Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Defining moments in the Diaspora

I have spent a fair amount of time during the last week-and-a-half reflecting on our recent trip, thinking about various moments and highlights, mentally rehashing certain experiences as one often does after returning from vacation. There were two events in particular that stand out, each one positively reinforcing my connection to Israel, yet so different from one another. The first one occurred during our flight from Atlanta to Sarasota. I was beyond exhausted, having not slept much on the flight from Israel, and having successfully navigated US customs and Atlanta's massive airport, not to mention successfully keeping the Little One entertained enough so that he fell asleep in my arms shortly before boarding the plane. The flight was full, and our seatmate waited patiently while I got the Little One settled, carefully propping him against the pile of blankets I'd managed to acquire and stack against the window. He even offered to move to another seat so that we'd have more room, and after I assured him that this would be unnecessary, we fell into the usual airplane banter that is so often marked by the knowledge that, in all likelihood, you will never see the person again, nor will you even go so far as to exchange names. He asked where we were from, which inevitably defined the direction our conversation would take, for our seatmate turned out to be a card-carrying member of the unconditional-love-for- Israel Christian right (and a firefighter to boot, which of course led to the Little One – once he woke up – referring to our seatmate as Sam).

What began as an ordinary, in-flight conversation with a stranger led to a fascinating exchange of ideas and experiences as he shared his convictions and I told him about life in Israel. He's never been here, but desperately wanted to visit, to see his belief system come alive, to see that which he'd only heard about, to commune with history. He told me of his great respect and love for Ariel Sharon and shared his opinions about Israel's current state of affairs vis a vis her neighbors. As a result of his religious beliefs, I actually found him to be more "pro-Israel" than many of the Israelis I know, and certainly more in favor of many of Israel's policies than I am. Despite his unwavering attitude that Israel could seemingly do no wrong, it was more than a little refreshing to meet someone who "got it", someone who didn't force me to defend my country, someone who understood that Israelis are not warmongering aggressors out to take over the region, and that neighboring countries are not simply innocent victims of Israeli aggression, that the situation is far more complex than many would have you believe.

The hour-long flight passed quickly and pleasantly, and while I desperately wanted our long journey to end, I was also a little sorry when this particular segment was over. I had enjoyed the company of our seatmate, who disappeared as we were getting ourselves ready to get off the plane. While we obviously didn't agree on every point (after all, living here on a daily basis, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to love my country unconditionally), and had we discussed other hot topics we might have come to blows, when it came down to it, I liked the guy. It was nice to talk to someone who passionately loved Israel instead of passionately hating it. I suddenly felt that maybe it wasn't so crazy to live here, that there are indeed those who do not believe that we should not exist, or even not have a right to exist. Despite my exhaustion, I was pleased that I had managed to stay awake during the flight and engage an anonymous young firefighter in conversation.

Israel's Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror fell towards the end of our trip. It felt strange knowing that I wouldn't be commemorating it in Israel, as I don't believe I've ever missed it in all of my years living here. For me, the day is special, a day of reflection and remembrance, a day when I feel connected to my fellow citizens as we collectively go through a state of mourning, even though it is one that has, to some extent, been imposed upon us (see Lisa's Memorial Day posts here and here, with the latter including a brief video taken during the siren). I imagine it would have been especially poignant this year, given that it would have been the first Memorial Day following the war last summer, and I wondered how I would commemorate the day while in the Diaspora. I was pleased when I discovered that the local Jewish Federation (in conjunction with another Israel-related group) would be holding a ceremony to commemorate Israel's Memorial Day. It was interesting to observe, as those in attendance were mostly from two distinct groups – elderly American Jews who have retired to Florida, and young Israelis and their families who had left Israel, but had chosen to remain connected. The program was led by the local Israeli emissary, and aside from one bizarre, rather long-winded rant given by one of the elderly American Jews (who I assume plays some prominent role in the local Jewish community), the events were rather well-done, if not a little frustrating for those who couldn't understand the Hebrew captions in the video clips that had been taken straight from Israeli television. We stood in silence, we sang meaningful songs, we watched as pictures of the fallen were projected onto the large screen at the front of the room. We said the mourners' prayer, sang Hatikvah, and then a break was taken in order to get the room ready for the next part of the evening – Israeli folk dancing and food to celebrate Israel's Independence Day, which begins at sundown at the end of Memorial Day.

I'm glad I went, but I felt a bit odd nonetheless. I felt like I didn't belong to either group in attendance, yet at the same time, I felt connected to both. To some I was Israeli, while to others I was American. I inexplicably found myself wanting to somehow let the Israelis know that I was "one of them", but was I really, or would they just have seen me as an American who lives in Israel, despite the fact that I have been here for so long, speak the language fluently, and feel that I have successfully integrated? I suppose this comes down to the very core of the expat experience, and knowing that I will always feel the draw of the other, no matter where I find myself. That night, due to the nature of the event, I imagine that I felt more connected to my Israeli side than to my American side, but given the circumstances at hand, I strangely did not feel completely at home with either. I assume this had something to do with the fact that aside from my parents and my son, I didn't really know anyone there, and no one really knew me. I did, however, run into someone I'd met before.

The last time we visited Florida was two years ago. The day after we arrived, my parents took us a beach known as South Lido Park. While we were unwrapping our sandwiches, two people approached from the parking lot, staking out the tables next to ours. As luck would have it, the people were speaking in Hebrew. Within about twenty minutes, we found ourselves exchanging pleasantries with a group of 15-20 Israelis and their partners/families, all of whom, live in Sarasota. It was a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon (and, incidentally, the only time during our entire stay that I felt comfortable nursing the Little One in public, knowing that those around me wouldn't look at me strangely, or even look at me at all), as we all chatted and laughed, and even drank Turkish coffee, which they had in abundant supply. Apparently, we made quite an impression, as one of the women in attendance (an American married to an Israeli) at the Memorial Day ceremony remembered having met me on the beach, two years ago. So very Israeli.


Life Out East said...

I confess, I'm a miserable old git when on a plane. I make every effort to get a seat away from others and usually try to avoid conversation. I enjoy flying but the thought of being stuck with someone who wants to talk for twelve hours is too much. Having said that I've had a few conversations on flights recently that have been OK.

RR said...

So very Israeli, indeed! What a great story!

I imagine it must have been a bit weird celebrating Yom Hazikaron in chul, after living here for so long.