In March 2020, I was asked to write an article on Culture and Identity relating to my life journey and reflecting on the various cultural experiences I had been exposed to. This happened at a time when the world was confronted with the pandemic of COVID19, each country proceeding differently according to its vision and sets of rules. It made me wonder what directs these reactions, what is common to all, what is different. It seemed it was the right time to reflect on how cultures generally influence our behavior and understanding of Life, particularly how it has impacted my life journey. To which extent did these cultures influence my Identity? How do I see myself and how do others see me?
Like many others, I always wanted to give meaning to my existence. Reflecting today on past experiences, the joy and the pain, I would like this paper to be more than a simple testimony. I know that it could have been told in many different ways and probably in a different style, but the important is to touch the truth and relate the many episodes of my quest in a candid way.
In this essay, I want to try and identify the challenging difficulties I have encountered when trying to adapt to the various cultures I have been exposed to. In this, I will refer to Prof. Geert Hofstede’s four dimensions of Culture [Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity and Uncertainty Avoidance. Wursten’s book “The 7 Mental Images of `National Culture” leans on Hofstede’s approach. Each country has a “score” on each dimension. What we call cultural difference is determined by how the dominant majority in a country addresses those issues.
Reading W.’s observations, I recognize the issues described in his works. It is certain that I did not have the answers to the various cultural problems identified along the way – however, by doing my best to adapt to the environment, those same efforts enriched my personality and allowed me to reveal certain angles of myself that I would not have been able to discover otherwise. A journey unfolds your potential and tells you who you are, and yes, the journey is as important as the destination.
So, how do I understand “Identity,” and how could I describe it? In attempting to do this, I will lean on Wursten’s paper (in this “special”) dealing with “Identity and the Community of Values” and on his paragraph on Culture, personality, and Identity. Like in Bob Dylan’s song “I contain a multitude,” I too am a sum of my diversity: I am a woman, brown-skin, Jewish and Israeli, I am also a mother, a daughter, a lover, a partner, a friend, a professional and for each one of these qualifications I am identified in different ways and with a different approach. The sum of these identities makes me what I am and what I have become over the years, reflecting the various cultures that have influenced my growth.
KEYWORDS: Life Changes, Adaptation, Resilience, Belonging, “Home”.
I am 75 and now live in Israel. I was born in Egypt, which I left with my parents at the age of 11 as political refugees, then spent 5 of my adolescent years in Monaco and eventually emigrated to Israel with my parents. I lived in Israel for about 16 years, dealing with a pre-arranged marriage but enjoying my young motherhood. At the age of 32, I took my destiny into my own hands and after a difficult divorce, landed in The Netherlands. I lived there for 35 years, discovering a rich culture that responded to my needs and my life vision and led a struggling but relatively happy life. However, it was obvious that I had not been able to achieve the feeling of “belonging” that I had been yearning for. I was 67 when, after many doubts and hesitations, facing many fears, I reached the profound conviction that I had to return to Israel and establish an honest connection with my country, my family and myself.
1945 – 1956 EGYPT
At the end of WWII, I was born Lily G. in the cosmopolitan city of Alexandria in Egypt. The second child of a middle-class Sephardic Jewish family, my parents (and many generations before them) were of Egyptian secular Jewish descent with multicultural/multilingual roots. The Egyptian Jews culture strongly differentiated itself from the typical Egyptian Arab population. We spoke European languages, considered ourselves a distinguished elite and married within our own community – the relationship with other various classes was respectful and harmonious. Many other nationals in Egypt flourished and appreciated each other: Greeks, Italians, French, Turks, British…, all living alongside and creating a multicultural and culinary potpourri. Religions were intermingled; Greek Orthodox, Copts, Muslims and Christians, and our Jewish Community. A Jewish religious wing lived in a ghetto known as “Sharket el Yehood” (=the Jewish Quarters). They educated their children in Jewish schools where Hebrew and French were taught and where the emphasis was on the study of the Tora and on the utopia of reaching the promised land of Israel one day. At home, they communicated in Arabic or ladino (a mix of Spanish and Hebrew born of the Sephardic exile and propagated in all Mediterranean countries). Having as many as 10 or 12 children, they had strong family values and ties lived in relative frugality. Their cooking was delicious, principally oriented to the Mediterranean style. Their integration into the Arab Culture was generally much deeper than the profane group my parents were attached to. I was a child then and never did I suspect that this society would play an important role in my Life since the man I would be married to was a member of this community.
