Travels In The Land Of Pluralism


Jerusalem — Last July, for the first time in three years, my husband and I travelled from Israel, where we live, to the U.S. with our two sons.

Although our 14-year-old twins had visited America several times, the previous trips had focused mostly on purely fun outings to amusement parks, 7-Eleven (Slurpees) and Toys R Us.

We wanted this visit to be different, or at least deeper.

We wanted our boys to better understand how growing up in the U.S. shaped our opinions and value system, and to consciously expose them to the pluralism that’s often in short supply in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem.

We wanted them to know what it’s like to be a minority in a predominantly Christian society, and we wanted them to realize that just as living in Israel has pluses and minuses, living in the U.S. can be challenging, too.

But before heading to the States we explained some things we felt our boys needed to know.

The four of us discussed how easy it is to live as a Jew in Israel, with its emphasis on Jewish holidays and kosher McDonald’s, but that Jewish communities in parts of Europe and the U.S. are experiencing anti-Semitism in the form of verbal and sometimes physical attacks. We wanted the boys to be aware without being frightened, and they opted to wear baseball caps instead of kippot when we changed planes in Paris and throughout our stay in the States.     

We also gave our kids a lesson in American-style political correctness. We explained that unlike Israelis, who consider verbal jousting a national pastime, Americans often take offense at things they might not find offensive. “If Homer Simpson would have said X, Y or Z,” we advised, “don’t say it!”    

Once we arrived in the U.S. we tried to make most days both fun and educational. Thanks to CitiPass (which provided us with tickets to tour some of New York’s tourist sites), we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where my grandparents entered the U.S. nearly a century ago. 

Visiting Ellis Island’s immigration museum prompted a discussion about illegal immigration and the wall Donald Trump vowed to build on the Mexican border, and the fact that all nations, including Israel, permit some people to immigrate but prevent others.   

“Is there a time when illegal immigrants have the moral right to come to another country?” we asked. What about the Jews who boarded boats bound for Palestine, in defiance of the ruling British?

We were in New York when the rage over police shootings of black men was at its peak, and the day Micah Xavier Johnson shot 14 police officers in Dallas.

We talked about how the ancestors of today’s African Americans didn’t immigrate willingly to America — they were kidnapped and shipped to America — and how the experience of slavery and discrimination affects black Americans to this day.

Which brought us to the concept of “white privilege.” I asked my kids what would happen if they went on their own into a 7-Eleven store and walked around for a while, deciding on what to buy. Would the sales people be suspicious of you? Would they assume you were trying to steal something?

Their response: “Why would anyone assume we’re planning to steal something?”

I explained that in America, where the majority of people are white, many storeowners and even some police officers assume that black teenaged boys are troublemakers or worse. If you’re black, I said, there’s a higher chance the police will stop you on the road than if you are white.

We talked about whether ethnic profiling is ever OK, in the streets of New York or Jerusalem, or at the airport, where guards interrogate some passengers but not others.

We talked about how in Jerusalem — especially this past winter, as young Palestinians were carrying out terror attacks — it’s common to see the police stop young Arabs to check whether they have Israeli I.D. cards and weapons. Although the police may have good reason to stop them, I said, that is no consolation to the vast majority of law-abiding Arabs who feel ethnically profiled, or singled out when Jews are not. 

But most of the life lessons were much more subtle. Our kids came to appreciate the wealth of kosher restaurants in Jerusalem when, while staying with my parents in Queens, we needed to drive 20 minutes to the closest kosher pizzeria. When we went shopping at the nearby Stop & Shop, the boys learned to search for brands with kashrut certification. One of the high points of our U.S. visit was finding a kosher restaurant at Hershey Park, Pa., not something we could take for granted in the U.S., with its small Jewish population. 

By far the best part of our trip was spending time with relatives, whose religious observance varies greatly. One Shabbat morning we prayed in my parents’ traditional shul, which lacks a mechitza, and another Shabbat at Chabad, where potted plants separate the men’s section from the women’s section behind it.

We spent one Shabbat eating kosher Chinese take-out around a family member’s pool as some of his non-Jewish neighbors barbecued nearby, and we brought kosher hot dogs to another family member’s dinner party, not realizing that they kept a couple of kosher pots and utensils in their non-kosher kitchen.

We spent a beautiful afternoon in upstate Monsey with my ultra-Orthodox cousin and eight of her nine children, who made a special effort to be home to spend time with us and who loaded into their family van to treat our boys to Slurpees from a totally kosher 7-Eleven store.

Our visit to the U.S. was a living lesson in pluralism, in what makes America great and what needs fixing. I think it helped our American-Israeli boys appreciate that they have two passports and two identities, and that it’s good to embrace both of them. 

Michele Chabin reports for the paper from Jerusalem.