A year ago, Rosh Hashanah dinner in Israel was a cold sweat.
After all, meeting your new girlfriend’s aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents for the first time can be daunting. When you’re fresh off the plane from the United States, can hardly speak a word of Hebrew, and have to meet her whole Israeli family in one night, well… the word “immersion” gets a whole new meaning.
Over the next eight months that I spent in Israel on my gap-year after high school, I had to get very used to this phenomenon of large, intimate family get-togethers, and the particularly central role that family plays in most of my Israeli friends’ lives.
Back home in California, my friends were leaving the nest to embrace the imbroglio that is the freshman year of college. Moving their lives to various cities across the United States, they embarked on an act of separation that seemed necessary to succeed in the American college system, where classes don’t just lead you to success through complicated lectures in economics or deep literature studies, but also by instructing you in the exquisite art of independence. My friends were learning to be autonomous in a country and a college system that expects it, seeing their families during select holidays, and for some time in the summer.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to distance myself from my family. When it came to this act of college separation, I was afraid I would fail. So I took a gap-year before beginning my own four years at Stanford University, and headed to Israel to take the plunge of independence – sans the added weight of a freshman year.
As I sat at that Rosh Hashanah dinner, I marveled at the ease at which such a family gathering could be orchestrated. Back home, most of my Jewish friends were celebrating the High Holy Days on their own at college – living too far from their parents to join them for the meal. I began to understand that in Israel, this family centrality was the rule, not the exception, because Israeli society has been shaped in such a way – by the army, by the size of the country, by the norm of living close to home – that family lies paramount.
The father of my closest Israeli friend once told me that because of Israel’s history and narrative of threats faced and overcome, parents place an extremely strong emphasis on keeping family close, and safe. For many Israeli parents, nothing can compare to the importance of their children’s safety - not how much money they make, nor the height of their degree. My American parents would insist the same - and mean it – but, in our safe environment, they would send me to college with the grandest of their fears being that I wouldn’t wash my smelly laundry or cut my overgrown toenails.
This contrast in upbringing is a built-in facet of both societies. Israeli high school graduates are required to commit to several years of national service, mainly in the Israel Defense Forces. Some of them are stationed close to home, and visit frequently – whether it’s every few months, weeks or even every night, depending on their job. Even those who are stationed on the other edge of the country come home often – when you can travel from Eilat to Haifa in half a day, it isn’t hard. My average college friend, however, lives 2,000 miles away from home. No one, it seems, lives close. And no one comes home.
Returning home frequently affirms the centrality of family in a young Israeli’s life, making them stronger adults via their solid support structure. In America, it is dichotomous: We throw ourselves into the fire of independence, hoping to emerge as stronger individuals.
And neither of us - Americans nor Israelis - have it wholly right. My Israeli friends rely too much on their families, sometimes taking fewer risks with their futures and settling for familiarity, and my American friends don’t rely on their families enough - especially during college - thereby depriving themselves of an important source of support.
It’s been a whole year since that anxious Rosh Hashanah dinner. My gap-year in Israel was my chance at coming of age, my own personal Bildungsroman. It was supposed to teach me how to live away from my family, how to be independent. And it did that. But seeing the way my Israeli friends live their lives taught me that in the end it’s also okay to want to stay just a little closer to home as well.
Max Weiss is a former Haaretz intern and a current student at Stanford University, living in California.