My family belonged to a secular community attached to its Jewish Identity but felt emancipated and lived in the modern out-quarters of Alexandria. Educated in French and English, we had no particular patriotic feeling for France or England and disregarded Zionist ideals. Mine was a paternalistic nucleus with only two daughters where children, and certainly girls, did not have a right to speak, be curious or ask questions – I heard, again and again, the saying, “When adults speak, children keep quiet.” I had little affective relation with my parents – my sister, five years older, was the obedient and pleasant daughter, I was the unsubordinated little duck and rebellious tomboy. My mum, who had lost her mother being extremely young, was not inclined to demonstrate tenderness and gave little emotional or sexual education. My father’s patriarchal domination was accepted as such, and the behavior was considered as ‘the way it is and will always be.’ It sometimes glided into moderate and tolerated domestic violence – I still remember the burning cheeks after making too much noise during the holy siesta. At that age, my relation with my dad was one of owe and fear, and it was only later in my Life that I felt love and understanding for the sensitive person he was. Having almost no outdoor activities and few distractions, I sometimes played with my cosmopolitan young neighbors but more often alone and developed a strong sense of imagination. I invented characters and situations based on adventures I saw in the films my sister and I were fond of. We would visit the gloomy Cinema Hall under our building twice or three times a week. This became how I saw and understood Life, a world of fantasy made of heroic deeds, dreams, romances and idealistic relationships. At the French school, they called me Lily. I was a diligent pupil, curious and sharp but not always docile. My mother’s teaching was, “If you cannot be pretty, be at least smart,” which I must admit now was quite painful. Once a week we were taught rudiments of the Arabic language; whilst reading and writing were compulsory, we hardly ever talked, so my knowledge of the language was rudimentary – History of the Egyptian Antiquity was fascinating but, as strange as it might be, as long as I lived in Egypt, we never visited the old sites. The postcards illustrating pharaohs, tombs and magical hieroglyphs only enhanced my imagination and tendency towards mystery. I kept these precious cards in a special folder – remarkably, this treasure is one of the very rare objects I was allowed to take when we left Egypt, and which I still have. We had Arab staff to serve us and help in various domestic duties: I especially remember an adolescent young man who lived in the house and performed the necessary heavy duties: he became my friend – thanks to him I understood and even spoke a little bit of Arabic. My mum dedicated her free time to sewing, embroidering and entertaining socially. In the kitchen, she would be the Queen and prepared exquisite salty or sweet pastries that she would distribute and then hide from my sister and myself: the special treats were reserved for guests, birthday parties, or family reunions. These kahkas, samboussek and menenas would later become the symbols of our Egyptian Jewish Identity and I am proud today to deliver their “secret” recipes to my children and grand-children.
I was barely one year old when, attracted by the opportunities of the after-war, my parents moved to Paris and attempted to open a High Couture enterprise. My mum was chief Designer and Sewer, and the initiative made a good start. However, they believed children did not have their place in such an environment, and so, my sister was placed in a boarding school and I was entrusted to a nursing home where I was well taken care of. They told me I had started talking and knew already some words. Every Sunday, they would visit me – I would laugh and bubble when seeing them but cry desperately when parting again. My cries would follow them for days and nights. Finally, they decided that the suffering was not worth it a year later and moved back to Egypt. I do not know what happened in my little head then, but I was four when I finally spoke again, and then in complete sentences. “Mum, look at the bird on the tree” became the leitmotiv of the family story, which they interpreted as a manifestation of how headstrong I was already as a young child. I believe my sense of “being different” and fighting it by making every effort to “belong” started then. After that, my mum swore she would never leave Egypt again unless really forced to do so. Little did she know.
In the ’50s, Egypt underwent a revolution. King Farouk was overthrown, the Army took power, the Suez Canal was nationalized and the situation escalated. Our last years in Egypt were marked by political disturbances, secret talks with neighbors and family members, and tangible anxiety. A short time later the war was declared with France, Israel and England. All foreigners had to leave the country. I was 11 years old when the Suez Crisis reached its peak, and, as Jews carrying French Nationality, we were expelled, taking almost none of our belongings. My parents and my sister were devastated – Me? I clearly remember how thrilled I was: a new world was opening its doors – the adventure was starting.
