Musings On Discomfort and Belonging

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. 

At 19, I was convinced I was going to move to Israel. Fresh out of my first year of college, I visited the country for the first time in nearly four years. I surprised one of my cousins at her Bat Mitzvah. It was incredible having so many loved ones gathered in one place, but I recall feeling disoriented seeing my family again after such a long time. Faces change. Personalities change and with them, relationships. Four years is too long. I was convinced then and there that I would drop out of college, leave my life in the States behind, join the army, and finally be in the place I belonged.

My Abba had other ideas. As much as I’m sure it hurt him to say, he encouraged me to go back to school, finish my degree and only then return. My youth and idealism—some might say naiveté—were tempered by his unexpected practicality. I returned to the States, certain that I would graduate with a diploma in one hand and a return ticket in the other. But as with most things in life, my plan hasn’t quite gone as I planned.

Opportunities following graduation would pull me in a different direction, but my sense of belonging—of where I was meant to be never changed.

What is it to belong? We belong to our families, social groups, and locations, all of which form the basis of our communities. In a perfect world, belonging fully to any community means being completely in tune with its language, customs, and practices. In this way, individuals become the caretakers of their communities’ cultures.

What do we do when we belong to multiple groups? How do we handle the care of multiple identities? This has been my struggle as a dual citizen; a member of two communities with distinct cultures.

I was born in Israel, making me a citizen by birth. Consequently, I am not considered and Oleh Chadash, or new immigrant. Rather I’ll be a Katin Chozer, a minor returning. All told, the differences are minimal—no municipal tax break or airport Aliyah guides to help me acquire health care. And yet, something about the term implies that I possess an inherent Israeli-ness, even if only in a legal sense.

One of the most intimidating questions surrounding my move is simply, “Will I be Israeli enough?”

In 71 years, Israelis have formed a distinct culture in the world. They have their own slang. They have their own sense of humor. Their daily life has its own rhythm. Sabras, those born and raised in Israel, have their own swagger which, when accompanied by the Israeli, “Ehhhhhh,” makes them impossible to miss ambling through a bustling airport.

One of the drawbacks to being raised an Israeli outside of Israel is that my exposure to this culture came in micro-doses. Two months here, three months there, sometimes with years in between. As a result, my sense of comfort and connection with all the things Israel far exceeds my ability to navigate the nuances of the society. I feel largely like I missed out on the things that make Israelis Israeli.

The kicker of course is that to whatever extent that I am Israeli, it has made me deeply uncomfortable with certain elements of the American society in which I live. The work/life balance. The penchant for passive aggressive responses. The de-emphasis placed on the importance of family. The list goes on. 

Ahead of the move, one of the realities I’ve come to accept is that no matter where I am, I will never feel completely at ease. In fact, I’m quite sure that in the entirety of human existence, no one has ever felt completely like they belonged, nor should we. Without discomfort, there is no room for growth.

Another reality I’ve come to accept is that on a heart and soul level, I know I belong in Israel; to Israel. For better or for worse‒but I think for better‒this does not absolve me from experiencing the natural discomfort anyone would feel before and during a move across the world. Otherwise, I’m still not quite sure about the relationship between belonging and discomfort other than that one exists.

The idea of belonging is an odd thing. The cynic in me says that nothing belongs anywhere and we’re all just victims of circumstance. Discomfort is a product of a ruthless world. The mystic in me says that nothing is an accident, and that discomfort is simply a catalyst meant to encourage us to fulfill our unique purpose in the world. As with all things, on most days I’m somewhere in between.