April 19, 2010 | 3:30 pm
Posted by Mihal Levy
If a person is born in America, raised in America and English is his/her first language doesn’t that make
me American? Well, logically - yes. But in reality, not at all. Let me explain.
My parents were FOPs (Fresh Off the Plane) in the 70’s and landed in, of all places - Hollywood, of course (well, first Westchester-LAX and then ended up in Hollywood). Fast forward to the birth of their firstborn, a daughter, a year after their arrival. Still FOPs, only now with a newborn - an American newborn nonetheless. Hebrew is their first language. English their third or fourth (right after Yiddish, Polish, Romanian). They raise their daughter speaking Henglish (a combination of Hebrew and English). Luckily for the daughter, she is able to pronounce the “th” sound naturally, not found in the Hebrew language (and completely unprounounceable by almost any Israeli I have ever met). Unluckily for their daughter, however, a supposed native English speaker, she attends her first year of formal education at the age of four, pronouncing banana - “Bon-Non-Ahh.” And pegged an outsider from that moment on in both her native birthplace of Hollywood and her virtual one of Israel.
That little girl was me (in case you hadn’t figured it out by now). The journey has not been easy. And entering elementary school with an accordian-fold briefcase book carrier while everyone else had backpacks did not make it any easier (of course they were not rolling backpacks back in the day, but the kind you actually wore on your back - go figure). Lunches with hummus pitas (see my previous story - The Great Lunch Divide) didn’t help me fit in either.
When friends would come over to my house, they would say things like “how do you understand your parents? I don’t know what they are saying.” Of course I understood them…what they were saying, anyway. My friends didn’t understand the whole breakfast for dinner concept or why my parents spoke to me in Hebrew when they were upset. So, I thought maybe I should get some Israeli friends.
So began my quest in my early teen years when it finally hit me….like an overwhelming spray of Drakkar Noir sprayed directly into my nostrils. (For those unaware of the ‘chosen’ cologne for the Middle Eastern population, you now know: good ol’ Drakkar.)
I quickly found my friends by following the strong stench of the cologne. And if that was not enough to identify them, there were the beepers (now I am really dating myself) permanently attached to their hips…not to mention get-rich-quick schemes they or their parents were involved in, like opening a booth at the swap meet or a cart selling junk at the mall. At the time these were the things I could relate to because of my parents’ friends (thankfully, my parents never got involved in the get-rich-quick schemes…but I’m sure they thought of it).
I thought this is probably where I belonged. I liked the food. I spoke the language. I knew the ins and outs of it all…but I was American…only my American friends didn’t think so and my Israeli friends didn’t think I was Israeli. I couldn’t win.
I later thought that maybe it was because I should actually be in Israel. I was sure I would be happier in Israel, so we went on family vacations many summers. And those were always a nightmare…besides the great food, fun nightlife and the ability to speak the language, it was always tough. Store clerks would yell at me when I would ask a simple question like, “What do you mean?” in Hebrew with a perfectly good accent, or ask the store clerk to help me count my change because I didn’t understand you could have half of a cent, and what did that look like. They looked at me like I was slow. I always had to explain that I wasn’t from “here.” They would shrug and laugh and I can never forget one store clerk in Tel Aviv who said, “Yeah, right, you are from Hollywood?” I nodded and said yes, but didn’t realize she was actually mocking me. They didn’t believe it. I had the Israeli name, the FOP clothes and the accent. My name was great growing up and turned into Mee Haul over the years, so began the U-Haul jokes and more. Fun, fun. Why couldn’t I have had the name Jane? Jill? It would’ve made my life that much easier, but I digress…
Then there was my large extended family in Israel that I would visit in the summers. They never understood why I spoke to my parents or brother in English while we were vacationing in the Holy Land. Was I hiding something? Keeping secrets from them? No, that was my native language. That is what I spoke at home. I even explained that I thought in English and dreamed in English and the translation got lost somewhere between my brain and my mouth every time I tried to express a thought in Hebrew. No matter how much I always tried to defend myself, there was some misunderstanding that got lost in translation. (I am sure until this day there is at least one cousin or aunt/uncle that is still holding a grudge for something I had no idea I had even done.)
So, I finally realized that I was just not meant to fit in L.A. or Tel Aviv and have since gracefully accepted my fate. (I’m still wondering why trips to Italy years ago made me feel more welcome than my “homeland.” But that is a whole other blog.)
So, happy birthday to a country that has thoroughly made my life all the more difficult. Happy early birthday to my mom as well (who’s as old as a country - Israel) for not making it any easier on me. Israel, despite what you have put me through quite often…I still honor you and what you stand for; the holy Mecca for many religions and vast cultures. Wishing you peace; happy birthday and a million more. And today I celebrate you in my Isramerican way by eating falafel and apple pie.
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