The first Chapter of my Life ended then – its heritage would be significant for my future Identity: the Arab hospitality and generosity on the one hand and the rigid Sephardic rites and customs on the other hand, both united in a manifestation of a collectivist culture. The print of a patriarchal system, the relative trauma of war and conflicts, the expression of curiosity but also of frustrations, the importance of culinary culture, but mostly the irresistible attraction to a multicultural environment, all would influence the way I identified myself later in my Life.
A CASE OF MOVING FROM EGYPT TO FRANCE
Egypt is identified in Wursten’s 7 Mental Images as a Pyramid culture with the head signs of hierarchy, strong uncertainty avoidance and implicit order. The MAS (Masculinity versus Femininity) characteristic is not a defining element in the Pyramid. Still, Wursten agrees, it is possible to see the difference in behavior of a “hard” Masculine version of the Pyramid as in the case of Iraq and a “soft” Feminine version of that system as in the case of Egypt. Later in my Life, I discovered much stronger Masculinity features in the Israeli culture, which belongs partly to the Pyramid system.
France is characterized as a Solar System, resembling the Pyramid Culture but with much stronger individualism. People accept hierarchy, but individual rights are stressed.
1956 – 1961 – FRANCE MONACO
Lost and full of doubts concerning the future, we were rescued by the French Authorities as political refugees. My mother had family living on the French Riviera, and this location seemed to be the best haven to start a new existence. During five years, we lived in a tiny apartment together with other members of our extended family, all similarly expelled from Egypt – we were ten people, surviving the best we could in crowded conditions in the tiny Monaco which, in 1957, was not yet the luxurious resort it is today.
I was 11 and challenged by this new environment; I was immediately identified as “different,” not only dark-skinned and speaking a strong accented French, but also Jewish. We were still very close in time to the end of the second World War and all that it meant concerning the Holocaust. I was exposed to antisemitism but did not really understand what all the nasty remarks meant. A fellow pupil asked me where I hid my tail, as it was well-known that all Jews had tails. My teachers called me Mademoiselle G., first name Eliane. At home, we spoke French. My parents rarely communicated in Arabic, still often enough for me to understand the language. When confidential things needed to be discussed, their “secret” language was Italian – my sister and I never revealed we understood every word of it. That all gave us a natural multicultural and multi-linguistic environment. Like all generations before him, my father was the dominating male in the family and, though having a strong will of her own, my mother was the obedient female. To me, the French Culture was an eye-opener. Landing in the French climate of the beginning of the sixties determined my later thirst for emancipation, freedom and rebellion against our nucleus family system and mainly against the paternalistic power – I did not understand then that this would become a determining feature in my developing Identity. Surrounding Culture became vital: I discovered Art in all its forms, music, theater, literature and philosophy – these all satisfied my natural curiosity and yearning for learning and allowed me to escape the parental influence – All along the years that followed, I would search and hunger for these in my environment and, as I understand it now, use Art and Culture in their broad meanings, as a bridge to “belonging” to an educated scene.
After the first years in Monaco, struggling to be accepted by my environment and wishing to belong to that “elite,” I built strong friendships based on merit and loyalty. Boys and their sense of adventure mainly attracted me – we sailed, we made karts together, we went on climbing explorations in the back rocks of the principality – we roll-skated on the open boulevards of the little harbor, we had long philosophical discussions on books and films and the meaning of Life. We even laughed at the flirtatious attitudes of girls around us. I had no female friends and was totally ignorant of sexual things. For reasons that I do not understand until now, I experienced my first bleeding at the age of 12, without any preliminary preparation or explanation from my mother or my sister, just the remark that I was now a woman and that I had to be careful (careful of what?? The subject was taboo and was not to be discussed). In the meantime, my parents and my sister encountered difficulties integrating and building social contacts. The Monaco codes of behavior were different from those they had grown up with: after five years of residence in Monaco, we were still exposed to almost-poverty and a very frugal way of life, exacerbated by the promiscuity of the family housing circumstances. My sister, having reached her majority at the age of 21, and desperate to liberate herself from the hold of my father, paid a visit to Israel, fell in love with the country and decided she would be part of the Zionist Dream and join the youth immigrating to the new land. At the same time, my father lost his job and it was then concluded that the whole family would move to Israel. I was sixteen. I had fully integrated into the French existence. I loved my circle of friends. I loved the Culture and the promises of further high education. My parents’ decision was obviously not my first choice, but I was promised I could enter a Kibbutz, learn Hebrew intensively, and then continue my studies in either French or Hebrew. I was curious and accepted this new adventure without discussing too much without being enthusiastic. I did not have any other choice anyway.
