On November 4, 2008, I saw Barack Obama speak live for the first time.
It was the night he clinched his first presidential victory, and I, at the time a graduate student at the University of Chicago, had managed to score an invite to his election-night vote-tallying party in Chicago’s Grant Park. With a few fellow lucky friends, I boarded the train from Hyde Park and headed into the swarm to watch the action unfold as the polls closed on massive screens projecting live coverage of CNN.
It wasn’t long before Obama clinched Ohio and we knew he was going to take it all. It was thrilling, that night. The energy was like nothing I had ever seen. My friends and I, giddy in our “Yes we can!” T-shirts, were squatting on the grass in the middle of 240,000 people, all celebrating the same massive achievement: Our man had won. Our country had achieved something remarkable. History was in our grasp.
And then he came on stage, flanked by his family and buoyed by the cheers of what felt like an entire city. Standing in the heart of it, floating on the energy of it all, I listened to him accept the presidency and beamed with pride for playing a part in the great American democratic process.
Today, in an entirely different venue and capacity, I saw Obama speak again. Seated in the balcony at the Jerusalem Convention Center two years after immigrating to Israel and receiving a second passport, my view was better and my perspective, perhaps, was sharper.
Barack Obama is still, undoubtedly, my president. I believe deeply in his courage, his insight, and his ability to inspire and drive. But four years after Grant Park, things are different for me. I am no longer just an American. When the ceremony opened, first with “Hatikva” and then with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I held my hand to my chest and I mouthed the words to both. And when my president came out on the stage to address a crowd comprised of my people, I felt a double layering of emotions that were equal parts pride, awe and confusion.
All olim, I know, live this sort of double life, this awkward tightrope walk of currency conversions, accented speech and gestures routinely lost in translation. I may carry an Israeli passport, pay my taxes and have learned to speak Hebrew. But even in my most “Israeli” of moments – running for a safe room when the Code Red sirens wailed in Tel Aviv, or dancing with perfect strangers in Kikar Rabin on Independence Day – I still was acutely aware of being an outsider. My otherness is as marked as the accent on my Hebrew, as impossible to escape as the endless taxi drivers who turn to me after I speak and say, “You, where you from?”
But nationhood is a funny thing. It sits in your belly and it digs under your skin. It happens through osmosis, through contact, through the food you eat and the things you grasp in your hands. It wiles its way inside of you, as silent as truth, until one afternoon you are standing in a convention center during the singing of “Hatikva,” awaiting the most powerful man in the universe, and entirely gobsmacked by your reaction to a simple melody and a handful of age-old words.
I was surprised, today, when I sang the Israeli national anthem and felt goosebumps on my arms. I have been singing that song since I was a child in religious school, but today, suddenly, I realized I don’t just know what the words mean. I know what they mean to me.
And when Obama came to the stage and congratulated the young Israelis in the audience for their innovation, their courage to challenge the status quo, and their commitment to their nation, I nodded. I was proud of my president, and I was proud to be one of them.
Debra Kamin is a writer and editor at Haaretz living in Tel Aviv.
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