Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Israeli Next to You

Photo (c)Amy Samin

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 9 August 2004.

You can find Israelis everywhere, but especially in America in July and August. Israelis love to travel abroad (referred to in Hebrew as "hootz l'aretz" - "h'ul" for short - or "outside of the country"). During much of the year, "h'ul" might mean Turkey, Greece, or Prague. But in the summer, the United States is quite often the destination of choice.

Israelis are hooked on traveling. Some join established tour groups, complete with tour guide, chartered flights and packaged hotel deals. Others prefer to pick a destination, buy an airline ticket, and see what happens. Of course, even the latter group are sure to ask family and friends for advice on sights to see. They refer to the numerous guidebooks and travel magazines available in Hebrew, or look through the travel supplements that regularly appear in the newspaper. They even ask complete strangers for travel suggestions, by way of numerous Hebrew language chat rooms and message boards relating to travel.

Some young Israelis enjoy a brief trip abroad before they begin their army service. Even more go off on treks in Thailand, Africa or South America after they complete their mandatory service. The destinations change according to fashion, with but little connection to the individual's interest.

On our recent vacation in America, we visited 13 states in five weeks. In almost every place we stopped, whether it was a national park, small town or simply a place of interest, we encountered Israelis. If we didn't actually see them, we spotted their names and hometowns in the guestbooks maintained at the sites we visited. During part of our trip, we traveled with friends who live near us back home. Unlike us, they speak only Hebrew to one another; largely because of that, they came across many more Israelis than we did, including one couple they met at a rest stop in Wyoming. So far from home, the sound of one's native language can be very comforting.

While visiting Hoover Dam, we stood in a small, crowded room waiting for the theater doors to open. We glanced around the room with interest, looking at the displays and people-watching. Just as the doors opened and the line moved forward, we overheard a couple speaking Hebrew. They were tired and were debating returning to their car rather than continuing with the tour. If anyone had asked me just moments before, I would have said ours was the only family from Israel in the room. Finding other Israelis in our midst reminded me how small the world is, and gave me a feeling of comradeship with that other family, also so very far from home.

I don't feel like a foreigner when I travel in America these days, but I don't feel 100% American, either. Obviously I speak the language, understand the jokes tour guides tell, and can read road signs and maps easily. But while I feel "of" America, I don't really feel a "part of" America anymore. I am not up on all the latest news, scandals, legislative battles in Congress and sports competitions. I don't have the same daily concerns Americans have in connection with those issues. I have plenty of news, scandals and legislative battles of my own to worry about once I get back home. But while the issues and players are different, I am thankful that I also live in a country where democracy reigns, where such things are discussed (and debated) openly, not suppressed.

And I am thankful to live in a country where, like America, the citizens are free to travel and return, bringing back photos and experiences of other cultures and ideas.

(c) Amy Samin

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