Navigating My White Israeli Identity in America

Shanee Helfer,

לבן ריק
לבן ריק
צילום: ערוץ 7
Shanee Helfer
Change agent who believes in the power of the collective. Senior Associate at @Living_Cities. All views my own.

Navigating My White Israeli Identity in a Racialized American Society, From Melting Pots to Fruit Salads

“Our nation is a melting pot of people from all over the world, and that is what makes this country great.”

As an immigrant growing up in the United States, I understood the above refrain to mean that my experience would be welcomed and celebrated as I joined a new nation of people.

Later, in high school, the melting pot became a fruit salad: “We don’t want people to fully assimilate but rather to hold their individual identity while also being American.” For the first time, I felt like I had permission to be Israeli in America, but so much of that part of my identity had already been taken away and I wasn’t sure if I could find it again.

Looking back now, I realize that neither model fully acknowledges the story of what made America a melting pot, the role white supremacy and white institutional culture played in making this melting pot the goal, and how, while we say we aspire to be a fruit salad instead, our systems and cultures don’t allow for it.

Ingredients of Identity

I called Israel home until the age of six. Though my passports showed I was a dual-citizen at birth, I saw myself as Israeli. In my mind the U.S. was a faraway land in the fairytale of my parents’ meeting, the place of my sister’s birth.

I had no photos of myself or memories to connect me to the people or place. My father was my only real connection to America, having immigrated there as a refugee from Germany following World War II as a baby. The one American thing my father taught me was that when eating pizza, you had to fold it in half. Come to find out, that’s really just a New Yorker thing.

My family connected to our individual and collective identities through food. My uncle and his mother spoiled us with perfectly made Turkish dishes and salads. My mother and grandmother indulged my Russian/Polish tastebuds with smoked herring and just about anything they could pickle. The diverse palette of foods in Israel mirrored the homelands of the Jews who lived there, all of whom — my family included — escaped some level of genocide for a new homeland.

Coming to America: My Movie

I arrived on a TWA flight over 4th of July weekend in 1989. I was six years old and sad I wouldn’t get to see my cousins until the following summer. My grandmother promised she would visit and stay with us during the warmer months, always playing the role of our third parent. I got to take my favorite stuffed animal on the plane with me while the rest of my toys were shipped to our new home or given away to cousins and neighbors. As a consolation, my parents told us we would have a backyard in our New Jersey home, something almost impossible to attain financially in Israel at the time.

We spent that 4th of July weekend unpacking our new house and barbecuing in Upstate New York with our only family in America — my grandmother’s cousin who raised her after her mother and sister were killed when Nazis invaded her small town in Poland. That was my first taste of fireworks and family in America, an experience I would relive each year as a quintessential American tradition.

I began to create my American memories captured in family photos, slowly shedding my Israeli identity as all immigrants are forced to through the expectation of becoming a part of The Melting Pot. As all the influences of the world around me worked their magic, I questioned when I would achieve being an American, becoming the story of so many immigrants that came before me.

Identity is something we all hold close to our hearts. It is how we see ourselves in the world and how we expect to be seen in the world by others. While we have an identity we choose for ourselves, this is often stolen from us in different ways. While the force of anti-blackness means that African-American people have to bear this burden most gravely by far, we have to remember that white institutional culture and supremacy have dehumanized all of us, including those who have come to be called White.

After the fun adventures of meeting our only family in America, it was time for the four of us to start creating a real home before school would start in September. What better way to create an American home than go out and buy a television? And so we went. My parents took my sister and I to New York City, that city across the river where Dad grew up.

Arriving in Times Square in July of 1989 was like being transported to another world for me. The cities I knew were Tel Aviv and Haifa, small sidewalks always covered in sand and people living in buildings that were never more than four-stories. In New York City everything was taller, there were garbage bags piled on top of each other along the sidewalks that my mother pulled me away from each time I got too close. On the other side of the sidewalk along the buildings I tripped over the shoe of a man asking for change and gazed into the eyes of the sex worker at the corner, entranced and unsure what to make of this new world. The goal of that day was to experience Dad’s home and buy a TV for the family. We got a TV that day and I began what I later understood to be my personal story and exploration of my own identity along the spectrum of anti-blackness and my first memories about the intersectionality between race, class, and place.

Standing in the electronics store where all the Israelis went, my father haggled with the salesman as my mother watched over my sister and I. My mother’s memory is that we looked terrified and overwhelmed. Before arriving in America, we had never seen someone who was not Arab/Sephardic Jew or of White/European descent. Identity in Israel was based on your religion (Christian, Jew or Muslim) and the language you spoke (Arabic or Hebrew).

Whether it was the size of the buildings, the speed of the people walking, the congestion and smells, or simply the environment of Times Square at the time, we asked in our childish despair, “can we please just go back home?” My mom tells us that she and my dad didn’t know what to say or do. Their hearts sank in parental fear: had they made the wrong the decision to bring their kids to America? Would their kids be able to adapt to such a different culture and environment?

They explained to us that we couldn’t go back to Israel since we lived in America, this is now home. And that is when we asked, “Can we just go back to the other side of the river?” We wanted to go back to New Jersey. Though my parents were relieved that my sister and I were simply asking to be taken back to the quieter, whiter suburbs, they didn’t fully grasp how much of our Israeli selves would be lost in the coming years by making the American Dream of a house in the suburbs real for our family.

Shedding My Israeli Identity

I began kindergarten that September, not speaking a word of English. I was placed in a regular classroom and pulled out to go to ESL when my other classmates learned the alphabet and simple math. ESL was fun because we got extra stickers and the teachers were engaging. I was the only white kid among Asian immigrants, the newest immigrant wave into the established blue-collar Italian and Irish town.