A CASE OF MOVING FROM FRANCE TO ISRAEL
Observations on the influence of living in France most of my adolescent years:
It appears that France has a culture identified as the Solar System: “a special mix of value-dimensions with a high acceptance of hierarchy in combination with high individualism and a high need for predictability… In this sense, deductive thinking (theory first then practice) is the preferred approach and being called an intellectual is very positive”. The French have a “vertical”, hierarchical way to look at things. Loyalty, hierarchy, implicit order combined with individualistic attitude are their characteristics. From my five years in Monaco, I recognize the need to comprehend the principles and the philosophy hiding behind any decision before acting, enacting, or reacting. To me, logic is a pre-condition to action or movement. I also believe the French language is a marvelous means of communication as it contains so many ways and nuances to express your feelings or explain a logical situation. I recognize that even today, French is my preferred language to either communicate or to fully understand the book I am reading, the film I am watching, or the lecture I attend. Then, the question is how to combine this particular urge for logic and order with the need to improvise, be spontaneous, and “take risks,” which I developed later in my Life—a dualistic approach to life that has had a particular impact on my Identity.
1961 – 1977 ISRAEL.
In the aftermath of WW2, the conditions of Holocaust survivors were horrifying. Jews needed a home. In 1948, under the blessing of the United Nations, Israel, led by the Democratic Socialist Party of Ben Gurion (MAPAI), gained its independence. Hundreds of thousands of Jews from all over the world immigrated to the country. The Left would retain a socialist government until 1977, when the right-wing party of LIKUD won the plurality of the votes. It was 1961 when we immigrated to this young socialist country, proud to be the only democratic country in the Middle East, thriving in a climate of security conflicts and survival. Tsahal, the Israeli Army, was its pride and the Kibbutz, spirit of the Zionist ideology, was its predominant symbol. Like many others, we were first sent to a “Maavara,” a transit Asbestos camp where a small unit was attributed to our family. At first, no water, no gas, no electricity. I did not mind: it was all part of the adventure and I was now eager to join this collective effort.
I was Lily G. again. My Identity Card mentioned Female, Single, age 16, Jewish religion, French Nationality, new Immigrant, adopting Israeli Nationality, resident in Acre, a small town in the North of the country, where Arabs and Jews lived peacefully together.
Integration into the Israeli Culture and social climate had become a new challenge. The proper way to learn Hebrew for all immigrants was to spend a year in a Kibbutz where you learned the language, joined the community and built a lifelong friendship with other new immigrants and international volunteers. Working together in a team effort made you acquainted with the Israeli environment and way of life. Very importantly, this constituted the basis and tissue of the integration. The Israeli Culture and, in particular, the Kibbutz culture is represented by people belonging to “in-groups.” The in-group members mutually help and protect each other in return for loyalty. Therefore, this approach is on the other side of the prism compared to the individualistic attitude of the French Culture to which I had been exposed in my adolescent years in Monaco. That in itself represented already a challenge to my understanding of Life.
My parents were immediately comfortable in Israel and welcomed a way of life to assimilate to their Egyptian past. They were happily surprised to reconnect with good friends who had found their way to Israel immediately after the Exodus of Egypt and who very kindly led the way with advice and counseling about working and schooling. For them, the Kibbutz and Israeli Army (compulsory for boys and girls at the age of 18) were synonyms to abomination for young virgins. They strongly advised against joining any of them. Very rapidly, my sister, aged 22 got engaged and married shortly after that. My case was somewhat different. Wishes to enter a Kibbutz or to pursue my high education in a French Institution in another city were rejected. Despite my reluctance, it was decided that I would enter an accelerated Secretarial Course to obtain some skills proper to a girl future. Soon I acquired a basic knowledge of Hebrew and was accepted as a Junior Secretary in a large international company. I believe my parents were overwhelmed by the naïve but impetuous adolescent I was. Eager to discover Life, I represented a real danger for them. And so, the familiar pattern of marriage and starting a family offered the safest way to deal with the situation. Since married women are exempted from military service, it would also solve that point. The ideal suitor was found very rapidly: M. was a “serious” and honest young man, seven years older, born in Egypt, religious, and son to a large family who had been a respected member of the Jewish Orthodox Community in Alexandria. Despite my protests, I was 17 when we were married. My name changed, a symbol of a renewed identity. I became Mrs. Lily A. It seemed the family culture was more robust than any reasonable objections and every effort was made to convince me that I had to comply with the norms. And again, what choice did I have?
