As you may know from brief biographies published on occasion, I am American but I happened to be born in Israel. But what does that exactly mean? I moved when I was a baby and I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t even particularly care about Israel other than a general appreciation for the Western mythological tradition, and in fact if you speak to me in private I would express that I am quite critical of the intense political situation there. If you wanna get into religion then let me say I’m basically atheist at this point.
I identify myself as completely American and somewhat proud of that—not that America is perfect but there is an argument to be made that America’s contributions to the world do outnumber the negatives. And, America is just plain more interesting.
The short and long of it is that I left Israel at two-years old. I have no memory as “sabra”. My dad is from Chicago and my mom is from the former Soviet Union; they met there and me and my sister were born abroad but raised in the United States of America: the midwestern states of Indiana and Ohio to be specific. I consider my hometown to be Cincinnati. For the past decade I’ve had a California driver’s license. Even though I’ve lived in another interesting country for quite a while, China, I will always consider myself an American abroad.
I did visit Israel a few times in my adult life. When I was a teenager on one of those trips, a couple times to see family. What can I say? The food is good. It’s English-friendly and easy to get around. That’s about the main takeaway for me.
So, over the last several years my sister has chosen to live in Jerusalem and do the whole religious thing. Not for me, but to each their own. She has a family, a precocious hyper son whom I met at a wedding in Florida two years ago. Since then, her family has grown with the addition of two super-cute nieces I had yet to meet. Hence, the time came for one of those international trips to meet the family!
I had arranged to fly from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv for a brief, one-week trip. My mom was flying in as well. Right off the bat, unwelcoming Israeli security became an issue as I was personally escorted through the HK airport. It was better than the strip search last time. The real bureaucratic issue was when, after the grueling 11-hour flight, I was told off at the Ben-Gurion customs…
See, I have never even had an Israeli passport. I left as a baby under my parents’. I could claim dual citizenship, but I’ve never had any desire whatsoever. In 2011 I came for my sister’s wedding, and there wasn’t a problem with my U.S. passport until I left and a border guard yelled at me for not having an Israeli passport. I was told I would not be allowed in next time without it. In the years since I tried my best to forget about that. It was kind of offensive, being told what my identity is.
They must have remembered, because when I came in the guard knew I was warned already and gave me a very hard time for not getting the passport. Gotta give their record-keeping system credit. Apparently I had to go to the Ministry of the Interior to sort it out, or I would not be allowed to leave the country!
Bit scary to be told that. What, should I contact the American embassy and say Israel is trying to kidnap me? I do get it; Israel is very aggressive about getting more migration for their own reasons. However, I am not into it. Least I know I’m too old to get drafted.
I suppose it could come in handy if there was a world disaster and I needed a second country’s passport. Still, I try not to plan my life around paranoia.
So, they eventually let me through. I was nervous but ready to embrace the trip. My Dad—who happened to be in the area—picked me up along with my British brother-in-law. It was late, and already I preferred the cool, dry desert air to the humid jungle weather I had come from. We went to my dad’s accommodations to pass out, and the next day I saw my sister’s family!
I had met her son/my nephew in 2014 but I never met my nieces until that day. They are ridiculously cute. And not only that, but we then returned to the airport to pick up my mom! A real family reunion of a trip. I doled out gifts of Chinese trinkets and we all caught up on life. It’s always nice to see one’s immediate family after years away.
Finally, on Day 3, I went to the dreaded Ministry of the Interior. My dad helped me out a lot. I brought my (American) passport and my printout of flight details, and that’s all I had. No Israeli documentation whatsoever. We took a number, waited, then were told to go somewhere else to take a number. It was early in the day and I can’t complain as it was rather fast for a government ministry. At last, a lady took us in her office. I had two choices revealed: I could pay to receive an Israeli passport and it would take a few days, or I could get an exit permission letter right then and there at no charge. I chose the latter. She highly recommended that I get the passport and I must eventually if I ever come to Israel again, seriously I really better not forget, but this would be allowed for the current trip.
Now over with, I was free to enjoy the rest of my time! There were so many dinners with family. Playing with the kids. Taking photos. Eating delicious Middle Eastern food. Oh the hummus, the hummus!!! Lots of walking around the central district of Jerusalem, which is mostly an overly religious city, but touristy Jaffa Center at Ben-Yahuda street was tolerable. We went to malls, restaurants, and argued. It’s a family tradition. Arguing with my dad was the worst (we have a complex relationship), and there was a rather heavy disagreement with my sister as well over the settlements and alternative medicine. But don’t get me started, as this is supposed to be a mostly apolitical blog. The theological discussions were remarkably civil.
When asked about my favorite place on the trip, I have to admit it was going to the comic book store in the metropolitan city of Tel Aviv. I love checking out comic shops when going to a new place. The beach was also nice. The Israel Museum comes highly recommended; at the time they had an exhibition on ancient Egypt. They even have the Dead Sea Scrolls, an amazing sight to see (though they don’t let you take pictures there). I did enjoy the old city of Jerusalem, with the Western Wall and the Christian District, all those old churches and ancient structures.
One project I was working on while there was an interview series with my mother. She’s had a crazy life immigrating from one country to the next three times over, and I wanted to learn more about it. I treated the interview like journalism, recorded several hours of footage, and that’s all I’ll say about that until I create something to share next year.
The days went by too fast and before I knew it was over. After a funny episode of almost being late because I needed a new belt, I was driven back to the airport. I said my goodbyes, and the exit paper was no problem. All that was left was memories and souvenirs. I was headed back to that other controversial country of China, back to what had since become familiar to me, my life in Shenzhen. Not that life is stable here, the scenery is ever-changing no matter where…
Whether one likes it or not, family is where ya come from and they are important. I hope I’m on good terms with them. I’m not happy about everything when it comes to where I am from and my past, but then again perhaps I should get over those issues and appreciate all that’s been done for me. My mom and dad did their best, they are good people, and I thank my sister so much for helping me organize this trip. I wish her the best of luck with her new family, and I am sure she will do great.
That said, perhaps next time we should all visit in another country. Somewhere chill, I wouldn’t want to get in trouble over passport customs issues or anything.