An Israeli father in New York

Jerusalem-born Udi Sommer researches the experience of being an immigrant parent.

April 30, 2010 19:40
3 minute read.
Home but away.

udi sommer book 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Home But Away

By Udi Sommer | 215 pages | NIS 88

Psychologist Udi Sommer recalls the day his daughter, not yet six, drew a distinction between their identities, announcing that her father was Israeli and she was American.

They were walking near Central Park on their way to school, and Sommer remarked that she was lucky to live near a park that people from around the world came to see. “Because I’m a New Yorker and you’re an Israeli,” she said.

Resolving to understand and work through the disconnect, Sommer, 35, an assistant professor of political science at the State University of New York, threw himself into a new research project: understanding the experience of immigrant parents, including himself. Home But Away: The Experience of Immigrant Parents, which focuses on the experience of Israeli immigrants in major cities across the US, is Sommer’s finished project.

“Parenting brings to the surface this identity crisis. When their kids ask them who they are and they have to answer, are they Israelis or Americans or something in between?” Sommer explained. But the tension allows parents to work through the question of identity, he said: “It allows parents a place or a way to work through their identify crisis, and find a place in the middle.”

Before launching his project, Sommer reviewed the literature and found that most research focused on children, not parents. Over breakfast on the Upper West Side, a few miles from where he lives with his two young children, Sommer, who grew up in Jerusalem and whose wife is also Israeli, described the inevitable overlap between his work and life.

Although the topic was personal – “It’s what I’m experiencing on a day-to-day basis,” he said – Sommer adhered to strict research methods. “I was in the same boat as my interviewees,” he said. “This caused, on the one hand, some serious challenges, because it was very tempting to talk to people,” to share his own stories. But, he noted, “Then, it wouldn’t be their story. It would be mine.”

At the same time, he said there were some benefits. “The fact that I had the ability to more closely understand, from my own experience, some of the stuff that people talked about,” he said.

For his book, Sommer crisscrossed the US, where he moved to in 2003, speaking to Israeli parents of different ages, socioeconomic positions and levels of religious observance.

But some of the best examples of his observations were closer to home, and he said his daughter’s experience changed his perceptions. Several years ago, he went with friends to Yom Kippur services at a progressive synagogue that offered a very different type of service than he was used to. He was reluctant to return for Ne’ila, but when he did, his daughter participated in a moving children’s service.

“They took the kids to the basement and sang songs in Hebrew,” he recalled. “For her, she felt it was an American experience. For me, it was very meaningful because she was so excited.”

Sommer said it was a spiritual experience, and more. “It was really, really moving seeing it through her eyes and feeling it through her emotions, and all of a sudden feeling like I belong in a place where she belongs,” he said.

Most immigrant parents experience tension with their assimilated American children. In his book, Sommer describes a couple devastated by the Christmas tree their children had (but hid) in their house. “They felt totally horrible,” Sommer said.

While the tensions and prophesies are “ever present,” Sommer said among his interview subjects, those who were in their 70s and 80s felt a sense of accomplishment. “They knew who they were, they felt connected to their kids. [They] felt the right balance between assimilation and maintaining identity,” he said.

Sommer is cautious about making generalizations when it comes to his findings. But, he said, the desire to “be a good parent is a universal thing.”

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