If Mattathias were alive today, how would you define him? American-Jew, Greek-Assimilated Jew? Every year at Hanukkah, we celebrate the miracle of light. What about the victory of the Jews keeping up their traditions and their culture? Does this battle of identity belong to the history books, or maybe are we dealing with it now?
In my opinion, the conflict of dual identities is still current for all Israeli-Americans. I will use my personal story to explain how an Israeli Identity is at risk of assimilation (religiously and otherwise).
After almost 16 years of living in America, I finally got my citizenship. My friends from high school in Israel asked me, “So who are you now?” American, Israeli?” For the first time, I was hesitant about my answer. Am I an American Jew, Israeli-American, Israeli-Sephardi… but in what order? What about my kids born here? Their first language is English; they understand Hebrew, but are more comfortable answering in English.
Identity confusion is widespread with so many immigrants, specifically Israelis, in America. Regardless of why they left Israel. Israelis tend to keep their own ”Mini Israel in them,” hanging out with their Israeli friends and speaking comfortably in Hebrew without worrying about the accent or being misunderstood. They laugh at the same old jokes and use slang from their military service, and let’s not forget the classical songs from the ’90s. Still, to them, this is home, their pride and joy. One day, they realized that their children, American Jews, do not necessarily share the same dream. They want to cut any strings to their parents’ accents or the foreign culture, yet want to keep the Bamba and falafel.
So what happened? Why is there such a big gap between parents and children? What happened to the American Dream? What is the price that we have to pay to officially be called American, and is there any room for the Israeli Identity to stay in this process?
I moved here a year after my father passed away. I worked as a Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher in Boston and saved up money for a year so I could travel to South America, my dream trip. I quickly realized that it is easy to get lost here if you don’t belong to the Jewish community who tolerates your heavy accent and grammar mistakes.
After three years, I moved to Miami to pursue my Master’s Degree in Jewish Education and Jewish Studies in English (I believed that this is the key to success in American society, because I have the proof that I can write a thesis in my second language, English). I was surprised. During this process, I realized how you can lose your heritage to the American melting pot. I was about to lose the Israeli in me—the sense of humor, the warmth, and the “hot” temper too. I decided to surround myself with Israeli friends, speak mostly in Hebrew, celebrate the holidays like in Israel. I created my “Israeli safety net” with the hope that next year I was going back to Israel.
Only when I moved to California to be closer to my sister, my only sibling here, got married to an American Jew, and had my kids, did I realize that it was time to admit that my life is here. Israel is where my family is, but this is my country. Still, as an ambassador of Israel and a Zionist, I have a big responsibility—to strengthen the connection between the Americans and the Israelis.
What will connect my Jewish/ American kids to Israel? What do I need to do to make them proud when they are holding the Israeli flag and standing during the ceremony of the Tzofim on a memorial day? I got an epiphany; I am the last chain in this beautiful tradition. If I don’t act, I will let all my ancestors down. I have to be their role model and bring Jewish pride into my own home and their heart.
As parents, we decided to sign them up to attend a Jewish School—the Hebrew Academy. I must say that it was not easy financially and culturally (public school is excellent and free). Personally, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t fit in; in Israel, I was too religious. Here I am not so sure. I was happy to know that I was wrong. My husband was deployed during that time, and you can just imagine a new mom with young kids. My husband was away. But still, I found my American-Jewish safety net. Families at the HACDS made sure that I wouldn’t be alone, supported my kids in so many ways, and me, and as a family, we found friends for life.
One day my kids came back from the Hebrew Academy singing the same songs that I grew up with, and they knew more details about my religion than I did. I realized that it’s not enough. We have to strengthen all our identities and keep them as “fruit salads” and not as a “melting pot.” As a family, we decided to get more involved with the local community, Israeli community, IAC, Federation, Chabad, and so much more. That was our mission. The entire family volunteered at the community Yom Ha-azma’ut wearing the Israeli flags with so much pride and even taking classes from the IAC on becoming a better leader while my kids are watching me and participating in the background.
Today I can say, they are involved. The flag and Hatikvah are not foreign to them. The road is still long! So my message to all my fellow Americans and Israelis: let’s all embrace each other’s differences and not force full assimilation.
To my American fellows, don’t judge us too quickly: we might still have a heavy accent, and we sound like we are always angry, and we are loud, but we know how to hug and help when you need us without the need to schedule it a month out.
For my fellow Israelis, open up to the community around you, volunteer, and donate when you can. Make sure that their knowledge about our holidays is more in-depth than the knowledge about Christmas.
Google can teach our kids the definition of kindness, but only we can model it. Talk in English when you have non-Hebrew speakers. Don’t criticize them because you have to schedule with them in advance for a cup of coffee. It is a good thing: you will never be double-booked this way. As in the Hanukkah story, the kids saved the nation by not giving up on their values and identity. Our identity depends on our kids. Let’s help them, so our grandkids will be proud of Israel and proud to be Jewish.
Nelli Greenspan is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.