Off the beat: Israel, the salad bowl?

I still remember that day in fifth grade like it was yesterday. “America is not a melting pot — it’s a salad bowl,” my teacher told us. “We have lots of different cultures — carrots, cucumbers, lettuce — but they don’t mix.”

Ten-year-old me, eyes full of tears, rushed home to my mom and told her distraughtly, “I don’t know which vegetable I am!”

And I still don’t. Even now, I never know what to say. English-Native American-Russian-Swiss-Scottish-ish-stuff? I’m not a vegetable. I’m a melting pot, and even then my cultural identity runs deeper than the blood in my veins. I love reading picture books with my Russian relatives, talking on the phone to my cousins from Swaziland, eating my Indian grandmother’s once-a-year home-cooked curry.

To say that people “don’t mix” seems ridiculous. Of course they “mix.” I may be blonde and pale, but I’m proud that my Native American skin tans in the summer. I’m always surprised if I go home with a friend and their parents aren’t speaking a different language, because that is what I’m familiar with.

But it was only recently, when listening to a conference call prior to my trip to Israel over winter break, that I heard those words again: “Israel isn’t like America. It’s not a melting pot, but a salad bowl.”

I immediately turned to my mom and rolled my eyes. Yeah, salad bowl and not mixing and all of that jazz. Right.

Yet, after spending time in the country, I now understand.

Spend a day in the Old City in Jerusalem, as I did with the group I was traveling with, and you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. I was struck by the city’s beauty and diversity.

Mid-afternoon on a Friday, I entered the Jewish quarter and saw bread for Shabbat in crates, little boys donning kippot, running after their fathers calling out “Abba, abba!” and the omnipresent cats of Israel slinking around buildings, chewing up leftover falafel forgotten on cobblestone pavement. I wandered to the Western Wall, the Wailing Wall, and saw Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, peyot twisted during hours spent in prayer, head bowed over the Torah. And I observed the women of the wall who also diligently prayed, tears bringing life to worship, who wouldn’t turn their backs to the wall but instead reverently backed away, step by step.

I saw the Dome of the Rock, glimmering there over the horizon. I heard the calls to prayer resonating, beautiful and spiritual. The irresistible warble drew eyes upward to that ethereal gold dome and the mosque beside it.

Then, I went into the Muslim quarter, and I didn’t need a map to know I had arrived. The signs changed to Arabic, and a cacophony of spices hung heavy in the air.  everything tempted the senses: the piles of fresh fruit in carts, aromatic street food, the music and voices.

In the Christian quarter, the signs are partially in Hebrew, partially in Arabic. I saw the sky above, the flags flying over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I stepped inside and found yet another iteration of faith: pilgrims kissing the stone of anointing in reverent prayer, seeking transportation to a heavenly realm through proper placement of the corporeal body.

So how can I say anything else? Who then are the people of Israel if not the inhabitants of a salad bowl? If Israel is the “Jewish nation,” what does that mean? The home for the Jewish people, religiously or culturally? What then for its Muslim and Christian inhabitants? They have a place in society, yet separate, in their own schools, marriages, neighborhoods — their own lives. Fall in love with someone from a different faith? Hop a plane to Cyprus or Prague — you won’t find someone to marry you here.

What then for peace? How do you generalize the issues of a conflict between people that cannot exist within the confines of generalization? How do you categorize the opinions of the Israeli people? Of the Palestinians? Intense cultural and religious ties are what makes the people so admirable and the situation so complicated.

Who then are the people who reside in this Holy Land?  Israeli. Palestinian. Secular Jewish Israeli. Armenian Israeli Christian. Palestinian Arab Israeli Muslim. They were the oppressed, are the oppressed, and they seek a home — all of them.

Being in Israel was comfortable to me. I, child of the melting pot, am comfortable being alienated from my “American” culture — whatever that means. I went, I saw, I observed. Everyone I spoke with wanted peace, but not everyone thought it was possible. After thousands of years of oppression, how do you give up the one identity to which you have clung and become first and foremost the citizen of a nation that is young enough to be your child? I honestly haven’t a clue.

And so I sit here, like the small wide-eyed child that I was in fifth grade and ask myself, if I were to live in Israel, which vegetable would I be?

Contact Megan Messerly at [email protected]