, when in Rome. But when Israelis move here, they become even more Israeli. You know: ‘Screw the Romans,’” American-Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt observed in his stand-up show, immediately earning my respect. Afterwards, though, in frustratingly American fashion — he walked back that statement so as not to be offensive. “I don’t remember how I came up with that joke, but maybe, when you actually analyze it, it’s not 100 percent logically sound…. Americans [in Israel] also become more American,” he said in a phone interview from Tel Aviv. “Hopefully, I’ll come out sounding good. Americans, you know, they can be sensitive.”
I am subtly different than most American Jews I know. Some of the reasons for this stem from my Israeli-American identity, and the cultural gaps between the two countries. But after more than a decade here, I can’t tell anymore where my Israeli-ness ends and where I begin. What about my peculiarity can be attributed to my Israeli-ness? What to my Israeli-American hybrid-ness? And is this how all immigrants feel, regardless of where they’re from?
Lovitt, 44, offered a rare case study for these questions. An American who made aliyah in 2006, he mines the same seam of Jewish/American/Israeli cultural stereotypes as I do for a living. Last month, he brought his stand-up show, developed for English-speaking audiences in Israel, to West Hartford, Conn.; Boston; and New York. In The Brownstone in Manhattan, performing before an all-Jewish but diverse audience of 90 American Jews (Orthodox to secular) and Israeli-Americans, Lovitt was sure-footed enough while discussing defining cultural gaps on stage. But in our follow-up interview, he was cautious. “I’m a hybrid identity speaking to a hybrid identity.… There could be misunderstandings,” he noted. “But with someone who is 100 percent Israeli, or 100 percent American, I can’t find common ground either. They have to be somewhere on the spectrum in between.”
So how do our two experiences as immigrants compare? As an American living in Israel, was he more comfortable back in his homeland? No, said Lovitt. “You can meet a cab driver in Israel and be ‘best friends’ with him in under three minutes,” he observed. “It’s a small country, there’s more common ground, common worldviews…. In America I’m never sure who I’m dealing with.”
Much of the discomfort, Lovitt noted, stems from the differences between Hebrew and English. “In English, if I wanted a glass of water, I’d say something like, ‘Would you mind, please, passing me the water, if you could?’ In Hebrew, it’s: ‘Pass the water.’ So even though I’m far more comfortable in my native English, when I speak English, I’m more worried about who I’m talking to and how they might perceive me.”
Lovitt is a Texas native who lived for several years in Atlanta before moving to New York, and from there to Israel. Though the culture gap was bigger when he moved to Israel, the move from Georgia to New York was lonelier. “In Georgia, I was part of a tight-knit Jewish community. When I came to New York and sought out the Jewish community, I found out there isn’t one — there were 50,” each one specializing in a different neighborhood, worldview, subculture, “so it was harder to find my place.”
In Israel, the problem of course was that everyone is Jewish, “so ‘Jewish’ is no longer a defining characteristic you can bond around.”
On many issues, Lovitt and I align. He’s exasperated by Israelis’ bluntness, just as I am by Americans’ coyness. He’s driven crazy by Israelis’ lack of planning and apparent inability to start anything on time, just as I am by Americans’ need to chart out even casual interactions months in advance. But on more abstract questions — who we are, who are our people, where is home — it’s harder to tell where our national identities end and our individual characters begin. “When you come here as a diaspora Jew, you see a bunch of miracles.… You feel everybody is so warm and exciting,” Lovitt mused. “Now, I’m not so in love anymore — it’s more like a marriage — but I AM an Israeli, this is home.”
Still, Lovitt seems fundamentally American to me, while I’m chronically, irrecoverably Israeli. We both stand out in our surroundings, wrapping our identities tightly around ourselves, like snails lugging their homes on their backs. But when I tried to talk about this aspect of our lives, and the loneliness that flows from it, Lovitt demurred. Too personal, he said. Another example of American vs. Israeli mentality? Or just of journalist vs. interviewee? It’s hard to tell. In the end, all these labels defining us run together, and all that remains are people struggling to connect.
Orli Santo is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.