I am an immigrant in my own country. Although born in the United States, I did not speak a word of English until age five. This greatly upset my American grandmother who could not even speak to her first grandson. My parents, however, wanted me to be truly bilingual, so they enforced a strict Hebrew-only policy. Today, some of my friends tease me for a slight accent in my English. I don’t mind. My idiosyncrasy allows me to have the confidence to be outside the mainstream.
More than just speaking a different language, I spend my summers in a different land. I have huddled in the basement of my Israeli grandparents’ house, hearing missiles whistling overhead during the 2006 Lebanon War. I have traveled into disputed territory and peacefully discussed soccer videos with Palestinians. I have experienced how self-sufficient teenagers can be in one of the most dangerous places in the world. In Israel, preteens set up their own potluck barbecues and even take vacations without their parents. In the United States freedom usually comes only with a driver’s license, and even then, there is a curfew.
Spending my summers in Israel has given me an appreciation for the land’s incredible history and a yearning to understand my ancestors’ story. Last summer I volunteered at the Historical Archive in my father’s hometown of Tiberias. I helped digitize documents and photographs from the 1700s through modern times. When I stumbled across a picture of the 1950s “Tent City” where my grandparents lived after emigrating from Iraq, goose bumps emerged on my skin. I anxiously searched through the pictures, trying to find more pieces of my family history, but no such luck.
Beyond my interest in historical research, Israel has given me a different perspective on life. My Israeli family and friends give off a relaxed and passionate vibe. One moment, they argue about politics or the best coffee. Seconds later, they enfold their opponent in a benevolent embrace. Through the intensity of life, Israelis find joy and laughter and manage to tease me about how stressed Americans are. It’s true. Now, a daily goal of mine is to keep a sense of balance and bring back the loose Israeli vibe to California.
Living in two worlds drives me to engage with other cultures. I’m fascinated hearing the stories of other families, like mine, that have struggled to survive. After experiencing firsthand the misperceptions people hold about other cultures, I have learned to keep an open mind when befriending people from Switzerland to Siberia. These attributes have been a great gift of my dual heritage. Although I am a true American at heart, I hope to always keep my immigrant spirit alive.
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