May 4, 2006
Where Is Home? U.S. or Israel?
One, two, tree."
"No, dad! It's one, two, thhhhreeee."
Growing up with Israeli parents in Los Angeles was often uncomfortable. I never felt completely at home. My parents were not locals, yet I was. They pronounced things differently with heavy accents: "Thhhhreeee," not, "tree!"
It was funny, but awkward. Here I was correcting my father's English. I got a real kick out of it, but deep inside I was confused. Where was home?
Every summer we would visit Israel, yet I did not feel entirely at home there either. I was a spoiled kid from ritzy Los Angeles who found Tel Aviv dirty and hot. I loved spending time with my cousins at Gordon Beach and hiking around the Negev with local Israeli summer camps. Nevertheless, during these visits, I was convinced that home was a plane ride away. Home was in Encino or Santa Monica, even LAX. Back in Los Angeles, though, the same sense of uncertainty waited for me patiently at the terminal.
My Israeli background did not usually serve as a source of pride, but rather a cause of confusion and even embarrassment. I even refused to speak Hebrew with my parents, answering in English whenever I was asked something in this foreign tongue.
Trying to blossom without roots can be very frustrating, and I would often be angry with my parents: Why were my roots so far and distant from me? In Los Angeles I lacked that deep connection to place, people and heritage. My parents sent my brothers and me to Hebrew school and surrounded us with their Israeli friends and their kids. But these efforts to create a Jewish/Israeli identity always seemed forced and unnatural to me -- as if we were trying to import roots from Israel and plant them in foreign soil.
When I turned 15, my family and I moved to Israel. The first years were hell. I didn't understand the language and even failed many of my classes. I felt frustrated and alone. How could my parents do this to me? Right when high school was getting exciting we move to this crazy country where I wake up in the night to the sound of the neighboring Arab village's misgad (mosque). In the morning, I would wake up to the sound of a donkey -- where the hell was I?
In the army, my connection with the land, the people and the country began to flourish. I was forced to question why I lived in Israel, why I served in the army -- why was I ready to die for this country? Over time, a strong sense of belonging and identity grew within me. I began to feel passionate about Israel, and six years, later I left the army as a captain commander, after stressing to hundreds of soldiers that Israel is our home and that we must fight day and night to protect her.
Now I study at Columbia University. Is it hypocritical to educate soldiers to serve their country and then get on a plane to NYC for four years? Today, I know it is not. Growing up in Los Angeles and studying in New York has broadened my mind. I am able to appreciate what other Israelis often neglect, and I don't take Israel for granted. I've worked hard to build my sense of home and reconnect to my roots, similar to the way my people have, after thousands of years, built their home and reconnected to their ancient roots in Israel. Now that I have such a connection, I am able to derive strength from it, regardless of my physical location.
It brings me both pain and joy to see Israelis in the United States searching for stability and identity, as I once did. Many are driven by economic goals and dreams; others arrive because they are sick and tired of a country that is so complex and intense.
Through my experiences, I was forced to search for the roots I felt I was lacking. Maybe other Israelis in America and other Americans in Israel are experiencing something similar. Whether I choose to live here, there, or in both countries, one thing I've learned for sure is that the search never ends.
Edoe Cohen is studying political science and economics at Columbia University, and modern Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary.