I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

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“F*ck the Bourgeoisie”: In Which I Infiltrate a Socialist Gathering

Yesterday some friends took me to the annual conference co-sponsored by the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and by the International Socialist Organization. The conference is called, quite simply, Socialism 2012.

Now. I am not in any way, shape, or form a socialist. However, I’ve always been curious why that particular political affiliation carries such a stigma, especially in the United States. I’ve met quite a few people over the years who sympathize with Marx or with other socialist thinkers and keep those sympathies meticulously secret.

In my own life, socialism has been presented to me as Very Very Bad and Very Stupid. I have parents from the former Soviet Union, after all. Whatever value socialism may or may not hold, I will never, ever begrudge them for hating it, because it (however inadvertently) turned so many people’s lives into a living hell all over the world.

(Yes, yes, I know that wasn’t “real” socialism. But it’s pretty hard for people to stay objective when their friends and family are dying, so I’m not going to be the asshole who minimizes their suffering by telling them that.)

That said, I generally prefer to learn and experience things for myself. I don’t buy for a second the argument that one should stay away from these things for fear of being “brainwashed,” which I’ve heard many times before. In fact, I’m actually pretty insulted when people tell me that. I think everyone should know by now that if there’s only one thing I’m good at, it’s thinking for myself.

So, let it be known that I did not come back from this conference a changed woman. I’m not any more a socialist today than I was two days ago.

What I do have is a new appreciation for socialists and for the spaces they create. It must be nice to belong to a collective like socialism. Everyone there seemed to know each other, and I saw people from all walks of life–young people like me, middle-aged respectable-looking people, aging college professors. There were people of all shapes and colors. Tons of queer people. People with various interesting hairstyles. Aside from the issue of their politics, I felt somewhat at home.

I went to a talk on Marxism and queer theory, which, amazingly, I understood most of. While this is nothing all that different from something I might come across in a class at school, there is nonetheless something special about the fact that hundreds of people got together to talk about this on a Friday night. Not for a grade. Not for their resume. Certainly not for social approval, since going to a conference on socialism is pretty far down on the list of things people do to fit in.

The most amazing part of it, to me, was that I had entered the sort of space that I consider sacred–a space in which “serious” discussion is the norm, not the exception. A space in which it’s normal, upon first meeting someone new, to ask them about their views on a particular political issue. A space in which nobody thinks you’re weird if you’re checking out the bookstore and freaking out with your friends about all the great books you’re finding. A space in which politics is something to get emotional about, something to loudly, clearly express your emotions about, whether by cheering, clapping, hissing, booing, shaking your head, snapping your fingers, or putting your fist up in the air.

And I, who have been told ever since childhood to “calm down” and “stop getting so emotional about it” and “go get a life,” felt comfortable among these people with whom I otherwise disagree quite strongly.

That disagreement, which lurked beneath my consciousness for most of the time I was there, surfaced strongly during a break between talks, when people were chanting. Most of the chants were exactly of the sort that you’d expect–one amusing one went like this: “One, two, three! Fuck the bourgeoisie! Four, five, six! Fuck the bourgeoisie!” And so on.

But then there was a chant that repeated the word “Intifada” over and over. I don’t remember exactly how it went because I tend to block these things from memory somewhat. I’m Israeli by birth, and Israel is something I almost never write about for various personal reasons. My stance on the issue is even-keeled and probably in line with that of most American liberals and progressives and so on. That said, I will tell you that it is incredibly alienating and deeply painful to hear a room full of people chanting something that, to you, could mean the deaths of friends and family. I know that’s not what it means to Palestinians. And it’s especially not what it means to white American socialists. But that is what Intifada means to me.

I know where they’re coming from. I’m quite well-versed in the “terrorist as freedom fighter” line of thought. They’re entitled to their opinion as I am to mine. But shouting something like this seems gauche and callous, like chanting “USA! USA!” when America invades another country, or like gathering to watch a public execution as entertainment. I’m choosing to believe, though, that these people are well-intentioned and believe that what they are chanting about is some convoluted form of peace.

This is not a political statement. This is not a statement about equivalency, who’s right and who’s wrong, whose land it is, who committed more war crimes and human rights violations, etc. This is a statement that is entirely moral: I believe it’s wrong to glorify killing innocent people, no matter to what end.

