On going home again...

This is the home of some other rich Jews (ya know, the one 
designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), not my home, but I visited 
it when I was back in the US. Because I get to be a tourist now!
And that's my beautiful niece, Sarah.

This past August I went back to the US for the first time since I made aliyah in the spring of 2008. I honestly didn't know what to expect. Would buildings and cars in America suddenly seem gargantuan? Would the green scare me? Or (and this was honestly the most frightening possibility) would I go back to the US and feel so comfortable that I wouldn't want to return to Israel?

The culture shock started for me on the flight to the US. I was sitting next to an Israeli couple, and before the fasten-seatbelts signs on our Continental flight turned off, I found myself as the one better at communicating. I was the one explaining what "ginger ale" means and translating their requests for "no ice" to the stressed-out American flight attendants. Yet I felt relieved, for some reason, that I was sitting next to Israelis. I eyed the American couple in front of me-- an overweight family in sweats and t-shirts, squabbling with each other about things that seemed so trivial. The Israeli couple next to me talked with me about their feelings about religion, about aliyah, about cultural differences between Israel and America, about already missing the people we had left behind in Israel. To my surprise, I didn't want to stop speaking in Hebrew just yet. Interacting with the flight attendants in English seemed so... easy. Mechanical. They were polite but not kind; they smiled but seemed annoyed. Huh. Maybe this whole "Americans are nice" thing won't be so compelling after all.

As I waited for my transfer flight in Newark, I got a taste of what it means to be "Israeli" in the US. The former homeschooling mom (who reminded me of my own) with the blue T-Shirt LOVED Israel, in fact they celebrated the Holiday of Booths with their church! She looked at me expectantly: I was from the Holy Land. I felt like she wanted something from me, but I wasn't sure what. The reality of living in Israel feels so different from the idealized version that American Christians and even American Jews believe in. I felt like my own country, my own Israel was already being traded for the Promised Land, for some shiny myth rather than the complicated, vibrant, hilarious reality I had left behind.

On my transfer flight to my destination, I found myself (by complete coincidence) sitting next to an Israeli girl. She felt that she didn't belong in Israel and was about to end three years in the city where I grew up to travel to the Netherlands. Yet there was a kind of... commonality in our conversation, an ease of expectations, an honesty. For the next three weeks, this would be the last time I would speak Hebrew to a stranger.

During my time back in the US, I discovered a few things.

1. It was wonderful to see my family and friends. At the same time, being away from them for two years didn't matter as much as I worried it would. I was most worried about what it would be like to see my nieces and nephew-- two years in the life of a one, five, seven, and nine-year-old is a very long time. But after a bit of initial shyness, they were inviting me to go pick flowers, have tea parties, watch movies, run around, and play dress-up as much as ever before. And my one-year-old niece was just getting to know everyone, so I seemed no stranger to her than her grandfather or the dog. (Ok, so she did like the dog better.)

 The pinkies in the air make it fancy. The expression on my face makes it creepy.

2. American service people ARE nice, though their niceness feels impersonal. One of my favorite I'm-not-in-Israel-anymore moments went something like this...

BARNES AND NOBLE CHECKOUT GIRL: You're paying by credit card? Ok, let me just see some photo ID.
ME (searching in my wallet): Oh, crap... The only ID I have in English is my Israeli driver's license... and I changed my name completely when I moved to Israel, so it doesn't match any of the names on my American credit card...
BARNES AND NOBLE CHECKOUT GIRL: Oh, that's ok. I just needed to see your photo.
ME (trying to figure out this logic): Ok.... um, great! *Shows her my photo while privately thinking, freyerit!*

To be fair, the American checkout girl was simply following procedure. I used my visa, so she had to see a photo ID. Never mind that the name on the visa and the ID didn't match up. An Israeli, on the other hand, would have been very suspicious of my credit card but then would probably have lent me enough change to pay in cash. Or maybe the innocent face that gets me through mall security with barely a swipe of the metal detecting wand also works in the US.

Oh, and a word to the wise: never try to give extra change to American checkout people so that they can give you fewer coins in return.  In Israel, if I give 20 shekels to pay for something that costs, say, NIS 15.60, the checkout person is likely to ask if I have 10 agurot so that I can get one coins in change rather than four. (Israeli checkout people take great pride in conserving spare change.) Don't try this in the US. Unless American checkout people can enter in the total amount of money you give them into their cash machine, they get very confused.

3. The US is saturated in green, and what Americans (in the Northeastern US, at least) think of as "hot" Israelis think of as "early winter." I had to buy a jacket. But while I absolutely love the greenery of the US, I found myself missing the rockiness of Israel.

4. Things in the US are cheap. (It also helps that dollars are worth more than shekels... something that costs one dollar will always seem cheaper than something that costs 3.70 shekels.) Walmart and Target are amazing stores. Sam's Club is a little overwhelming. And it's really nice to be able to find size 9.5 women's shoes in any shoe store.