During these first few weeks of school, something felt wrong to six-year-old me. In a typical parent-child moment on the car ride home, I shared that my regular classroom teacher was ignoring me. As a kid, I didn’t see a difference between me and the others: we were kids and we were playing and learning, but for some reason I understood that my teacher did not want to associate with me. My parents, mainly because my dad was American, were able to approach the teacher and principal about my comments to them with concern that I was not happy.

The teacher acknowledged that she was doing this because I was her first ESL kid and therefore didn’t know how to interact with a child who didn’t speak English. Looking back on this moment, my father was out to ensure his child was happy and taken care of. He had no intention to improve the experience and lives of my peers from ESL, but I believe that was accomplished with no intent. Each time I have thought about equity I have thought of this moment in my own life; advocating for one who is the most harmed can improve the conditions for all, intentionally or not.

Just a few months later, my sister and I were fluent enough to “graduate” from ESL and be in our main classrooms full-time. We were considered the token ESL kids, a huge success for the school at the time. As we would pass our old ESL classmates in the hall, we would look confused as to why the other kids we started in ESL with still hadn’t “graduated” like we did.

As children, we thought we were smarter than these other kids. We bought into the American rules of success, learning English and fitting into the established norms around us. This success never acknowledged the loss that is required as a part of this process. We lost our Hebrew, our native tongue, and no one but ourselves would push us to get it back later in life. I was so focused on fitting in and becoming an American, a part of the “Melting Pot America”, that I fully lost my ability to speak Hebrew for years. The more American I became, the harder it was to communicate with my family in Israel when they would call or I would visit.

Hiding in Plain Sight

It was later, in elementary school, that I remember my mother sending me to school with a packed lunch of pita with hummus and pickles. It was one of my favorite snack to eat at home, and to this day one of my go-to comfort foods on a bad day. All the other kids in my class would be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and I felt like an outsider, not fully “melted”, so not really an American in some ways. I finally got to try a taste of the famous peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I spit it out, but felt I had to find a way to like it. Ironically, Melting Pot America allows no room for kids with different lunches; we assimilate and that becomes the measure of success. So my approach to assimilation was to hide and sit alone with my pita sandwich so the other kids wouldn’t notice I wasn’t like them.

As I got older, I hid whatever was left of my Israeli identity. I avoided having friends come over to my house to play so they wouldn’t meet my mother and hear her accent. None of my friends’ parents had accents when they spoke in English. I wouldn’t dare speak in Hebrew around my friends and have them hear my voice speak in another language with another accent. I recall one year when I came back from spending a summer in Israel and was still jet lagged from my trip, I said a few words in Hebrew in a conversation with a friend and she looked at me with a quizzical and slightly disgusted ex‎pression on her face, totally puzzled. I quickly went back to my English and certainly never made that mistake again.

Embracing the Intersectionality of My Identity

During my sophomore year of high school, my two worlds collided and finally allowed me to embrace my Israeli identity since I “became an American”. I was on a ten-day trip to Israel through our Sunday Jewish School. I was the “Israeli” who was able to talk to the waiters, find the closest bathroom and even sneak away during our “free time” to find a better place to grab some shawarma. In a Melting Pot America, there was nothing about my identity that was worth being other than being American. I had to experience my American peers seeing a value in a world outside of America for me to finally see value in my own Israeli identity. In this moment I could begin to embrace the part of myself America required me to shed and hide from the world. Even in this moment of Israeli pride, I could not be both American and Israeli, I was the “Israeli”, and for the first time since leaving Israel as a child, I was able to embrace it.

In my adult years when meeting new people they notice my red hair, hear no accent as I speak and assume I am another Irish Catholic who grew up in New Jersey. I am often asked, “What kind of name is Shanee”, pronounced differently each time and always incorrectly. I always respond, “Israeli” with my anxious smile awaiting the questions that would follow about whether or not I am American. If your name is not American, perhaps you are not either, and I am rarely afforded the space to be both.

I was recently asked, “How do you identify yourself” with no list of options to pick from, leaving it completely up to me to define. I’m still not sure what my answer is. I think back on how I have identified myself when I travel. In Israel, I am American who was born in Israel because I am not Israeli enough having not served in the Israeli Army. In America, I say I am an Israeli in order to explain my level of Judaic observance and quirks in my personality. I’m not sure I can say I am an American in America, because I don’t know that I want to be only American. I have worked hard in my adult life to regain my Hebrew language, find pride in my Israeli identity and embrace the parts of my personality which are inherently learned and similar to the rest of my family across the Atlantic.

I don’t have one way to identify myself and through this journey I have finally acknowledged that’s okay. The “White” box I have been forced to check all my life has allowed me to avoid the personal conflicts that Melting Pot America has created for me as I wrestle with my own identity as a white immigrant raised in America. I was able to fit into the American story simply by learning English, and without acknowledging the losses that came with that and the history white supremacy has had in requiring I do so to be American, no matter where on the list American would fall.

So where do we go from here? How do we acknowledge the identities that others hold for themselves and ensure we are not a melting pot but rather a fruit salad? Is the fruit salad even what we aspire to be? Can we be many things before we are American, and still be American?

I don’t know  the answers to these questions for myself as an Israeli, a White woman, an advocate for racial and social justice, an immigrant regaining pride in the roots of my identity, an American. All I know is that I get to define my own identity and that it will be ever changing, as it has been all my life.

Originally published on the Living Cities blog on January 25, 2018 by Shanee Helfer.