Even though I grew up in New York City, Israel never felt very far. As a student in Jewish day schools, Israel and Judaism were at the forefront of my daily life. But Israel’s reach extended beyond that.
For me, Israel has long meant family. My mother’s sister left New York for a year abroad in Jerusalem and stayed. Most of my Iranian father’s large family made their new home in and near Givatayim, where you can still find old-timers speaking Nash Didan (Judeo-Aramaic) on the streets. So Israel meant aunts and uncles and cousins — cousins! I had 20 first cousins in Israel and only two in the United States. Many summers growing up were spent visiting family there or hosting them in New York.
I moved to Israel in the fall of 2007, just ahead of my wedding to — you guessed it — an Israeli. I had no idea when I’d return to the United States, and spent a whirlwind 22 months living in Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Jerusalem.
Living in Israel proved to be a whole different story than visiting. I added slang and curses to my Hebrew repertoire, learned to steel myself for the inevitable arguments at the supermarket, to hand my money to complete strangers at the back of the bus and trust that my ticket and change would make their way back to me, and to accept or reject an endless barrage of any and all sorts of unsolicited advice. Because in the States, strangers are strangers. In Israel, they are mishpachah.
In this short period, Israel also defined family for me in a whole new way: In Israel I became a mom, to a third-generation sabra. He and his American-born sister are both very proud of their Israeliness, in citizenship and in culture. They come home from school singing Israeli hip-hop, “wipe” their hummus rather than dip and tease me for being American. We live in Sunnyvale, referred to affectionately as Yisra-Vale by the vibrant Israeli community that’s made the town its epicenter and where it feels like there is more Hebrew spoken around me every day, at Starbucks and at Trader Joe’s, than I ever heard in Ra’anana.
My connection to Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people is realized through my work at JIMENA, where I have had the amazing experience of celebrating the cultural diversity of Jews around the world. It is particularly gratifying to explore Israel as the melting pot of the Jewish people and to bring that story to students and teachers at Jewish day schools around the Bay Area.