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Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation

Struggling to bridge the gulf between Israelis and Jewish Americans.

Editor’s Note: This article inaugurates a new regular column about the Israeli community in New York and the intersection between that community and the wider Jewish one.

By now I think of myself more as a New Yorker who once lived in Israel then an Israeli living in New York. It’s a small but important shift toward feeling at home, and one that you, my dear Jewish-American friends, did not help much, despite your best intentions. To be honest, your kind attempts to reach out just made me feel worse.

No offense — I have nothing against Americans. Technically, I’m an American myself. My parents came here from Israel as students, lingered past their doctoral degrees, had two anchor babies and flew back to Israel when I was 5. It was expected that I’d quickly become a healthy, robust Sabra.

But the development town where we landed was not an easy place for a well-mannered Montessori kid. I got pushed around a lot. Since I didn’t push back, my teachers told my parents that I didn’t play well with others. In this alien environment I clung to my American identity. With balled fists, I’d mutter at my Israeli tormentors in English: “I don’t care about you — I don’t belong here anyway, I’m an American.” Then I’d scamper off to the bushes to have imaginary milk and cookies with my imaginary American friends.

Despite myself, over the years I did become an Israeli. I rode my bike with the crowds on Yom Kippur, wept for our soldiers on Memorial Day, and a few hours later celebrated Independence Day by hitting people over the head with a squeaky plastic hammer. I learned that we are a small and just nation, surrounded by unjust and unreasonable enemies, particularly the ones within our own borders. When Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was shot, I felt — along with the rest of the country — like my own grandfather died. I served in the army; I went to college in Jerusalem; I came to see explosions, armed guards, racial segregation and constant killings as natural facts of life. The most important thing, I realized, was to be nobody’s freier — what you Americans call a “sucker.” I was an Israeli through and through.

And then I decided to leave.

My reasons were similar to those of most of the yordim, or expatriates: I was working full-time as a graphic designer and still couldn’t make rent. All around me, Jerusalem was becoming more restrictively religious. From where I lived, I could see the separation wall being built, growing taller and thicker by the day — and with it my hopes for real peace grew slimmer. To top it all off, my boyfriend was a jerk. I had one ace up my sleeve: an American passport, the key to the real Promised Land. Everyone I knew envied me for that, and damn if I wasn’t going to try it out.

Swapping countries at the age of 27 was like being hit over the head with a hammer — and I don’t mean the squeaky plastic kind. The world turned upside down and inside out: health insurance suddenly cost money, doors opened the wrong way, the hot and cold faucets switched sides, hours weren’t measured in 24s, units didn’t add up to the metric 10 — nothing added up at all. In Israel there were always facial expressions, as transparent and communicable as an open book; here, people on the streets came in a staggering variety of shapes and colors, but I saw only blank features, spelling out nothing. I got averted gazes, again and again, everywhere I looked.

Flailing, I searched for people like me, people whom I could understand. It seemed natural that I turn to you, the American Jews. Israel is, almost by default, Jewish, and I am, by definition, an American: that makes you, the Jewish-American people, my community. Right?

It should have been right.

We did try, the both of us, to be friends. We met at the 92Y, at the JCC, everywhere from Shabbat dinners to Israeli Day parades. We talked about our common heritage and your last visit to the Holy Land. But when it came to the one-on-one, to the lonely Israeli and the friendly American Jew reaching out to each other, we failed to connect.

The gulf between us runs deep — much deeper than we assumed when we first reached over it to shake hands. It took me an entire year to understand that “We should definitely meet again” doesn’t mean that we will meet again. It took much longer to realize that you were waiting for me to stop talking before you started, and that I should do the same, or that harmless phrases like “Don’t be stupid, listen to me!” translate badly in English. And through it all, I could never know if you liked me, feared me or hated my guts: I just couldn’t tell the difference. I’ve been here for over six years now, and I still can’t tell. My friends are all Israelis.

Lately, though, I think I’ve started to see things more your way. I write for an Israeli paper, and one day I brought a decorated cake to work. “You know,” the manager said casually as she pecked at it, “this cake isn’t tasty at all. And it’s ugly.” I took a moment to consider this. She was smiling; she was still eating the cake. She didn’t mean to insult me — she was simply being Israeli, stating what’s on her mind without much further thought. I suddenly realized how that could be very, very annoying.

I answered the Israeli way. “Yes, the cake’s bad. That’s why I brought it here.” She nodded understandingly, and we both returned to our desks.

Orli Santo is New York correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

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