The first time I heard a friend's parents speak - my jaw dropped. They spoke the same as us kids, the same accent and the same intonation! Until then I had thought that parents and people of my parents' age, all spoke with - what I later learned was - an East European accent. It was then that the realization sank into me that unlike my parents - I was American.
In the second grade a new girl came to our school Daniel Boone Elementary Public School. She was fresh from Poland – and spoke no English. Must I tell you that no teacher spoke Polish? After all – aren't they all supposed to know English (I later found the same attitude in the now-defunct USSR, when an Intourist agent in Alma Ata asked me in which grade did US kids start learning Russian). So they called for me, the only kid in the school with a kipa, not even thinking of calling my mother who was from Poland! Obviously my mother wasn't considered Polish, but Jewish, which is something altogether different.
"Can you talk to this girl in 'Jewish'?" they asked me. I admit – I felt important, but I didn't know all that much "Jewish". I said I would ask my dad and try it after lunch. So I asked my dad how to say "Do you speak Hebrew?" You see, I knew that Yiddish was my parents' language, for when the "kinder" shouldn't understand, but although I didn't know much, I did know for sure that the language of the Jews was Hebrew. Of course the girl didn't know any Hebrew, and the teachers – who had intended me to try Yiddish - didn't know that I hadn't spoken Yiddish. But it made me wonder, and realize: I'm not like all those other kids at Boone School.
Later – in the sixth grade, when I had already transferred to a Jewish day school - for some reason we had this big fight in social studies class: are we American Jews or are we Jewish Americans. Fighting with all the passion I could muster I declared that I was a Jewish American, meaning, as I explained, that I was Jewish first and American second. Someone took the trouble and kindness to explain to me that although I meant well – I was saying the opposite. "If you mean to say you're a Jew living in America, then you're an American Jew. If you're an American of Jewish persuasion – then it's the opposite. Turning red I sheepishly admitted that I was an American Jew. That taught me that being first wasn't always the most important thing.
By the time I was in high school I knew how to define myself clearly: I wasn't really an American in any meaningful way. Rather - I am a Jew, who through no fault of my own was born in Chicago, a Cubs fan (I hear the groans and smiles of sad sympathy, but you see - being a Cubs fan prepared me for life in Israel, because it taught me loyalty in the face of adversity!) My real home was in Israel. Once I would have the chance – I would return home, to the Holy Land of Israel. It was then that I decided to make Aliyah, sight un-seen, love at first non-sight. As my parents were escorting me to the plane, they looked at me a little worriedly and asked: "You are coming home, right?" I knew that I wasn't going to return to the US anymore, but I sweetly smiled at them and said: "Yes, I'm going home!"
Why am I telling you all this? Because when it comes to life in Israel – we have to be able to define ourselves clearly: who we are, what we are, what we dream of building in our lives as individuals and even more – as the Jewish state of Israel. If we can't explain to ourselves what it means to be living here, in the Holy Land, in the state of Israel – how will we be able to explain it to anyone else in the world?
To be continued….