My husband and I had received no sexual education and had no experience. We had both been pushed into what was considered the normal way of Life. There was no guidance, no advice, no knowledge whatsoever of what I could expect on our first night. Having always been such an extravert and articulate joyous person, my mother and sister assumed I knew everything there was to know and they hid in a comfortable silence (or denial?). The handkerchief my mother-in-law handed to me after the religious wedding ceremony was supposed to be shown with fresh blood the morning after as proof of my virginity. A curious repulsive primitive family culture that could not be honored since an unusual physical problem prevented the consummation of our marriage. This brought a great deal of tension to our starting union. Only after six months was the issue solved by medical intervention causing significant psychological damage on both of us. Shortly after, our union was blessed with the birth of two daughters. I stopped working and dedicated my days to educating my children, trying honestly to comply with the marriage life dictated by my husband’s family and the Israeli society of those days.
I adored my children. Despite everything, there was some kind of happiness built around the children and the traditional Jewish Life. I did not always understand the why’s and when’s of the Jewish observance, but I did my best to follow the requirements the best I could. Our intimate relations were simply disastrous: In the ’60s visiting a psychotherapist in Israel was unusual and was pointed at as a failure in the marriage. My husband categorically refused to seek assistance and believed that our problems would be solved if I would “better” believe in God and his powers. These subjects were absolute taboos for my mother and sister, and I could not confide in them. My thirst for independence and emancipation started awakening and were the main causes of conflicts and frustrations as I often revolted against the absurdity of the dictated religious customs. With hesitant confidence in my abilities, I went back to work, developed some social contacts and participated in sportive activities. Soon, it appeared that my secretarial skills and linguistic qualities were appreciated and I was rapidly promoted. The modest financial contribution of my salary was welcome, allowing me to have limited self-determination and empowering me to develop a more assertive personality.
Towards the whole world, my husband and I played the game. We pretended everything was fine but, after ten years of marriage, we were confronted with the simple fact that I could not satisfy my husband’s needs, nor did I comply with the image of the perfect Jewish spouse. Another turbulent three years eventually led to a total rupture. My children were only 9 and 11. Divorce was finally pronounced, but since it was argued that I could not educate my daughters under Orthodox Jewish tradition, I was declared “unfit mother” by the religious judges. Based on the godly indictments, the children were entrusted to their father. I was devastated. My children were distressed and could not cope with the tragedy falling on their young lives. I was strongly criticized by my family and the Israeli society in general: It was all my fault, and I had dared to brave all taboos. Despite everything, I refused to reciprocate the accusations and “defend” myself – If my children were to be educated by their father, I wanted his figure to remain as untouched as possible and I never spoke of the infidelities or other dramatic circumstances leading to our final separation. No financial compensation was granted, and, at the age of 32, I found myself destitute of everything. At the same time, my father died after a long and difficult illness and losing him added to my despair. Sadness and depression invaded my Life and I experienced immense anger towards the Jewish Religion and the country in general. Israel had confronted me with two wars (in 1967 and again in 1973), with an unhappy marriage and with a horrible divorce, Israel had taken my children away from me, and I had no clue how to hold on to Life. Still, somehow, my sense of survival was pushing me forward.
A CASE OF MOVING FROM ISRAEL TO THE NETHERLANDS
Israel: In W.’s mental images, Israel is identified as a combination of system 4 Pyramids, and System 6, The Well-Oiled Machine.
Looking at my history as a member of a Sephardic family, my experience confirms the “hard” side of the Pyramid. To me, Israel represents masculine and pure collectivist society with as a primary characteristic the importance of family and religious groups. It shows a hierarchical implicit order and a large power distance. Competition plays an important role. The contrast with The Netherlands was a cultural shock and demanded more than ten years of adaptation: In my experience, the most challenging cultural differences I encountered in my life.
