The Israeli-American curse
Is he like us yet? Every morning I discreetly examine my soon-to-be-4-year-old son for the signs. Does he relate to other kids as if they were a different species? Does he feel like an awkward minority even within his own awkward minority group? Did Ethan escape the Israeli-American curse, which has haunted my husband’s and my families for the past three generations, or is he, too, a perpetual in-betweener?
Both Ori and I are children of Israeli-Americans. Our moms, high-school frenemies who went on to study together in the Technion University in Haifa, came to the U.S. in their 20s for their doctorates and stayed to raise families. My parents, who saw the U.S. as their permanent home, ended up returning to Israel, where I spent most of my life; his parents, who always planned to return to Israel, stayed put. We both feel like we drew the short end of the stick.
When my family moved to Rishon LeZion, a city near Tel Aviv, as I told Ori on our first date, “I was the only non-Sabra in town. I never felt like I belonged.”
“Well, my parents settled in Palo Alto before the Silicon Valley boom, when it was just a white, American suburb,” he retorted. “Can you imagine being the son of these rough-and-tumble Israelis in an all-WASP environment? I’m sorry about my mom, by the way,” he added quietly, glancing at the white-haired woman nodding off by his side. Luckily, that night she got too tipsy to dominate our conversation. “She didn’t mean to be rude earlier.”
“What rude, shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” I waved him off.
It wasn’t supposed to be a date. It was my second year living in the U.S., assimilation was hard-going, and my mom had set me up with Ilana — her long-lost Israeli-American acquaintance and Ori’s mom — for support. “Americans are different from us, honey,” she explained. “When they say, ‘Let’s get together soon,’ they don’t really mean it. And since you can never tell what they actually do mean, it’s very hard to make friends with them.… I’ve been in your shoes. If you want to survive in America, you need Israeli friends.”
This was weird, coming from my mom. A daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel, she lived in the Jewish state for only a handful of years before moving to the U.S. Two decades later, when we moved back to Israel, she was by far more American than Israeli. She continued speaking only English to me, perpetuating an accent that took decades to fade, and cultivated in both of us an exclusive taste for American literature and culture. She had always complained to me that Israelis are rude, intolerant, and lawless.
In Israel, I was raised as an American. Ori, meanwhile, suffered from the reverse syndrome. His parents were irrecoverably, blatantly Israeli. They did not fit in here; believing that they would soon return, they spoke to him only in Hebrew. When his time came to begin preschool, 3-year-old Ori hardly knew a word of English. Following the advice of a language expert, his parents switched exclusively to English, facilitating a speech impediment that took decades to fade, and erasing the memory of Ori’s native Hebrew altogether. “As a boy, I thought maybe everyone felt like they didn’t belong,” he told me. “As a teen, I realized that we really didn’t.”
When I got pregnant, Ori and I decided that we would not mess up our kids like our parents messed us up. Our children would blend in. We are American Jews among American Jews, so that’s how we will raise them, with English as their first language and Jewish-American customs and values at the core of their identity. But you know what they say about good intentions…
I hate to admit when my mother is right, but in over a decade here, the only friendships that stuck are the ones with my fellow Israeli-Americans — and they are all raising their own kids as Israelis, with Hebrew as their first language and Israeli values at the core of their identity. “It doesn’t matter, they will grow up to become part of the Jewish-American establishment — they have no choice,” I reassured my husband. I couldn’t foresee the sudden emergence of an Israeli-American infrastructure, which seemed to pop up one day, fully materialized, out of thin air. Nor could I anticipate that this infrastructure would enthusiastically lend itself to the political support of Israel’s increasingly right-leaning government, putting yet another barrier between myself and my son’s designated identity-group.
In my son’s micro-cosmos, the bubble within a bubble within a bubble he’s growing up in, he is different. I have failed — his little friends are just more Israeli than he is. But when I tell this to my own friends, they say I’m being overprotective.
“What different, shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” they wave me off. “Stop being so American.”
Orli Santo is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.