One of the more recognizable faces at this week's Fourth Annual Ashdod Symposium on Immigration and Absorption was a Boston boy made good. David Blatt, the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, moved to Israel in 1981 and has become an integral part of the local basketball scene. The 52-year old spoke to Haaretz about his immigration experience.
"As a boy in Boston, they would drive me on weekends to the Reform temple. I went to Hebrew school until my bar mitzvah twice a week, and at the end of every class we were asked to donate money to Israel," he recalled. "That, more or less, summarized my contact with the country until then. My mother would say she's waiting for a Jewish bride. It was the education I grew up with. I didn't come to Israel for Zionist reasons, but I was lucky because in Israel I became much more Jewish and much more Zionist."
Blatt said he learned to speak Hebrew without ever being in a formal education setting, and people still ask him if he speaks the language. He says he writes Hebrew with difficulty, and regrets missing out on ulpan, the intensive Hebrew course that immigrants traditionally take.
"I say that half-embarrassed. In Israel you learn to get by real quickly."
He played basketball for Princeton University. Bob Gonen, a short coach from Kibbutz Gan Shmuel approached him after a game against Columbia. Gonen, who was originally from the United States, told Blatt he "didn't play too badly, and he wanted me to come to Israel," Blatt recalled. Gonen told him to volunteer on the kibbutz, to experience Israel and to get to know its basketball. "I didn't hesitate, I saw it as an opportunity."
Princeton wasn't a great match for him, says Blatt, who went to public school and grew up in a diverse neighborhood. "My mother wanted me to continue studying law and not go to Israel," he said. "I still came, and I was treated so warmly. I had an adoptive family, the Levys, who hosted me like only Israelis can. I felt so good about it. A year later I came with the U.S. national team for the Maccabiah, knowing I would join one of the Israeli teams. Because of sports and because of the people I felt connected to Israel."
Blatt says his service in the Israel Defense Forces was one of his most significant bonding experiences with the country. "I was on Hapoel Jerusalem at the time and really wanted to keep playing," he says. "My job was as kitchen food supplier on the Schneller base."
Over the years, Blatt said, he didn't have a hard time learning to get along with Israelis, but some things were harder than others. He said Americans have a system, where if you go by the book things work out.
"In Israel I learned not everything is straightforward, and it's hard for me to understand. Every time they talk with me they say, 'I read that you said this, I heard you said this.' First of all I am covered way too much. Why should a basketball coach get so much coverage? It stupefies me sometimes." Referring to other symposium attendees, he added: "Educated, amazing people sat here. I just work with big, sweaty guys."
Blatt said that although he does not feel he is a typical immigrant, many in Israel still seem to treat him like a foreigner. "It's okay," he says. "There are so many beautiful things about being a new immigrant in Israel because it's the Judaism that bring us closer and gives us the feeling that we are indeed together. He notes: "No doubt my language and my accent make me stand out and give people the feeling that I'm different. Ethiopians and South Americans also have their culture. It adds something beautiful and special for me."
Maccabi's last season gave him a measure of respect with fans he did not have during his previous stint with the team, 10 years ago. He said he is glad that they know and appreciate his work but that it doesn't make him any happier. "It can all disappear in a moment. What fulfills me about my job is the ability to make an impact, to speak with a school class about values education and the right outlook on life. These things make me appreciate myself more."
At a conference discussing absorption, Blatt had some of his own tips for immigration success. He said that while it is possible to make friends here and to go days without speaking Hebrew and not connect with the language or the culture, it would be a fatal mistake to miss the opportunity to be a part of Israeli society and contribute to it and feel Israeli. "You're not only here for what the country can give you," he said, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy. "Rather because of what you can give your country."