Who Am I?

Who Am I by Elle Persky - Photo by Alex Berman

I am the American daughter of two Israeli immigrants, and for many Jewish women, reaching a point of self-realization and acceptance can be difficult. Until recently, I hadn’t understood that the two parts of me—my American side, and my Israeli side—could co-exist. I have 17 cousins, 16 of whom were born in Israel, and 15 who live there. But not me. I was born far from them, and for my entire life, I’ve lived far from them. Far, not only by distance—the numbers of miles (5,694) that separate us, the bi-annual 14-hour plane rides—but also by tradition. There’s a barrier between us, enforced by the difference in our language, culture, music, and customs.

My father was raised in an Orthodox household in Jerusalem. He wore a kippah and tzitzit, and he lived the first 18 years of his life blanketed by the familiarity of the Jerusalem-stoned buildings and houses. My mother was raised in a secular home, with a Yemenite mother and a Romanian father. Both of my parents spent their youth in Israel; they grew up, joined the IDF, went to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and, eventually, fell in love. It was only when they decided to further their careers in the U.S., and stay there, that my future would turn out to be exponentially different from the rest of my family’s.

Since a young age, I’ve been comfortable and proud telling others that I’m Jewish. I wanted them to know of my family’s history; my big hair and thick brows aren’t a coincidence, after all. It was almost cool, in a way, especially to a young kid. I had a unique story to tell, a whole other language I could speak, and a second country I could call home. It wasn’t until a few years ago, when someone asked me if I was from Israel or from “here,” that I started contemplating my identity and individuality, as many do. As I began to attack this complicated question, I initially felt as if I had to be solely one or the other. I wanted to try turning parts of me on and off, as if that was how it worked.

Externally, I look like my Israeli family. I have the same-patterned curls, a nose identical to my grandfather’s, and it feels as if every part of myself is in some way similar to the people I’m biologically related to. My DNA is the same percentage Ashkenazi and Sephardic as theirs, and if I took a 23andMe test, you wouldn’t be able to tell me apart from them. Based just on this, I suppose I’d be from Israel. But, the thing is, I am a familial outlier. My siblings and I are the cousins from the U.S. We’re “The Americans,” and that omnipresent, yet subtle, intonation that we’re different is really just an unsaid fact. After a while, I figured out that objectively analyzing my features wasn’t going to get me anywhere closer to figuring out my identity. It’s just what I look like—not who I am.

Moving forward, I attempted to only reveal certain aspects of myself during specific times, which, as you can guess, really didn’t work. Quickly, this question I was trying to answer led to a long, never-ending journey of contemplating and debating how I eventually wanted to view myself. I felt as if giving in to the Israeli side of myself was in turn giving up on my American side. If I spoke English while in Israel, or didn’t know a word in Hebrew, I was ashamed. When friends were asking why my bat mitzvah was taking place in Jerusalem, and why I wasn’t throwing a normal party that they could go to—one with a DJ, photo booth, strobe lights, and an over-the-top sparkly dress—I felt out of place. In a cliche-y sense, I thought I was too Jewish for the Americans, and too American for the Israelis. Like any other young person, I simply wanted to fit in. But how do you mold yourself to fit into two vastly different communities, each owning different places of your heart?

The thing I would soon realize is, I had it all completely wrong. After picking myself apart, at times trying to “shut off” the unique mix of beliefs and quirks that make up the person I am, and conforming to the things I thought people wanted, I wondered why I had to be just one thing. If I am so different from my Israeli cousins, and so different from my American friends, then why was I trying to fit in, or looking for external approval? After asking myself this, I realized, maybe I wasn’t meant to fit in perfectly. As this came to light, I began to train myself to not care about the possibility that people were thinking negatively toward me, my religion, or how devoted I seemed to my two countries. I prioritized surrounding myself with supportive friends and family members, educating myself and others on the difficulties of being from various parts of the world, and slowly weaving in one side of myself with the other. I have two tongues, and two parts of the world I belong to. I am both from here and from Israel. I now know that I don’t necessarily have to be one thing, and I am beginning to welcome that. You should, too.

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