by Edoe Cohen, cross-posted with permission from eJewishPhilanthropy
I was neither born nor raised in Israel. My Israeli parents moved to the States in the late 70s and I grew up in Los Angeles, where I never really felt very American. I also never appreciated or understood why my parents insisted on sending me to Hebrew school and summer programs in Israel. Looking back, I think I did understand that my family was different. That all of us Israeli transplants, my parents, their Israeli friends and all the kids, were different.
We moved to Israel when I was a teen and settled near Jerusalem, but it took me nine years to really and truly feel and identify as an Israeli. It is strange to imagine the Jewish people returning to their homeland after two thousand years of exile and then the first generation of Israeli-born children finding their way back into exile. My grandparents came to Israel from Romania, Bessarabia, Iraq and Morocco; my parents came to L.A. from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I sometimes joke that I have all the Jewish geographic extremes in my blood – Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, America and Israel. Is there something inherent in the Jewish psyche that drives us to explore, to move, to not feel settled for too long in any one place?
What once confused and frustrated me, this mixed identity and time spent in Israel and abroad, today inspires me, forms my identity and shapes my vision and work. Having lived outside of Israel, my army service was infused with the knowledge of exile, a sensation my tzabar (native Israeli) friends did not share. Although I did not grow up with anti-Semitism in my life, I was able not to take the Jewish state for granted; a frame of mind that guided my infantry army career of six years, a career that in my American youth I could have never imagined.
And when I arrived on the Columbia University campus in New York after my military service, I arrived as an Israeli, my American identity only on display when I flashed my American passport in JFK and or spoke in my accentless English. Most of my Israeli friends on campus focused on exploring the city and excelling in their studies. I also studied hard, but my Israeliness was hard earned and I could not remain passive as my country was publicly bashed on campus. Interestingly enough, my approach to Israel advocacy centered around cultural diplomacy. Here I was, bringing Israeli bands and films to an American campus – artifacts belonging to a culture that was foreign to me, but now my own. Sort of.
On campus I saw the different chapters of my life, my different personalities, manifested in entire Jewish sub-communities: Israeli students, orthodox, conservative, reform, secular Jewish students. I identified with each, because I was each. In the IDF, a sense of shared mission and purpose helped me and my comrades transcend our socio-economic, religious, ethnic and political differences. As a student activist on campus, I had no way of importing that experience. But I could import the soundtrack. I could bring to campus the sounds, colors and tastes of the Israel I had learned to love. An Israel that will without mercy challenge and push you forward to discover your potential, then call you achee (my brother) and mean it. A country that goes through the impossible every single day, but has the songs and celebrations to get us through. An Israel whose sons and daughters sacrifice so much, but have developed a creative energy that gives them a competitive edge to inspire the world.
It was this Israel that I tried to bring to campus through music, concerts, film festivals and the student run Cafe Nana. It was this Israel I saw unite students on campus when they all danced together to songs of Hadag Nachash and ate hummus with Lemonana.
And now I am back in Israel working to bring this culture online for the world to discover and for Israelis to rediscover. I definitely believe that as Jews we have a calling to explore, to move, to not feel settled, to chase justice and create peace. I believe in the power of art, music and culture to challenge us, to nurture our drive and to bring us together.
Edoe Cohen is the creator of Omanoot – Israel through Art, an e-commerce website that enables users around the world to explore Israeli art and culture online. Cohen served in the IDF’s infantry as a company commander. A graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, Cohen is currently pursuing his MBA from the Kellogg-Recanati International EMBA program.