Back in America for Now

For those who don’t know, I’m back in America for my brother’s wedding. Congratulations Josh and Melanie! Rafi joined me, but Jeff is stuck in Israel working at Technion and on his Fulbright.

I guess I’m caught up on sleep because I’m awake at 6 am feeling well-rested (and Rafi isn’t up yet). I got over jet-lag before Rafi did, so there were a few days that I really had to over-do it on the caffeine in order to function.

So what’s it like being back in America? In some ways it’s as though I’ve never left. After the initial sort of reverse culture shock (encountering people on the street and on the bus who speak like me, look like me, and act like me, yet are fundamentally “other” if you want to get all sociological), it’s great. I know how to navigate this country.

I don’t mean give directions, which I can certainly do when people stop me on the street in my neighborhood in Israel. I mean I can be flexible and adapt to changing situations. Here’s a little anecdote that might illustrate what I mean.

When the card reader at the gas pump (in America, this Friday) didn’t work, and I had to ask the cashier to prepay the card inside. Since it’s my mother-in-law’s car, I didn’t know how much it costs to fill up the tank. So I simply asked the cashier, the man next to me in line chimed in, and we settled on a number based on the size of the car, the type of gas, and the level in the tank. (It turned out to be accurate, by the way.)

No big deal, right? Where’s the story? There isn’t one. But I simply couldn’t have done that in Israel, and it’s only partly because of the language. It’s more because I’m too busy trying to figure out how to work the gas pump in the first place.* I also get so tired of not being able to work stuff that I don’t like to ask for help and appear even more of an idiot than I feel. That only makes it worse for me, because it’s usually better to ask for help, and very much in the Israeli culture to do so, but I guess logic doesn’t always win.

*Yes, gas pumps work differently. You have to enter your identity number and vehicle number at the pump if you want to pay by credit. It’s not a major difference, but if you’re not used to it, it’s like…what am I supposed to do? What number are they looking for? Aargh, the reader timed out on me again and I have to start over!

Earlier in this post, I mentioned reverse culture shock. Here are some things that used to bug me about America that now bug me even more:

  • The materialism. Even people in America who don’t think they are materialistic…are. It’s a side effect of every need being readily filled by a product on the shelves (which is of course not a bad thing in and of itself).
  • Too much driving. Okay, this one is more the Midwest than America in general, and for sure Israelis drive (a lot!), but Americans don’t like to be inconvenienced, and of course the country is more spread out.
  • No freedom for kids. Even in the cities, where kids don’t need a car to get around, you don’t see them walking by themselves. Even at age 10 or 11, they always have to be escorted, dismissed to a parent, etc., for fear that they’ll get kidnapped or something. People, get over yourselves. You are not rich and important enough for your child to be kidnapped. Now if we were in Brazil…
  • The toilets here have only one flush. Come on, America. Really? And automatic flush toilets? They flush every time you sneeze. I guess this is a bit of “there are children starving in China” because if Americans saved water, it wouldn’t magically appear in the Sea of Galilee. Still, it annoys me a bit.
  • The lawsuit-happy culture resulting in playgrounds sucking balls. Oops, sorry about that. Let me amend: There is absolutely nothing wrong with sucking balls if that’s your thing, and it would be more entertaining than America’s playgrounds.
  • Yes, I am leaving that bullet point. It’s too funny to erase even though I would never speak like that. To certain people. Some of whom read this blog. Pretend I’m a famous comedian, okay?

Now back to serious: being back in America makes me notice, all the more, how Jews are outsiders if they take religion seriously. While working at Park I noticed it more because I met many families with children, more than the few we know from Beth El, and watched how they navigated their two worlds. There was a bit of a disconnect because being Jewish in America means being religious, and not everyone has a religious outlook on life. If you’re not religious in America, you have no choice but to distance yourself from Judaism culturally and intellectually.

But even if you’re not religious, you want to feel like you are continuing the tradition and carrying on the life cycles, and unfortunately one of those, the bar/bat mitzvah, requires an actual performance in Hebrew. And that’s how you end up in a religious school slogging away at prayers you’ve never done it in your life and never expect to do again. But from the religious point of view, there are things you have to teach, and it would be a shande if you didn’t teach them.

Of course there are plenty of kids in religious school who do want to be religious, and involved, and committed, and challenged, “and and and.” I think the religious school system does a great job serving them. I was incredibly gratified when I was leading services on the Confirmation retreat that the students knew how to daven, and they were incredibly engaged and enthusiastic not only during services but during the whole weekend.

In Israel you can be secular and Jewish, no problem, because you are not choosing between American culture and Jewish culture. You are choosing between religious and not religious, but it’s all still Jewish. As far as I know the secular schools teach Tanakh because it’s part of the country’s history. When secular Israelis move to America, they often lose a lot of their Jewish identity because there is very little purely secular Judaism here.

Secular and religious Israelis who think they have nothing in common should go live in America for a bit and see what it’s like to really have nothing in common with their neighbors.

I exaggerate slightly. It’s not that I have nothing in common with my neighbors. I wouldn’t have been able to date non-Jews in high school if I had nothing in common with them. But every time you move toward American culture, you move a bit away from Jewish culture.



2 thoughts on “Back in America for Now

  1. Great post! I do have a couple of comments. I disagree that if you are not “religious” you have no choice but to distance yourself from Judaism. You can be the head of a Jewish Federation, or Hadassah or JNF and not be religious. You can be a major philanthropist to Jewish causes, and not be religious. You can belong to a synagogue and be active in sisterhood or men’s club and hardly ever attend services. Just a few examples.

    And you can be Israeli and incredibly ignorant of Jewish religion because, to my understanding, it is not taught adequately in secular schools. You can be fluent in Hebrew but utterly ignorant of kashrut, for example. I think there is a movement to change this because people realize there is a knowlege gap.

  2. I think you are noticing a culture that revolves around the Jewish culture and America was founded on the premise of religious freedom. Brazil has a law system that is based on Catholic teachings so you have had exposure to 3 different cultures. Maybe the Brazilian one was less obvious because you really did not become so thoroughly immersed as you are in Israel. I find that Brazilian culture has a multiple personality disorder and you can throw in the struggle with being near the top of the 3rd world food chain to boot.

    So, we have auto flushing toilets. It’s because some Americans are lazy slobs when it comes to this. The automatic toilets help with dealing with “the great unwashed”. It’s an attitude problem. I would rather have an automatic machine doing its job than playing Russian roulette in a public restroom. If we could get the entire human automatically washed, that would be awesome. Then you could feel more comfortable when shaking hands…

    I am glad you are keeping your sense of humor in dealing with the cultures. It was a fun read. Ball sucking commentary is allowed in NH as always!

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