The Netherlands and its people have long played an important role as the center of cultural liberalism and tolerance. It has a high individualistic and feminine culture with a small power distance, where everyone is involved in the decision-making process. The dominant principle of consensus defines this “Network” system: The Netherlands believes in equality. All stakeholders are treated equally. There is suspicion towards winners and heroes, sympathy for the underdog, a fierce reluctance to enforce rules and a preference to reflect before acting. The system tends to people-orientation and to favor cooperation rather than competition. This Culture announces that small is beautiful and that the quality of life is more important than being the best.
1977 – 2012. NETHERLANDS
Amid the divorce storm and adding some extra sharpness to it, I met J., a Dutch teacher and scuba-diving monitor visiting Israel. Very rapidly, we fell in love and after some time spent together in Israel, the decision was made to move together to The Netherlands to try and build a new shared life based on trust and loyalty. I know today that this step, as painful as it was, was a desperate need for survival. From the start, J. had been clear that he would not consider my children as his, so creating a geographical distance with my children meant there would be no hope whatsoever ever to regain them. This represented an extraordinary challenge and barrier to any possible happiness, with or without a new partner, but I was blinded by the circumstances and did not understand it at that moment.
Very soon, the hopes of well-being in a renewed reality were challenged by a new culture in all its rude aspects, a new language and harsh weather to which I had never been confronted before. I had no friends and no family and principally, the fact that I was separated from my children provoked an immense sadness, combined with unavoidable feelings of guilt. It was obvious that J. could not offer the understanding, moral support, and compassion I needed. There were many frustrations on both sides, not being able to provide what we had hoped for, still not realizing we did not have the keys and codes to each other’s paths.
Now remarried, I had once again a new “identity.” I answered to the name of Mrs. B, Lily for some, Eliane for others. I worked in an international organization where I could use my linguistic skills and dedicated many hours to my tasks. I learned Dutch and tried to adapt to many cultural and social codes of a new country. At first, people’s behavior and reactions seemed strange and incomprehensible. It created a real challenge for me. Being an extrovert person, I had a tendency to express myself loudly and was in great need of tactile contact – I was quick in touching and kissing new friends and was very demonstrative in my comportment. Some welcomed my lack of “etiquette” as a refreshing surprise; others were startled and uncomfortable with it. We recognized that J. and I had significant cultural differences; I conceived one of my positive character traits was perceived as bizarre/unacceptable behavior. Moving from the exuberant Israeli Culture to the Netherland’s Society of restraint, equality, and autonomy required time and patience, not my strongest attributes.
I know today that Dutch Culture is represented by four C’s: consensus, cooperation, collegial administration, and co-optation (Wursten, H. (2019)): Reflection before action and reluctance to enforce rules, all quite the opposite to the Israeli way of Life. Daily, this was a real challenge. Dutch new friends gave me support and understanding and appreciated my combativeness. I found refuge in the international community within my work environment, where foreigners could compare experiences and develop close friendships. Underestimating my struggling and inability to comprehend the roots of my uneasiness, J. thought I was too emotional, oversensitive, easily hurt or offended – frequently upset – and he encouraged me to develop a thicker skin and adopt a pragmatic attitude. It was all alien to me and had a disastrous impact on our union. Once again, it was pointed that, despite all my efforts to integrate this new society, I was not successful in binding with my environment. Within a couple of years, an emotional and painful distance grew between us that we would find impossible to overcome in the future.
Within my “integration,” I sought psychological assistance less than two years. I welcomed three years of full therapy to share my sentiments, explain my frustrations, and professionally find support. Mainly I could freely express my pain and attempt to control my feelings to a certain extent. Healing started and with it, a certain sentiment of relief and freedom. Eventually, J. and I divorced but continued to see each other, met mutual friends, sailed and even traveled regularly together. Still, the initial love and attraction never returned, and I slowly found peace with that.
