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On Identity - זהות

Today's blogpost was written by Maya Kitra Vizel-Schwartz, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Lod.

What is it to be a citizen? To be a community member? To subscribe to a national identity? As a person of multiple nationalities and even more identities, these questions have been bouncing around, teetering at the surface of my thoughts since my arrival to Israel. While there are schools of thought, particular scholarships that deal with understanding such issues of complex identities, it is not so easy to pinpoint one's own identity when in the spotlight.

Attending meetings for our potential placements here in Lod, I tend to fidget in my chair when it’s time to go around and introduce ourselves in a short few seconds. We are expected to state our name, where we are from, and sometimes a brief mention of where, what, or if we studied. My name and my studies are easy. Those answers are straightforward. But the ‘where from’ part is slightly more complex. I only have a fleeting moment to express that where I am from is not singular and is not something I take lightly; it is representative of my identity, of my childhood home filled with two languages, two worlds, dark rye-bread with peanut butter, and of my summer trips to a faraway land. In an attempt to be genuine but brief, I tend to say “I’m half Danish, half American”.

However, the problem I have with perpetuating the notion of being half this and half that is that there is no room for growth or expansion in my identity. I am not 50% danish and 50% American, rather, I am fully American as well as fully Danish. I am also Jewish, and a member of the European Union, and a city person, and a nature lover, and despite already holding two passports and having deepened and expanded my identity within the past four years, I also feel connected to this strange, nuanced, and complex land that is Israel.

By simply stating that I am two halves attempting to make up a whole is diminishing to other potentialities that my identity could encompass. I view identity as being fluid and something that evolves. I was born and raised in the United States and I never really considered myself Danish, despite having the citizenship, until I moved to Denmark in 2015. Scaling the wall that is the Danish language, buying groceries and appreciating the smaller varieties that are available rather than being overwhelmed by the vastness of superstores in the US, and casually discussing the benefits of the welfare state over a craft IPA are representative of moments where I remember acknowledging my Danishness. It was in those moments I let myself allow that Danishness to sink in.

I find myself going through parallel processes here in Israel. My grandfather is originally from here and connecting with the 20+ Israeli relatives that I have has only served to create more questions than answers, regarding my identity and global citizenship. I don’t speak Hebrew, I haven’t gotten used to the banalities of everyday life yet, and I find myself frustrated at the basic tenants that compose the land (and nation) of Israel, but does this mean I am not in any way Israeli? My great-grandmother, who everyone calls Safta Dina, looked at me on Yom Kippur and didn’t see me as an American or a Dane, but simply regarded me as her first great-granddaughter, as Jakob and Birgit’s first grand-daughter, and as Dorrit and Mike’s first daughter. She saw me as family, and the rest of my Israeli relatives did too. Is it not possible that I could become Israeli too, just as I became Danish after recognising myself in the greater Danish society?

When I pass through customs at any given airport, I am forced to make a decision. I have two passports in my hand, one navy blue and the other a dark burgundy. I am both of those people, but in that situation, I must choose which identity to assume fully, and which one to shove down into my backpack, hidden, so as not to confuse the customs agent.

When I was applying for my visa to come to Israel, I also had to choose. Which passport will get that A-2 student visa imprinted into its pages? Will I be applying to this programme as a Dane or an American, or simply a Jew? Is it not possible to be all three? In thinking about this situation as I was boarding the plane to Tel Aviv from Copenhagen, I remembered a particular lecture I attended last year, in my European Union Governance course, on European identity formations and the notion of being marble cake. This may sound strange, but I resonate with the notion of identity constructed as a marble cake, with different flavours swirled in together, crisscrossing and overlapping and not existing as separate, defined tangibilities. Rather than identity being more simple than that, more straight-cut, existing separately in separate worlds, all my identities exist in the same world. For now, I will continue to introduce myself as half Danish half American, for the sake of ease and brevity. But perhaps eventually my identity will unfold and expand to encompass something else over time, and if a language surrounding the multiplicity of identities emerges, then perhaps it will become easier to express the abundance of selves that we as global citizens contain.

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