Throughout last year, in honor of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in America, Israeli Ruth Calderon shared her observations about living as an Israeli in America and her perceptions on the complexity of American Jewish identity with Sh’ma readers. As she moved acrostically through the alphabet — America, Bank, Camp, eventually ending with “Zionism” — Calderon offered American Jews an opportunity to view their everyday experiences through an Israeli prism. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility.
AMERICA - Only those of us who were not born there call it "America." Now that I live here, the name brings on a knowing smile when pronounced with an Israeli accent. The America of my dreams was built on images impressed on me as a youngster during sultry Tel Aviv summers. It seemed like the dream of Provencal people of "the real place," while my life was a mere reflection of it, as Rome appeared to a small villager. On television and in the movies, everything in America appeared as perfect as the ideals in Plato's world. Ice cream at a Tel Aviv kiosk was simply not the same as a sundae at a diner. In America, I knew, there were places you could wear a taffeta dress. It was cold enough to cuddle up under a down blanket. Movie stars included people other than Moshe Ivgi, and there were gentiles, not just foreign workers. In America there were real seasons, each one with its unique feel: falling leaves in autumn, snow and mittens in winter, the wild blooming of spring and a real summer vacation. In America, I could celebrate the non-Jewish holidays: giving candy to a child on Halloween and eating a chocolate egg on Easter. From America, Israel appears as an unrealized ideal, not as an exhausting reality, and Israelis are still somewhat envisioned as modern-day biblical heroes. America is the ability to live with all of this and feel at home.
FLAG -- It is impossible not to notice that this country is covered with flags. I can't get used to how Americans degrade it: a flag tablecloth, a pair of clogs -- the left in stripes, the right in stars -- and flag bathing suits. If someone in Israel wore a blue and white bathing suit with a Star of David, he would probably end up in the hospital, if not in court.
I ask myself: what are Americans trying to prove? Who are they trying to convince? Is there such a great lack of confidence in America's nationalism that so many flags must be displayed? Nationalism has been suspect ever since the Second World War. National identity remains, but with a tinge of ambivalence. To an intellectual Israeli, flying a flag seems like a vulgar, unrefined, and dangerous activity. It raises suspicions of sacrificing the individual's identity to the masses of the nation.
Last year, at a lecture in a synagogue sanctuary, the speaker stood between the Israeli flag, on a mast topped with a Star of David, and the American flag, on a mast topped with an eagle. To an Israeli, an eagle is a symbol that the Roman Empire wanted placed in the Temple to demonstrate their rule over the Jews. In Israeli public school, I learned about our refusal to submit to the eagle; Jewish independence and national honor depended on it.
I found it difficult to concentrate on the lecture. Viewing the two flags, I began to understand that American Jews do not believe that their acceptance of the imperial identity makes them less Jewish and, to my surprise, after the initial shock, I agreed. Now I see the beauty in American patriotism -- how it coexists with independent cultural identities in positive and non-threatening ways. The stars and stripes serve mainly as the rules of the game and the government refers to itself without embarrassment as an administration. Public servants are perceived not as prophets or thinkers but as people of action. There could be something to this.
JERUSALEM – America chooses to see Jerusalem as it was on the seventh day of the Six Day War. Although the media is full of images to the contrary, Americans are reluctant to let go of the dream of the heroic Jerusalem found in prayerbooks and hagadot. Where is the view of present-day Jerusalem – the hardscrabble city that is becoming ultraorthodox, victimized by terror, a city full of poverty whose center is fighting for its life, devoid of citizens and tourists alike? America holds on to the old Jerusalem as a husband who sees in his aged wife only his youthful bride.
ZIONISM — After three years, having enjoyed the best delights of America while also acknowledging its challenges, I long for home — for the bright blue light, simple belonging, being immersed in Hebrew, to once again be part of the majority, for constant creative midrashim on Jewish customs, concepts, and values, which are ever-present while not intrusive. I miss seeing people without calendaring them into my palm pilot weeks in advance. I long for my memories. I crave the smaller dimensions of everything — my Vespa instead of the N.J. Transit, boutiques instead of the Gap, and knowing that America is just across the ocean.