June 17, 2022

The clash of Zionism and the American Dream - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Dear Lior,

I’ve been thinking a lot about your heartfelt op-ed “I left Israel to give my kids the American Dream. Is this It?” which appeared first on the online news site Kveller and has been widely reprinted.

Your understandable anguish came in response to the horrifying mass murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, in the Robb Elementary School.

The American Dream – a country of backyards and baseball cards, Disney World and geysers, parks as big as some countries, and, most of all, far from the conflict in Israel.
You moved to America so that your children would not have to serve in the army as you did. And because you have become a parent, you and your husband have bought a house in the suburbs. A house, you say, with shingles.

THAT CAUGHT my eye. I, an immigrant who moved in the other direction, grew up in a house with shingles, a white wooden house surrounded by grassy lawns and maple trees, lightning rods and a weather vane shaped like a hen on the roof. The big backyard had a swing set and a slide, plus a tether ball on a metal flagpole.

The kids in the neighborhood – Jewish, non-Jewish, white and black – would come over to play until we would all be called home for dinner.

The backyard was also our locus for family barbecues – no need to find a picnic table in a Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund campground.

On both sides, my Yiddish-speaking grandparents had left Eastern Europe for America at the turn of the 20th century, fleeing pogroms and poverty, so my sister and I were third-generation Americans, not immigrants.

We had a simple cottage on a lake, where we learned to fish, swim and row.
My father served on the local school board; my mother taught reading to high school students who had never learned, drilling them on Motor Vehicle Department manuals so they passed their tests. I was on the student council and edited the school newspaper.

It wasn’t all dreamy, of course. The clubhouse on the shore across the lake was known to be off-limits to Jews. A boy named Tommy in my sister Charlotte’s third grade class was shot dead in a gun accident – his open coffin on display when the class visited. We had air raid drills, crouching under our wooden desks with our hands on our heads in case the Soviet Union attacked. We watched president John F. Kennedy on TV warning about the missiles in Cuba. A disembodied voice on the PA system in school told us to go home: President Kennedy had been shot. Later, our cousin, a brilliant mathematician, was murdered in Pittsburgh.

On the whole, though, life was more good than bad. It’s hard to give up America. Growing up, I never expected to. As Woody Guthrie crooned, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island…. This land was made for you and me.”

But then came that weekend when I was turning 18. We Young Judaeans wanted to camp out together and talk Zionism. I made the arrangements, getting permission from our town’s volunteer fire department to use its cabin on the Salmon River.

We walked along the riverbank, forested in silver pines and white oaks, sounds of woodpeckers and robins and rushing water. We stopped by the gray wooden covered bridge. And there, of all places, I saw myself hiking in the arid Negev, walking from Sde Boker to Ein Avdat. Like the shock wave of a clap of thunder, like cymbals disrupting a symphony, my dreams clashed.

I think I knew it was the Israeli dream that would overcome, even though it meant I would have to become an immigrant, move to a country where I didn’t even know enough Hebrew to say “fire department” let alone be so comfortable with my community that I could borrow a cabin.

It wasn’t only that weekend, of course. My reading-teacher mother belonged to the Book of the Month Club and filled our shelves with books like William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd, Leon Uris’s Exodus and Mila 18. She didn’t let us join the Girl Scouts (though we bought a lot of their cookies), and instead we went every week to Young Judaea meetings in the synagogue basement. My father didn’t like sleepaway camps for his daughters, but sent us on summer programs to Israel.

Still, giving up America isn’t trivial. While bringing up our own five children in Israel, I sometimes fantasized about transporting that nine-room shingled house my parents built to Jerusalem, even without the springtime hummingbirds feeding on the lilac bush or the perfect sled run from our front door every winter.

I wasn’t thinking of my children when I moved to Israel. Young and single, I moved here for myself, because of my insatiable yearning to be part of the Zionist enterprise. Like immigrants everywhere, we had to figure out how to shepherd them in a country in which we hadn’t grown up.

Our children are grown up now, bringing up their own children in today’s Israel. Despite the conflict, sealed rooms with gas masks, the need to fight, the no-frills classrooms, their own national and dangerous military service – by all measures our children have turned out to be kind persons, good citizens and good parents. They all have helping professions. I like to think that they have something special being Israelis, an ability to take on challenges and a healthy defiance of authority. They were educated here, but are able to hold their own in international colloquiums and collaborations. I’m proud that when they get up to speak, they represent Israel.

When I recently attended my university reunion in the United States, I was intensely aware that my own children never had the laid-back, Frisbee-throwing undergraduate college experience of American campuses like the young men and women who were graduating.
On the other hand, getting into excellent Israeli universities and graduate schools was pretty straightforward, unlike the complex and frazzled admissions in the United States, where only 5% of applicants are accepted in top schools. Nor were our Sabra offspring graduates burdened by paying off tuition loans.

WE ALL have trade-offs in life, but the hardest part of parenting is realizing that you can’t always provide absolute protection for your children, no matter how hard you try or where you live.

Despite my Zionist zeal, I can understand your wish to shield your children. May you and your children know safety and security wherever you are.

But just as the American Dream is hard to give up, so is the longing for Zion.
Maybe you’ll come back.

As the psalmist says, “we were like dreamers,” and we still are.