When I first heard about Rachel Dolezal, the woman who masqueraded as African-American and seems to have falsely claimed she was the victim of hate crimes, I immediately thought about some of my own identity issues and the way I sometimes misled others after making Aliyah.
Like many Americans who make Aliyah, after officially becoming an Israeli citizen (14 years ago) I was anxious to fit in. In fact, I made quite a few judgmental statements, such as, “I’m not going to be like those immigrants who are only friends with other English speakers and live in an American ghetto. I’m going to totally assimilate into Israeli culture.”
But when I saw how difficult total assimilation really is – intensively learning and then constantly practicing Hebrew, getting up-to-speed on Israeli pop culture, learning new etiquette and customs, etc. – at some point I allowed myself to begin “pretending” to be more Israeli than I actually was.
In the early years, sometimes American friends or acquaintances would meet up with me while they were visiting in Israel and say, “You’ve been here for a while now, your Hebrew must be amazing.”
“Yeah, I’m getting pretty good.” Um, no, I really wasn’t. But admitting the truth seemed like failure. Besides, I wanted to encourage other Jews to make Aliyah, so I didn’t want to make it seem like life in Israel was too hard.
Then I started dating, and eventually married, an Israeli woman. Some English speakers started looking at me like I was an expert on Israeli cultural and society, and I didn’t work too hard to dissuade them of that notion.
I also became a bit of a political blowhard who enjoyed lecturing Americans about how they didn’t really understand the Middle Eastern conflict like those of us who were living it.
Although I didn’t lie and mislead as blatantly as Dolezal (I couldn’t represent myself as totally Israeli due to language gaps and my accent, even if I wanted to), I think our motivation may have originated from the same source (note: I do not know Rachel personally). I believe Rachel felt a genuine affinity for African-Americans and identified with them so strongly that she was motivated to join their community and help them battle the discrimination they face.
I, meanwhile, began identifying so staunchly with the Jewish People and Israelis that I became motivated to pack up all of my belongings, move to a war zone (I made Aliyah during the Second Intifada) and complete mandatory army service.
In both cases, the motivation and identification with a new group are fine. Problems start when insecurity kicks in and you start fearing that you’ll never truly be accepted by the group as one of them.
How does any of this relate to a happiness blog?
A person who misrepresents, or lies, about fundamental identity traits is not a happy person. Rather than accepting herself for who she is and feeling gratitude for her blessings and strengths, such a person is allowing insecurity and fear to rule. And then she has to live with the constant fear of being exposed.
Nowadays, I can honestly say that I am TRULY happy being myself in Israel and making Aliyah was one of the best decisions of my life. Am I 100 percent assimilated? No. And I don’t hide from it. If someone asks me how my Hebrew is, I tell the truth. “It’s OK. I can get by and most of my business meetings are in Hebrew. I still make mistakes, though, and I have a noticeable American accent.”
As we learn during Purim, we are happiest when we live our lives without masks, revealing our authentic selves. Only then can we truly try to be a blessing to the world…