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American Girl Meets Israeli Boy

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They sing in Hebrew. They swear in English.


Dana, falling in love in Caesaria, 1995.

My dear friend Aaron has finally fallen in love. He is a 39-year old Chicagoan; she’s an editor in Tel Aviv with strong sabra roots. He’s asking me for advice.

Some days I want to tell him marriages between Americans and Israelis should be outlawed. Other days I want to say, follow your heart—just don’t expect it to be easy.

Last month I broke my foot while running to catch the 7:41 train to work. My fellow commuters politely minded their own business, peering at me over the tops of their Wall Street Journals as I hopped across the train station in search of ice. Two people asked if I was okay, but didn’t wait for my answer.

Back home after a quick trip to the ER, my Israeli husband ranted on the phone to his mama, eight time zones away.  Aizeh Amerikayim karim! Loosely translated: Americans are cold and heartless. He also thinks we’re cheap.  He thinks we’re bad drivers. He thinks we, collectively as a country, need to have more sex. Most of all, he thinks the weather sucks.

Hail. Tornados. (Taxes!) Blizzards. Floods. His brain still functions in Celsius, but his inventory of American evils rolls off his tongue as though he is reciting the ten plagues at Passover.

Ketushot. Qassam rockets. Suicide bombers. Miluim . I’m quick to counter, there’s crappy weather everywhere, my dear.

I never gave much thought to these kinds of differences at age 24, when I developed a whopping crush on the security guard who worked the night shift at the absorption center in Northern Israel. I was the silent, shell-shocked WUJS volunteer trying to put my fresh MSW to good use. He was the shy guy with a gun who loved chick flicks, turtles and his mama. We barely spoke the entire three months, but that didn’t stop me from coming home to America and telling my poor mother, this is the one.

For me, long distance love meant writing my first poem in Hebrew, listening to David Broza music until my batteries died, paying scary big phone bills and taking a couple trans-Atlantic quickies. . . then waiting for the post-trip glow to fade to melancholy.

Two years later, he quit his job, sold his car, bought a one-way ticket to America (a country he had never visited), and moved in with me (a woman he had technically never gone out on a date with). Did I mention he barely spoke English?

Language barriers are real and I was the world’s least patient English tutor. For months, he called the kitchen a chicken and ordered Sesame Street bagels at our local Dunkin Donuts. Just make some flash cards, I urged.

During his first year in America, I dragged him to Chinese cooking classes, yoga and Cubs games. We drove down Highway One, cruised under Niagara Falls and posed with Mickey Mouse on both coasts. Sure you miss your family, sweetheart, but see what a beautiful country this is?

Despite our long road trips, he never learned the Brady Bunch theme song or developed a taste for peanut butter. Who needs it when there is hummus?  Pop culture aside, our childhood experiences were also vastly different. And sometimes I just don’t get it.

How can I really get what it is like sharing a tiny bedroom with your sister for the first 17 years of your life? Until the day you leave for the army, where you spend three years parachuting over borders and scuba diving under borders and doing things you still can’t (or won’t) talk about. His memories wake us both up at night.

How can I understand what it is like having a dad who survived the Holocaust, went on to fight in three Israeli wars, manufacture weapons, storing precious little extra cash under his mattress, and now, at age 72, refuses to leave his house?

My dad’s weapon of choice was a stethoscope. He settled us in a nice house in a nice suburb by a nice lake. He took us to Neil Diamond concerts and the Joffrey ballet. And when the good doctor had his mid-life crisis, he went back to school to earn an MBA.

Both dads came together at our wedding nine years ago and both were proud.

The truth is, I’m the one who broke the deal. Five years here was supposed to be followed by five years there, which was supposed to be followed by a decision. But life happened. At some point, I stopped adding papers to my aliyah file. We stopped speaking Hebrew, except during fights. We bought real furniture. He told his bitchy boss she was a bitch—and got fired. I got promoted.  We signed a mortgage. He told his asshole boss he was an asshole—and got fired. He started a business out of the garage and grew it from nothing to something.  Baby girl number one was quickly followed by baby girl two. And here we are still in Chicago.

I’m the first to admit how heartwarming it is to see my two baby girls and their devoted Abba dancing their hearts out on Shavuot on a kibbutz in the Galilee. I love how they run around barefoot, as soon as their jet lag wears off, playing with their Israeli cousins and assorted Israeli stray cats. Our five-year old pauses to tell us she wants to be a veterinarian—or a vegetarian—when she grows up. The thing is, in my mind, she can be a vet and a veg and a million other things, but IDF soldier is not high on my list.  

In the meantime, I HATE Chicago remains a daily refrain from November until May. I remind myself how much he has given up. I take comfort in reading academic research which grounds yesterday’s fights in legitimate cultural differences. I listen to wise people tell me that it is not easy for anyone. Even if you married your clone, it would still take work.

So the next time I break my foot, I’ll aim for the Tel Aviv central bus station, where the falafel vendor will rush over with ice, the young soldier will sling his Uzi over his shoulder and dig deep in his dusty backpack for gauze, and some old Yemenite Jew will crouch down next to me on arthritic knees, squeeze my hand, stroke my cheek, and invite me over for dinner next Shabbat.

In our now 12-year debate on where we will live when we grow up, my husband scores the point for “more compassionate commuters," but I win for following my heart.

Written by Dana, with blessings from her husband (assuming he understood what he was agreeing to, which is questionable).

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