I visited the children frequently and, despite their father’s injunctions not to meet me, we arranged to see each other in public places and kept contact. Very rapidly, their father had remarried and I knew the relationship with their stepmother was not an easy one. We tried to have happy moments together though I regularly had to face the allegations of having abandoned them, accusations repeatedly pronounced by their father and immediate environment. My mother failed to understand but was now more demonstrative of her affection for me. She continued cherishing my daughters and happily entertained the link to the family and the Egyptian culture. We would often reunite around her table when visiting Israel, enjoying her cooking and specialties. In time we all found a relative balance in our relations. There were happy moments and sad ones, pleasures, and pain, but the contact was never broken. There was the time when after years of refusing to call me “mum,” my youngest daughter finally said the word “Ima” – but there was also the day when as a young bride, she asked her stepmother rather than me to accompany her to the altar. Both my daughters married and gave me grandchildren – at the age of 45, I was delighted to become “savta” for the first time. I continued to visit very often and was there every time my daughters made me savta again. Those were great moments of joy and happiness and, with time, my anger towards Israel soothed down. My six grandchildren knew that I did not live in Israel all along the following years. Still, they expected my regular presence, on special occasions and especially on festive holidays – the bonds were strengthened: we would laugh and play and visit sites around. I represented for them the non-standard granny who could tell stories about her many journeys and who would bring presents from her travels. Every two years, I would finance their visit to The Netherlands to spend quality time together and in an attempt to share my lifestyle with them. Even though we saw each other regularly, separation was difficult to endure and was only tolerated because they knew I was financially dependent on The Netherlands. Slowly a tacit understanding grew in their minds: Upon retiring, I would be free to return to Israel and spend the last chapter of my Life close to them. I did not confirm, nor did I deny such considerations. To me, this vision of the future was full of family promises and accompanied by fears and strong hesitations. I knew how difficult it would be to live in the Israeli society, braving all the critics related to the past and trying to comply with values that were not mine. In the ’80s, Israel changed – the Left was outvoted – religious and right-wing parties gained political power and strongly influenced daily Life. For example, public transportation was no longer available on Sabbat. Other attempts to limit the individual freedom of secular citizens were installed, and I foresaw I would experience significant conflicts in that country that was mine and yet not mine. The political scope changed again when peace was attained with Egypt and Jordan and when the Oslo agreements were signed, a positive development in my eyes.
Professionally I developed my career at a rewarding speed. Exposed to the principles of democracy and solidarity in the world, my international work brought me to developing countries, to the challenges of democracy, poverty, education gaps and gender equality, and various other issues close to my interests. The many countries I visited in those years offered me the opportunity to discover and better understand national customs and traditions, different philosophies and different kitchens but also to enrich myself with arts within a multitude of aspects: literature, theater, museums, music. Home, I followed various courses in Art, photography and history – I developed my knowledge of Dutch and studied Spanish – I rediscovered Arabic. I realized how anchored the language had been in me. I continued being curious and thirsty for new experiences. By now, I had friends in a large multicultural scope, scattered worldwide. I loved my work – I liked my life, and still, I often felt lonely. I very much realized that I belonged to two different worlds. My attachment to The Netherlands was based on a comfortable life surrounded by intellectual and social links – my attachment to Israel was a familial and emotional one that, I knew, had the potential to provide me with the feeling of affiliation I was seeking. I knew that I would not be able to stabilize intellectually, culturally and emotionally until, in time, I would make a decision and choose one of these two worlds. I realized how much my philosophy and attachment to the Dutch lifestyle were a determining factor in my quest, but the attraction to the family circle was still undeniable.
During the 35 years I lived in The Netherlands, there were several attempts to start new romantic relationships with different potential partners, but they all failed. It could be interesting to explore the reasons for these failures, but, in a nutshell, I believe they were all related to my fear of emotional contact, combined with the implicit possibility to move back to Israel
I was 59 when “my” international organization merged with a French organization, stopped its activities in The Hague and moved its Head Office to Barcelona. I was offered a position there: It meant leaving my Dutch comfort zone, facing new challenges and changing Culture again, a step I had reserved for eventually making the big jump and moving to Israel. However, after considering it seriously, I eventually rejected it. I was reluctant to stop working at my age. Still, it was wiser to accept unemployment and enjoy the offered compensation scheme, which, in time, would be added to my retirement plan and ensure financial security for the rest of my life, which would be an asset if leaving The Netherlands. I had loved my job and was very sad to quit it but accepted this turn of circumstances and looked forward to dedicating more time for traveling and discovering new places in the world.
