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SCOT BELLAVIA: What I Learned in Israel

Sometime in elementary school, I was taught it was ethnocentric to call myself an American because aren’t Mexicans and Peruvians and Guatemalans also in America? North, South, or Central; it’s America, isn’t it? I was told they’d be offended if they heard us call ourselves Americans since they could say the same.

I don’t know how the people to our south actually think of it, but being that they call our nation Los Estados Unidos—without “de América”—I suspect that the U. and the S. are what distinguishes us on the American continents. But with the ‘American’ nomenclature, it’s easy to make ourselves the standard against which we see everyone else.

In my first trip overseas I went to Israel, before the war. There, I met a man who had never been to the United States. At first, I was amazed I had never met someone like him before. Then I realized, “Where else would I have met someone like him?” If I had never left the country, I couldn’t meet anyone who had never been to my country.

My new friend has no plans or interest in traveling to the United States. I was amazed and partly offended as my first thought was, “Why wouldn’t he travel to the U.S.?” Then I thought, “Why should he?”. If he can fly to most of Europe as easily as I can drive to any state, why did I think the United States is a must-visit? It is one among hundreds. My trip to Israel was a lesson in such unlearning.

When I learned that the Hebrew for “no” is transliterated “lo,” I thought, “With so small a difference, why did they bother changing it from the original?” And I shook my head realizing that English is not the original but one language among thousands.

I laughed that when we drove to the Galilee two and half hours away on a Friday, friends didn’t expect us back for the next day’s Sabbath worship. In a nation the size of New Jersey, what is a day trip for Americans (there’s that misnomer) is a long weekend for Israelis.

And though I’ve gotten used to bagging my own groceries at Aldi, I wondered at the lack of customer service at the local Rami Levi. Shoppers with full carts would use the self-checkout with no mind for the lengthening line behind them. This was a taste of collectivism above individualism: the most efficient customer experience is not a priority over there.

I learned there is not a right or wrong in these; it is just different.

At home, I had always asked “Why?” about foreigners. Why do they eat that? Why do they think that? Why do they live that way? In Israel, I learned to ask “Why?” about myself.

– Scot Bellavia

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