And, just for the record, I’ve been in countless pro-Israel spaces before, including an AIPAC conference, and I’ve never heard an equivalent sort of chant there. I’m sure it happens, but I’ve never seen it. And when it does happen, whatever the setting, I would find it as disgusting and wrong as I found this Intifada chant.

In any case, I was determined not to let that spoil the whole evening. It was a reminder, though, that it’s not only my lack of socialist politics that ultimately makes me unwelcome there. It’s something as incidental as the circumstances of my birth.

It would be nice if, someday, I find a group with this sort of energy and passion that I do actually agree with. But I’ve long given up seeking a spiritual, political, or cultural home anywhere.

For now, it’s enough to occasionally go to things like this–and things like Pride and Occupy Chicago and Friday night Shabbat dinners–and witness other people experiencing that feeling that I want so badly for myself.

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming

American on the Outside

[TMI Warning]

Lately I’ve noticed that when I talk to people about my national identity, they tend to assume that I consider myself American. For instance, I’ll say that I’m Russian and Israeli, and they’ll add “and American” without any prompting from me. I keep wondering why this is, and it brings up some interesting issues about immigration and that whole thing.

I suppose the “ideal” of immigration is that you come to a new country, become a citizen, and renounce your prior ethnic identity. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, many European immigrants who came to the United States did just that. For this reason, most people in the United States today call themselves “Americans,” despite the fact that, except for Native Americans, there really isn’t such a thing as an “American.”

However, I have to admit that I don’t fall into this pattern. My heart just isn’t here. It’s back home in Israel. And although I may “look” like a normal American–I dress, eat, speak, and entertain myself like one–my worldview and way of interacting with people certainly aren’t. For instance, like most Russians, I tend to show off my knowledge and intelligence rather than hiding it, and like most Israelis, I tend to be blunt and open about my beliefs and opinions rather than toning them down a notch like Americans do. For this reason, Americans tend to see me as conceited and overly opinionated, whereas Russians and Israelis never do. After all, the cultural norms are just different. Russians don’t show off their intelligence because they think they’re better than others; rather, they simply don’t have a culture that shames and belittles smart people. In the United States, the assumption tends to be that if you’re acting smart and using lots of big words, you’re probably full of yourself, because if you weren’t, you’d keep that side of yourself hidden like everyone else does.

Similarly with the whole opinion thing. In Israel, if you’re not sharing your opinions, you’re weird. In the US, you’re polite. I always found it funny how things like religion and politics are almost considered “taboo” topics in the US. After all, they’re so interesting and generate so many great discussions, so why wouldn’t people want to talk about them? Americans, unlike Israelis, shy away from any sort of conflict and confrontation. I’ve met plenty of people here who disagree with me, but very few who will actually admit it.

Those are just two examples. Obviously, I could go on and on. I’m reminded of my status as a foreigner every time friends reminisce about American kids’ shows that I never saw or a popular band from the 70s that their parents made them listen to, but mine didn’t. I’m reminded of it every time I find that I can’t stomach a particular American food (hamburger and hot dog buns, the combination of sweet and salty, pork ribs), and every time I look at the culture around me and find it, quite frankly, appalling (the media’s influence on eating disorders, the virgin/whore dichotomy for women, and so on). Although I’ve learned to “act American” for the most part, there are many aspects of my personality that I refuse to let go of, and they mark me as an outlier in this particular culture.

In short, I don’t think that the fact that I’ve ended up living in the United States due to circumstances beyond my control automatically makes me an American. I’m not even a citizen, for starters, and the only reason I’m going to stay here after I graduate is because I’ve learned how to survive here and don’t want to learn it all over again in Israel. I am a Russian Israeli living in America. Not an American.

Why I Chose Humanistic Judaism

[This is cross-posted from the Interfaith at Northwestern blog, which I was asked to contribute a post for. :)]

When I was a kid, I was absolutely convinced that God exists. I prayed all the time, in fact. Sometimes it was for the silly sorts of stuff that kids worry about; sometimes it was for things like having my parents come home safe and sound from a trip.

My parents come from the former Soviet Union, where religious expression of any kind was strongly discouraged. As a result, they were never religious or observant at all, so they were pretty surprised that I was. I encouraged them to light Shabbat candles and take me to the synagogue on Friday nights, and they bought me a children’s Bible and an encyclopedia about Judaism.

As a teenager, I began questioning things much more. I loved science and therefore had a lot of trouble taking the Bible at its word, but I was still open to the idea of being Jewish in a traditional way. The summer after my junior year of high school, however, everything changed.

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