Home away from home
Such a cheesy title. I love it.
The following is the kind of creation that takes from both the personal essay and the journalistic interview. It was a midterm assignment last semester in a class aptly named Journalistic Tradition, and I was asked to write about Israelis living in New York. Voila.
I don’t look too Israeli (if one can appear as such, anti-Semitic stereotypes aside,) I don’t have much of an Israeli accent and I can’t engage in an intelligent debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without revealing my shameful ignorance in the matter. And yet I am Israeli, an Israeli living in New York City, and I wear it as a badge of honor.
I am in love with my new residence. It is a curious feeling actually, I feel at home and completely lost at the same time. The magic is that even though it doesn’t add up, I feel no need to settle the dissonance. The duality makes me happy.
Here I feel free to explore who I am and what my true passion is. I get to meet people I would otherwise never meet, or meet and look the other way. New York is confrontational that way. Exposing who you are is usually intimidating, but here it’s le bon ton, and I feel obliged to strip down. It’s terrifying and liberating at the same time, yet everyone is doing it. It’s an oxymoron, being unique in a crowd of individuals.
This is not my first time in the city. I visited here quite a few times before, and one of the strongest impressions I had of New York as a tourist was standing in the middle of Times Square (not that I would ever go there now, ugh, tourists,) literally just standing in the midst of it all, hundreds of people brushing against me from all sides, rushing off somewhere more important, and me feeling like there is no place I would rather be at that moment than right there.
For tourists, the pace of the city is different. You don’t go anywhere or do anything because you have to, you do so because you want to. I remember feeling sorry for all the suits and heels running around, thinking they don’t know what they’re missing, with their minds so set on next week’s presentation or last night’s date.
Now that I am here to stay (and not just for shopping) I make it a point not to become one of them. It’s hard sometimes, and I do fail occasionally, as time is of the essence, but I make an effort. I try to look around as I walk the streets, try to discover the neighborhood I live in and not just from the Maps app on my iPhone.
It’s not like that in Israel. The Tel Avivian “bubble,” as we Israelis call it, obliterates exploration. It is almost impossible to walk down the street without bumping into someone you know, let alone sit at a café or go out for a drink. It’s a sort of mire where everyone is in everyone else’s business and the same faces repeat themselves everywhere you turn. The beautiful thing we Israelis find so appealing in New York is how anonymous we are here.
For the record, Israel is great. Its army, its health system, even its economy are almost unrivaled. Yet Israel as state races around the world in chase of the great minds that elude it, as so many Israelis opt for voluntary exile. Now that I am one of them, I can’t help but wonder: Why do so many choose New York?
For Karen Feldesman, 27-years-old grad student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts who has been living here for over a year, anonymity is most attractive. Since no one knows us, we get the chance to remake ourselves as we please.
In her opinion, New York is such an immigrant society that we blend right in. We feel as if no one is judging us, as most likely the person that will sit next to us on the subway, or even our neighbor from upstairs, are or have been in our situation. “Foreign as you are – you never feel like a stranger,” notes Feldesman.
Blending in feels natural for 29-years-old T. (who preferred not to be identified.) For him, New York has always been a dream he knew one day would come true. He first arrived to the city when he was 18 and had intended to stay for only ten days. He ended up staying for a year. Fast-forward three years, and a fresh out of the army T. decided to quench his desire to return and incorporate higher education with it. He only applied to schools in the city, and is now in the last year of his B.A. in Columbia.
It is obvious for him that he will stay here after he finishes his studies, and has a job already lined up. Interestingly enough, as amorous as he is with New York, he is certain he will return to Israel once he has children.
“I don’t want them calling me ‘Daddy’,” he explains. “Nothing trumps ‘Aba’ [Hebrew for father].” His favorite part of the city is its energy, he admits. But at the end of the day, when he pictures himself pushing a stroller, it’s not through Central Park. He wants his kids to grow up the same way he was brought up, and it sure wasn’t South of Houston.
For the time being, anyway, New York is the epitome of all he could wish for. “It’s a mixed culture, so everything goes,” he elaborates. “No one penalizes you for having an accent, they actually don’t care.” He also likes that whatever one’s passion is, be it fashion, skateboarding or finance, the city has enough room for everyone. “This is the top of the pyramid,” he says, “it’s like living in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar.” To which Feldesman agrees – in Israel, options for self-fulfillment are limited, way below the sky. In New York, being our age, no matter the field of interest, people get the chance to shoot for the stars.
