First Person ‘that’s So Israeli’: an Immigrant Shares Sorrows, Joys and Strategies

When I think back on my pre-aliyah Israeli experiences, there were several that influenced my decision to immigrate. One of those palpable memories was marching around the Old City walls during the Jerusalem Day parade. Instead of Jordanian snipers perched on the tops of the Old City walls, as was the case before 1967, Israeli soldiers smiling with pride waved down to the thousands below. Israeli flags flooded my vision as the crowd circled the east gates of the Old City dancing and singing together, celebrating a modern-day miracle.

The passion at the parade was contagious; after so long Jerusalem was again in Jewish hands, and I was determined to become a part of that miracle, to be another brick in the wall of the rebuilt city.

Now, after living as an Israeli resident for more than two years, I see that the beauty of the wall is also its greatest challenge. Immigrants from France, the former Soviet Union, the United States, Ethiopia and South America all come together here, each representing a brick in the new walls of Jerusalem. And we all come with our own vision of Jerusalem and the greater State of Israel. But we also come with our own cultures and habits. We come with our favorite foods and our idea of good manners. And many times, those visions stand in stark contrast to one another.

And beyond that, we are standing on the backs of those who have already set the agenda and the social customs. I’m not talking about the philosophical differences between right and left, or the seemingly escalating rift between religious and non-religious Jews. I’m talking about the simple day-to-day happenings that can wear down an immigrant’s idealism and positive attitude.

In order to keep from getting overwhelmed, my wife, Dena, and I make a joke called “That’s so Israeli.” After enduring an hourlong bureaucratic battle between two Ministry of Education clerks over who is going to print up a one-page document for me, instead of getting angry, I just say, “That’s so Israeli.”

When Dena and I were recently rear-ended in a rental car outside Tel Aviv, the driver got out, and after checking to see if we were OK and seeing that there was no damage, started yelling at me when I asked for his name and insurance information.

“What, is this the first time this has happened to you? This happens all the time. Don’t make such a big deal about it,” he yelled. “Just get in your car and go.”

“That was so Israeli of him,” my wife said after we left the scene.

“I know,” I answered.

Compared to my American cultural norms, the Israeli personality often seems so unrefined, harsh, inflexible and well, just plain chutzpadik. And the differences only become increasingly pronounced the more I interact with Israeli society.

But there is another aspect of the daily life here. For every obnoxious Israeli experience, I can tell a warm, touching story. The way that the older Iraqi man at the kebab restaurant with the scratchy voice calls me “motek,” or sweetheart, warms my heart like I’m seeing family. And once when Dena and I walked into a Tel Aviv hardware store for a quick errand, we ended up staying for an hour while the owner, an older Yemeni woman and her daughter, gave us blessing after blessing for health, a happy marriage and a long life in Israel. Yes there is chutzpah here, but there are so many random acts of warmth and love as well. And feeling like family with so many strangers is one reason that I would make aliyah all over again.

When Jerusalem Day comes, it reminds me of all the good, both the small acts of kindness that I see, and the big feelings of inspiration. It reminds me that I’m living inside a miracle, and that being here connects me to the destiny of the Jewish people in such a tangible way. I am a brick in the wall and I can have my say in the direction that it’s going to be built.

When I’m caught up in the minutiae of rude clerks and merging traffic it’s hard to see what we are all building. From up close, the wall looks so flawed and grotesque. But when I step back, I see that everyone’s piece is coming together toward part of a miraculous greater whole. Yes, the building is a slow and tiring process, and sometimes we lose direction. But there is nothing greater for me than being actively involved in that process.

As I march around the Old City walls this year on Jerusalem Day, and Dena and I march through the Lions Gate in the footsteps of the paratroopers that redeemed the ancient capital, I’m going to try to see the greater wall. I’m going to push aside the daily frustrations and cultural differences for a glance at the great wall that is the modern Jewish state and the city of Jerusalem, and feel blessed that I have the privilege of being annoyed, yet comforted, by its construction.

Jonathan Udren is a freelance journalist and editor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He made aliyah in 2003.

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