Editor’s Note: At the author’s request we will use the term American to refer to citizens of the United States, as opposed to US American.

Reclaiming Identity

The more I mingled with these Old World cultures, the more I realized, after years in the New World, that we had diverged.

Sep 4, 2016

Since 1999, the Birthright Israel Foundation has paid for young Jews from all over the world to visit Israel. In a free ten-day trip, predominantly high school graduates along with freshman and sophomores in college are marched around Israel in a bid to unite those of Jewish heritage. As I queued for Lufthansa flight 403 to Frankfurt, I observed the latest batch of American Jews bound on such a journey.
While I was not among the group of -bergs and -steins embarking on a Birthright trip, the flight set the tone for the remainder of the summer. Like many of those that accompanied me across the Atlantic, I was an American several generations removed from the boat. Being of Polish and Ashkenazi heritage — ignoring the fact that I had spent less time wearing a yarmulke and more time eating wafers on Sunday — I fit in remarkably well.
As I touched down successively in Krakow and then, a week later, Tel Aviv, I hoped I would feel this greater sense of home I had heard others in line describe in exploring their roots. I wanted that sense of lost kinship that programs like Birthright Israel claimed to restore. Nevertheless, as I departed both Chopin and Ben Gurion airport, my home remained in New Jersey.
After the summer across the Atlantic, I became, if anything, more ardently American. The reasoning behind this was less than simple. In fact, it took me quite a while to realize it myself, but at its core it was a rejection of a common narrative offered by those who reconnect with their heritage. It was a rejection of the idea that a part of one’s culture was lost when their family migrated, and that only by going to this place of origin could they hope to be whole. The concept began to suggest my creole traditions were some bastardization of a truer culture, incapable of being venerated in their own right. After years of challah French toast and kielbasa sandwiches, there was no way that could be the case.
At times, the narrative of cultural bridging stood firm. As I sat in a beer garden in Krakow, these noses distinctive of south Polish heritage stood out to me like I was at another family function back home, bludgeoned by a fury of hugs and kisses from relatives whose names I had forgotten. It came again on the banks of Warsaw’s Vistula river as I heard teenagers belching out a drunken rendition of Sto Lat, a song I’d never heard outside of family birthday parties before. However, these moments of cultural union gave way to larger divisions. Indeed, crappy Israeli bagels, deprived of proper cream cheese and any reasonable sense of sponginess, were indicative of a general Israeli ignorance of all things Yiddish, reducing elements of my family’s lexicon to mere tchotchke’s of Jewish history. Childhood stories of the Polka dancehalls, where my grandparents met, were further replaced in Poland with tales from older generations of the oppression under Stalin. The more I mingled with these Old World cultures, the more I realized, after years in the New World, that we had diverged.
I ultimately understand the attractiveness of looking abroad for a sense of self. Many feel alienated by the country their family migrated to and going abroad is their means to regaining a sense of belonging. But for others, this narrative of getting on a plane to find your roots denies the significance and uniqueness of being a member of an immigrant community. Immigrant identities are unique in their own right and, in my own experience, where I find my lost tribe.
Thomas Klein is Opinion Editor. Email him at
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