Niv Rozenberg, who recently finished his MA studies at Parson’s New School majoring in Photography, concurs. “I fell in the love with the city at first sight. Its intensity, its size, the diversity, even the yellow taxi cabs – I knew I’ll come back here, and not as a tourist”, describes 31-years-old Rozenberg, who now lives in Brooklyn after residing In Manhattan for two years. “In Israel artists don’t have many options so I moved, and here you get the feeling everything is possible. I strongly believe the opportunities I encountered while living and studying in the city would not have presented themselves elsewhere.”
Thing is, opportunities aside, after a couple of years even a successful craftsman gets homesick. So he tries to emulate a home away from home, and recently got a puppy to move in with him and his girlfriend. “Holidays are the toughest,” he confides. Though true, being the tech-savvy generation that we are, it seems as if keeping in touch with family and friends some five thousand miles away has never been so easy. Not only voice crosses continents and seas nowadays, but images as well, even live.
It’s an age new question: do we miss home even more now that it’s a click away, or does the immediacy satisfy the yearning?
For some, the existential dichotomy of being an Israeli in New York is not only a given but a daily source of pondering. 26-years-old Danielle Drori, an avid walker in the city, is pursuing her PhD at the department for Hebrew and Judaic studies at NYU. She finds that the city and her studies in particular amalgamate both her Israeli and Jewish heritage in a new way.
“My Israeli-and-Jewish identity has never been so prominent in my life,” she says. “In Israel, naturally, both my ’Israeliness’ and my ’Jewishness’ are almost transparent. Here, I’m sentenced to confront them on a daily basis.”
“I believe that in Israel I wouldn’t have the chance to ask serious questions about my national identity,” she adds. “Not only because being a Jewish Israeli citizen is the most common being within the boundaries of the green line of demarcation, but also because there’s a constant unjustified feeling of threat in Israel which prevents its young citizens from doubting their own categories of identity.”
For Drori, New York is the one place she can reflect on who she is and at the same time have the luxury to break away from it, knowing full well the road less traveled will wait for her, patiently. “New York is breathtaking and breath-giving at the same time,” she sums.
Princeton Alumni and an NGO Peace Organization member Daniella Raveh, 27 years old, also feels strongly about her role as a foreign rep. It is not only her avocation but she had “studied the Mideast a lot,” she says, and is “very passionate about it, so I am often compelled to jump in and contribute to the conversation.”
“I used to feel obligated to ‘protect’ Israel in arguments, which meant taking an approach that I wouldn’t normally take,” she explains. “I sort of identified with the ‘don’t air your dirty laundry in public’ approach, and felt I should shed light on the positive when abroad. But now I feel more comfortable saying whatever I want, regardless of the impression I give off.”
As for the city itself, much like T.’s observations, Raveh feels “that New York has a lot of different types of people and they all find purpose and interest in it. Artists, bankers, lawyers, writers, actors, musicians. There is something really empowering in being in a city in which so many doors can open at any given moment. It enables you to keep educating yourself through experience.”
Despite its apparent appeal, The Big Apple does seem to have its flaws. “There are massive cultural differences between Israelis and Americans,” shares Raveh. “Though New York has an international vibe that makes the adjustment easier and feels more authentic, life here is very fast paced and stressful. I think part of it is that ‘time is money’ culture, it seeped into every field. It definitely has a cold corporate feel.”
“Another thing is that because there are so many types of characters, despite the city being seemingly accepting, people often fall into a pre-defined category,” she adds. “These groups are often segregated. People tend to align with their likes and true interaction doesn’t really happen as much.”
From her experience, and in a sense relating to T.’s intentions, “another difficult thing about New York is that it feels very temporary. People move here for the job, no one thinks about raising kids in the city,” she clarifies. “So people move to work and their lives are defined by work. This has a great deal of impact on relationships, both friendships and romantic. People come and go all the time, investing in relationships isn’t necessarily worth it because it’s so transitory.”
As for me, I am well aware that I only just begun. I have embarked on a journey much greater than the sum of its parts, the kind of which only makes sense in hindsight.
I am grateful for the chance to dissolve, for the opportunity to be reborn, yet feel the city empowers who I have managed to become. I wonder the streets with childlike amazement, but know in the back of my head the scenery is ephemeral. I miss all that is not near, and at the same time revel at what fills up the void. In the meantime, I accumulate experiences, anecdotes and acquaintances, and know that I can try to steer my way in this city, but it will most likely decide for me where I’ll end up.
Whether I’ll head back home after I graduate or find my way here, I hope I don’t become a cynic. After a while, people here become jaded, restless, unsatisfied. But I love New York, with all my heart, and just pray I’ll never cease to see the magic in it.