These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Staff Guest Post] Homelands

Posted on February 23, 2014 by Falynn Schmidt

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by Falynn Schmidt (Year '99-'00), Pardes staff member,
from her blog:

295564_10151636397378826_595203003_nIt’s a strange thing how quickly a year can pass, but exactly one year ago today, I boarded a plane with a freshly minted aliyah[1] visa glued in to my US passport. My three-bag allowance and I got on an average plane flight, incognito, with purposely no pomp and circumstance, and thank G/d, arrived safely in Israel 12 hours later. A retired American ex-pat volunteer from Nefesh b’Nefesh[2] met us at the airport and helped usher us into our new country of citizenship. I couldn’t help but think that my grandparents, and especially my great grandparents would have thought what I was doing was insane. For one, there was no Israel when they were my age, and for another, they worked damn hard to get to America, and here I was leaving it.

To be honest, I also thought I was insane, which is why I chose the regular plane flight to come to Israel, the one where I could hide out amongst tourists and missionaries, instead of the one designated for new immigrants, where politicians and dignitaries meet you on a red carpet and welcome you with speeches and patriotic songs. I was trying to slip in the back door so that I could slip out just as easily a year or so later. I didn’t even tell people I was getting Israeli citizenship, not the people who would be idealistic and happy for me, and not the people who would be pessimistic and berate my decision.

I came to Israel 2 ½ years ago with the intention of working for one year and then returning to the States and resuming my life as usual. I suppose that didn’t exactly happen in part because I don’t really have such thing as life as usual. During the year a few things happened that eased me into the idea of aliyah. The first was a conversation with a friend who came to Israel, supposedly for a month, and decided to make aliyah himself. When I asked him why, he said, “I just wanted to be a citizen of this country.” And that started to resonate with me. I live in a historic time where Jews are truly free to rule themselves. This hasn’t happen in thousands of years. Yes, there are loads of problems here, but they are our problems, my people’s problems, something that hasn’t happen to us in one location in millennia.

Another situation that cleared the path a bit was a conversation I had with a teacher at Pardes. I asked him if I should follow the customs of American Jews when celebrating Jewish holidays, or if I should follow the customs of Israelis, and he said Israelis. When I said, “But I don’t really live here,” he said, “Well you don’t live anywhere else.” And he was right. People ask me all the time where home is, and I have no answer. Is home the first house I remember (New Jersey)? Is it where I grew up (Florida)? Is it where I created my first home (Atlanta)? When home is nowhere, it can be anywhere, and it might as well be where you are living right now.

It is hard to explain to someone who isn’t Jewish or connected to Israel how coming here can feel like home, why it is strangely comfortable to be around people who are ostensibly strangers, and how you can adopt and even defend foreign customs as if they were your own. The best analogy is that it is like family. Of course we all like people outside our family (sometimes more than we like those in our family), and of course we don’t think we are better than people who are not in our family, and of course we could live most places in the world away from our family and be fine. But there is something about coming home, something about being with your relatives. It’s comfortable: you can speak in short-hand, tell inside jokes, eat food that reminds you of your grandmother. People just understand what you mean; they want to celebrate the holidays that are important to you; their lives flow in a similar rhythm. You understand their hand gestures, their dramatic pauses, their facial expressions.

And then the opposite is also true: you can come to Israel expecting to find Jewish America replanted here. You expect that the people who you know back home are the way people are everywhere. Aren’t American values the best values? Isn’t there such thing as common decency and right and wrong? No, you learn pretty quickly, there isn’t. People here are “rude.” They don’t value you what you value, like quiet and clean and waiting your turn. You walk down the street wondering how the complete idiot in front of you could have the absolute chutzpa to unwrap his cigarette box and throw the plastic on the ground, chain smoke those cigarettes and talk on his phone while his dog shits on the sidewalk and his girlfriend is about to fall over from her tight pleather pants and cheetah print, five-inch heals.

But just you wait. Wait until someone comes to visit who is new to the country and that person starts to complain. “I got pushed in the market today five times, and no one even said excuse me,” someone says with disdain, and you are not even sure why this is something remarkable. Of course you got pushed; it’s the shuk. Or someone tells you Israelis are rude, and you picture the guy who helped a woman carry her baby carriage up three flights of stairs, and you wonder, how could people like this be called rude? No, of course the waitress didn’t bring you the bill at the end of the meal until you asked for it because she didn’t want to rush you out of the restaurant the way they do in America. Because that would be rude. You learn to redefine what is polite and what is important.

And then it dawns on you that when others come to your country and talk about your people, you feel like they are criticizing your family, and even though you can say what you want about your family, woe to he who also chimes in. You realize that while you weren’t looking, something happened. You became more like the place where you live. You relate more to these people. They are no longer second cousins, but first.

After six months go by, and you go back to the States to visit friends and family, you catch yourself not even realizing that there was a line and wondering why some people are just standing there when you already have your food from the buffet. You may be the American when you are in Israel, but somehow when you are in America, you are just a little bit Israeli. It’s the split identity of the American oleh [3] who keeps half his heart in the Holy Land and half his heart in the Heartland. Torn in two, you become both/ and/ neither/ nor. It’s the official status stamped in your passport.

Everyone wants to know what I will do after this next six-month chapter in my life, and I do have a plan. I will need to go back to the States, perhaps for many years. And part of me wants to go back, to live amongst my family, my friends, and my stuff. But it is a smaller part than before. I have been changed by this place, by these people, by this experience. My heart lives in two halves, beats to two rhythms, as it tries to find some syncopation between them. It is the plight of the American (Israeli) Jew who lives and loves in two homelands, with two passports, with nuclear and extended family.

[1]Aliyah is the Hebrew word for “going up” or “elevating.” It is also the word used for immigrating to Israel because when you move to the Holy Land, it is as if you have elevated yourself.
[2] Nefesh B’Nefesh is an organization whose sole purpose is helping Americans and Canadians move to and become citizens of Israel. They do all the paperwork and help you through all the bureaucracy. In essence they help spoil the already privileged.
[3] Immigrant to Israel.