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First Person It’s Tough Feeling Like an Outsider when Israelis Make Insider Jokes

June 8, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

I’ve decided that I no longer want to be American. I’m not making a political statement or giving up my citizenship. I’m not even refusing to come back for a visit. I’m just sick of being American.

It’s not even the fact that I’m American that really bothers me. It’s more the fact that I’m not Israeli.

Sure, I have my Israeli identification card with my smiling face on it. I even have my new Israeli driver’s license. I’ll vote in the next election, and the government will take my tax money once I start working.

But no matter how hard I try, I’m just no good at being Israeli. And even after nine months of citizenship and four months of Hebrew immersion, I still don’t feel like I’m getting much closer.

A few nights ago I went next door to the pizza shop and ordered a slice. The waitress didn’t even entertain the idea of answering me back in Hebrew; she just started asking me what I wanted to drink in English.

How did! she know just from my Hebrew line, “One slice with peppers please,” that I wasn’t Israeli? Was it because I said please? How un-Israeli of me. Maybe she noticed my Gap khakis? Or maybe it was just my accent. As much as I improve my Hebrew, I’ll always be viewed as an immigrant.

Lately I’ve felt a strange contrast here in Jerusalem. On one hand, I feel completely at home, more at home than I felt even in America. But on the other hand, I feel that in so many day-to-day situations I’m standing outside peeking into the window of Israeli life.

In an attempt to escape from the English-speaking womb I’ve been nestled in since my aliyah, I’ve made some changes over the last several months.

The first step was to make an effort to improve my language skills. So I’ve been practicing every morning in a five-hour-a-day, state-sponsored Hebrew-language class for the last four months.

But I wanted not only to learn Hebrew grammar and vocabulary in the morning, I wanted a! chance to use my Hebrew in real-world situations. This was also the a dvice that I got from every immigrant that I know who has become fluent in Hebrew. At some point, they all had to immerse themselves.

So I began attending an Israeli yeshiva every afternoon. I knew a few Americans who had successfully integrated into the yeshiva’s Hebrew program with great results. I would see them sometimes around town with their Israeli friends, speaking freely, laughing loudly and looking very Israeli. I couldn’t figure out exactly what made them seem more Israeli, but whatever it was, I wanted it.

Over the last four months, spending four to five hours every day interacting with Israelis, I see the differences much clearer.

Despite their loud and tough exterior, there is a real honestly and sweetness to them. The comparison of an Israeli to a sabra, a desert cactus that is sharp on the outside but sweet on the inside, actually is well deserved. Overall, I have been shocked to find them more kind and genuine than me.

For example, the other da! y two men who apparently hadn’t seen each in a while greeted each other with a huge hug, then kissed each other on the cheek. One then put his hands on his friend’s face. These were such loving and genuine gestures, unlike anything I had ever seen before between two male friends.

In general, Israelis seem more hands-on.

It’s uncommon to go through any conversation of significant length without being touched on your hand or shoulder. Often, two friends passing each other in the hall will make some contact, whether a pat on the pack or a playful tickle.

It took me aback at first, but I’m warming up to their caring gestures.

I pondered the reason for their affection and closeness.

Israelis don’t grow up in big suburban houses with white picket fences separating one family from another. They don’t come from a culture of respecting “personal space.”

Instead, they embody the attitude of “what’s mine is yours.” While a beautiful idea, it’s also very foreign ! to me.

But these Israelis also are veterans of the army, and that has influenced them too. Along with their sweetness and genuineness, there is also a toughness and distance that I’ve sensed in them.

Every night, I usually stay at the yeshiva for the simple Israeli-style dinner. I try to avoid sitting with my American friends, even though they too will speak Hebrew with me. With them I can always fall back on English, and I don’t want that option.

But when I sit with the Israelis, I find myself acting uncharacteristically shy. Sure, I recognize them and they recognize me, but we don’t really know each other.

I generally don’t start a conversation, though I usually introduce myself. Usually, I just find myself sitting there and listening, trying to understand their jokes or follow their conversations.

Sometimes they look at me with a hard stare as if say, “What, are you just sitting there eavesdropping?”

I look down at my sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. I’m so intimidated, not only because they speak so fast, but also becaus! e there is something there that is intangibly different that I will never quite get a grip on.

One recent night I was the only non-native Israeli sitting at a table of eight. One guy started by speaking to me in Hebrew: “Pass me the . . . ” he started, then said the word “jam” in English with a poor imitation of a Southern accent.

“Jam” must be a funny word for Hebrew speakers, because the rest of the table really got a kick out of his question. I tried to laugh along as well, thinking that this was their way of trying to relate to me.

I answered back in Hebrew, “Sure, here’s the jam,” I said, using a real Southern accent, the one I picked up going to college in Tallahassee, Fla.

But no one laughed.

The rest of the meal people kept asking me for the “jam,” and every time it would bring a few chuckles. I guess it was an inside joke, but I didn’t feel like an insider. I still felt like an onlooker peeking in the window, despite how much I wanted that barrie! r to disappear.

I think there must be things that I bring as an Am erican that can add to the richness of the culture here: saying “excuse me” when I bump into someone, greater use of “please” and “thank you,” the patience to not to cut in front of others in the grocery line.

I’m glad I can bring these qualities to Israel, but I can’t help but want what I’ll never acquire.

I’ll never be able to speak without an accent, I’ll never remember all the abbreviations on my bank statement. I am an immigrant, and will always be looked at as one. I never will be truly Israeli.

But maybe one day I’ll be the one surprising an American bystander with a heartfelt gesture.

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