Identity Crisis

By: Efrat Malachi  |  October 19, 2017

About 2000 years ago, the Jewish people were sent into exile. Since then, we’ve been scattered across the earth and forced to learn how to integrate ourselves into the societies and cultures that encompass us. Consequently, some Jewish people are plagued with confusion and apathy towards their identities, and slowly start to lose their religious identities.

I grew up in an Israeli household. My parents are full-fledged Israelis and my grandparents are from Yemen, but I am fully absorbed into American society. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, I’ve encountered many internal conflicts as to how to lead my life on a spiritual and cultural level. Since I was a little girl, I’ve posed many questions relating to my religious and general identity. What am I? Who am I? The varying customs and attitudes that circle my life have only created a whirlwind of insecurities and uncertainties. Where should my focus be and my allegiance lie? Am I an Israeli girl with an American accent because I grew up in America, and was always too shy to speak in Hebrew at home with my Israeli parents? Or am I an American girl who rocks out to an Israeli playlist, eats her mom’s exceptional, homemade Israeli food in class, and doesn’t care what others think because I’m just “zoremet” (easygoing)? Or am I a Yemenite girl who doesn’t know much about her ancestors and the preservation of their rich, authentic Jewish life back in Yemen, but pretends to be conscious of it all and is incredibly proud of it nonetheless?

It’s not easy bouncing back and forth between these three worlds, but the prime conflict lies between the American and Israeli ones. What’s most difficult is trying to incorporate the two into my everyday life, and trying to juggle appreciating and respecting both identities properly. As an American, I comply with the unspoken rules for everything that seem to exist, as a good abiding citizen should. What I’ve concluded is that the nature of Americans is that of order and structure. People here mostly seem put together, with their careers in one hand and a Starbucks coffee in the other. My character matches up almost perfectly with that of a true American: organized, proper, and free-thinking. Occasionally, though, I feel guilty being an American-Israeli because I have the privilege of living with so many opportunities and freedoms in this country, while escaping all the obligations of living in Israel (like serving in the IDF), unlike all my cousins.

In this regard, I feel only half Israeli because I’ve never done my part and contributed or sacrificed anything for Israel, like true Israeli citizens have. I don’t have a sharp awareness of my country and sense of responsibility weighing on my shoulders from birth, like many Israelis do. At times, suddenly, I feel the tides turn, though, and the American side of me doesn’t seem to fit in so comfortably anymore. There are moments in which I say things that are unreasonable within America’s social norms but are completely acceptable in Israeli society. Moreover, I often whip out an Israeli phrase or slang word without even noticing the blank stares I get from all directions because people don’t understand what I’m saying. It’s simply instinctive and I can’t help it.

Another notable facet of Israeli culture is the friendliness; anyone can be considered a part of an Israeli’s friend group. They go even further, and will invite you over for a “mangal” (BBQ) with dozens of various dips and salads along with a music that can blast your eardrums. Israelis exude the perfect kind of warmth you need on a winter’s day along with good, friendly vibes surrounding them.

For Israelis, it’s all about family and enjoying life to the fullest. These are the values I take pride in as an Israeli. Now, because of these two distinct mentalities, I experience a rift in my life between both worlds. On the one hand, my heart is welcoming to all and I’m flexible with my schedule, as an Israeli, but on the other hand, I lean towards a more methodical and rigid lifestyle, as an American. Even though these cultures are different in major ways, it’s the small, silly things that occupy my mind and decisions as well, for example, should I ask for hummus or ketchup on my sandwich? Should I go out with my friends or with my parents? Should I bargain and argue a bit (inject some chutzpa into every conversation) or simply accept things as they are and walk away?

Over time, I have found an answer to these questions, and to the dilemma at large. Based on my experiences, I have come to believe that the American and Israeli ways of life complement one another. They each bring something unique to the table; while Americans have a vision and a plan, the Israelis guide its fruition and execute those plans. Basically, America plans the party and Israel starts the party. The Americans are the dreamers and believers while the Israelis are the initiators and leaders. They actualize potential and bring those dreams into reality. Since I was raised in both cultures, for years I’ve been trying to determine which one defines my essence and mission in life; but one day, it dawned on  me. The answer is both, not because I’m part Israeli and part American, but because I am Jewish; Judaism is the perfect fusion of the two. Not only are we huge visionaries and believers, but also leaders and a light unto the nations. We love and appreciate all foods, highly value family and friends and know how to choose our battles wisely. I am not American, modern-day Israeli or Yemenite; I am simply Jewish. I am a Jewish woman  who  has walked upon foreign soil for far too long and is ready to come back home to the land of Israel, not as a modern-day Israeli but as a Jew who truly belongs there.

The blood running through my veins is purely Jewish, and no other culture or society can contaminate it. As hard as the world has fought to see us disintegrate into the dust under their feet through assimilation, we fought back harder and stayed loyal to our identity. And even though I do joke around at times over which culture is superior, it’s all just fun and games. I really am convinced that I’m living the best of both worlds. At the end of every day, I ask myself, “who am I?” and “am I acting accordingly with who I am?” and although the answer is deep, its truth runs even deeper in me and you and in all of us.