5. Teenagers in the rural US and teenagers in rural Israel have basically the same reaction when they learn you come from far away: man, I really want to get out of here.

6. A Cafe Latte is nowhere near as good as a Cafe Hafuch. 

7. Those people who sell carved wooden animals "from Israel" in American craft fairs actually see themselves as being "from Palestine."

8. Wearing 3D glasses and going to see Step-Up-3 in 3D makes you cool. I don't care what anyone else says.
My sister and I in the packed movie theater on Step-Up 3, 3D's opening day.

9. If you want to buy second-hand bonnets off of old-order Amish women, it helps a lot to be able to say you come from the land of Israel.

10. No matter where I go from now on, I'll miss somebody and something. In Israel I'll feel American, but in America I'll feel Israeli. I guess that's a sign of progress?

A lot of other things I learned while in the US are harder to pin down in words. I realized that knowledge I now take for granted in my life-- the spices I use to cook, the Hebrew I read effortlessly, the Israeli cities I now have mapped in my mind-- isn't at all obvious to most Americans. I'm so used to thinking of my Hebrew as "not very good" that it was bizarre to me to realize that my brothers couldn't read the label on the halva I brought back as a gift (and, in fact, had never tasted halva before). Something about being in America made my Hebrew seem totally fluent... I got a little charge from speaking to my mother-in-law in Hebrew on the phone and knowing that nobody around me knew what I was saying.

Three weeks and two flight transfers later, I was back in Israel. My husband met me at the airport. And as we were driving back from Natbag through dry, brown, beautiful rocky hills, I felt like my mind was coming back to life, as if it craved the challenge of deciphering Hebrew. (I admit that I'm a bit of a masochist.) I missed the smells. The landscape. The sense of deep, long history. The sense of reality. I found myself laughing. I turned to my husband. "I get to live here!"

While it's nice to go on vacation, nothing quite compares to going home again... to Israel. 

How does your perspective on the US change when you visit it from Israel?


  1. You're right on spot with #6, I must say. And I also prefer living here to anywhere else in the world. The US is big, and fun, and has lots of funky craft stores and independent bookstores (boo on Steimatskey's, sorry), but landing back in Israel, I always want to cry a bit. Call me silly.

  2. You have an uncanny ability to put it into words. Israeliness, I mean! It all resonates with me. Especially those two couples on the plane and the checkout girl and the spare change thing. These are all the invisible things that wear at me, living in the States.

  3. Sadly, I have found that most American cashiers can't make change manually -- at McDonalds (and some other stores) the cash register dispenses the correct change automatically and at most other stores the register tells how much the change should be (which is obviously a good trait in a cash register). The sad thing is that most cashiers can't do the math! If you have a $3.76 bill and you give the cashier $4.01, they literally have to stop and think about the change being 1 quarter.

  4. Prophetjoe, I had the same experience back in the US! I tried to give a checkout person a penny and ended up getting twenty-four cents AND a penny as my change. It really boggled my mind after having so many Israeli checkout people do all kinds of flexible change-making gymnastics in their heads. Maybe the Israeli school system isn't so bad? sfabrications and inoursmallgarden, I'm glad you both understand what I felt!

  5. Glad you had a good visit with your family!

  6. Wonderful post! I've frequently felt like a total stranger or Rip Van Winkle on my US visits. Things looked familiar but work differently.

  7. Great post - I agree with it all! There's nothing like a trip to chu"l to make you appreciate living in Israel :)

  8. As your mom back in the States, I loved this post :-). And I'm *very* grateful that your worry that maybe you'd want to *stay* in America didn't 'come true'-- or we wouldn't have a wonderful place to visit (hey, and maybe I'll wear Hannah's old wrap-around Israeli pants, just so I can be *sure* to look like a tourist???). Love you lots, and it was wonderful to have you visiting with us for your Dad's special 60th birthday :-). (And hmmm, this visit Falling Waters.... next time-- the Statue of Liberty perhaps??? :-) )

  9. I'm so homesick for the USA it isn't funny. Every day I wake up and wish I had died. I hate it here,but it isn't possible to go back home for a visit.

    I wish the well-to-do American Jews would put the USA first instead of giving money to Israel.

  10. Hey, I know it's been a long time since you posted this Maya, but I'm wondering whether you ever have days where you feel as Anonymous posted above. It's always been my dream to make Aliyah, but especially having lived abroad in the past, I am honestly extremely afraid of feeling that everything is just too difficult and am also afraid of missing my family terribly, as they are a constant source of emotional support to me.

    I hope you see this and are able to share your thoughts. Do you ever have any really low days where you think "Oh, if only I could just call up my family or my childhood friend?" If so, how do you bounce back?


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