In the subsequent years, waiting for retirement, I ensured income by accepting odd jobs like cleaning homes and babysitting. I volunteered my knowledge and experience of logistics in assisting in the organization of a Peace World Congress where hostile parties were offered to dialogue and attempt to find solutions on the local level to their respective conflicts. Part of this congress was dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian issue in which I was offered to play an active role as moderator. In preparation for the official congress sessions, we held small informal workshops. We assembled representative mayors of both parties with third countries officials willing to assist in the process. Local representatives of Israel, Palestine, The Netherlands, France and England were around the table and exchanged fierce discussions. Being the only one mastering all languages, I was asked to facilitate the exchanges and interpret between the parties. I was then amazed to note how emotionally involved I was in my desire to see peace installed in “my” country. The absurdity of the political situation was so obvious that I came to reflect on how my Jewish/Israeli Identity, combined with my Egyptian/Arab self, could exist in relative harmony and thrive on European ground. I also understood that my Jewish and Zionist aspects were much stronger than I had wanted to admit. With geographical and time distances, my anger with the country had diminished and a stronger feeling of Zionist Identity had emerged, probably triggered by the murder of Rabin and the aborted Oslo agreements.
In November 2010, I celebrated my 65th birthday, the official time for retirement and the pension plan payment that would ensure financial freedom and security. The pressure exercised by the family started counting and I knew that time to decide was approaching. I now considered the possibility of moving to Israel as a reality and studied it as a Feasibility Project. I fixed several goals and conditions, studied the potential plan with the children, and asked for their assistance in terms of emotional support and financial planning, living location, occupation, and hobbies. I then was delighted to observe a solid push on their side and allowed the idea to grow in my mind. A year later, my mum died and I inherited the role of Matriarch of the family. Within a couple of months and without reflecting too much, the decision was made. A rented apartment was found in the vicinity of my daughters and the necessary arrangements were finalized both in The Hague and in Israel. It felt like a precipitated step but, in truth, the idea had been maturing in my mind for years now; the doubts and fears had been considered and confronted, I was excited, afraid, sad and happy at the same time and knew I had to answer to the impulse without looking back and hoping for the best. Holland would always remain my (second?) home and my attachment to the country and its people, to my friends, to all the things I had learned and enjoyed, would always be part of myself.
Now, it was time to go and face my demons.
A CASE OF MOVING BACK FROM THE NETHERLANDS TO ISRAEL
Thirty-five years later, leaving The Netherlands and immigrating to Israel, I encountered even more difficulties accepting Israeli society. Re-adapting to Israel of nowadays represented a clear and demanding challenge.
The Netherlands has a highly individualistic and feminine culture where everyone is involved in decision-making. It had taken me many years to adapt to the Dutch Society. Still, by now, I knew that The Netherlands and its Network system answered my inner need for consensus. I recognized that the qualities of a feminine Society were the ones I was comfortable with.
On the other side of the spectrum, I found the Israeli Culture with the Pyramid’s predominant characteristics of collectivism and the “well oiled” machine emphasis on High Masculinity. In many layers of the Israeli society, a firm “manly” behavior (almost “macho”) is admired: men’s weakness is not favorably regarded and in the political arena, leftish ideas are generally not favored. By extension, the woman is expected to be portrayed as pretty, attractive, and feminine. Her behavior is expected to be “suitable” for a spouse, a mother, a fashion model. In total contrast, the woman in a Kibbutz or in the Army is freed from that stereotype image and appreciated for her intelligence and freedom of thought. Though high education is valued, the role of a skilled female in Israeli society is often challenged and the woman is observed with defiance. Israel is a land of immigration and diversity, and despite that, there is little tolerance for differences and high expectations to submit to a “standard patron.” All this is in line with a High Uncertainty Avoidance.
2012 – TODAY
In September 2012, I put my belongings in a container on its way to Haifa, closed the rented apartment in The Hague and said goodbye to all my friends. I made my way to Israel with mixed feelings of gladness, excitement and determination and sadness, and a great deal of apprehension. The first joys of both my family and myself were authentic. In this case, the prodigal son’s daughter’s return was acclaimed and celebrated. The children and grandchildren, all of them, were delighted. I was helped in various ways, moving-in, installing new material, organizing administrative issues, buying a car. First contact with the Israeli administration was arduous. After the Dutch efficiency, the disorganization and corruption of the Israeli systems in all governmental institutions were challenging to observe and endure. It took about six months until all administrative matters were more or less settled.
After the first enthusiastic reactions of my family, Life returned to “normal,” and everybody accepted my presence as a matter of course. For them, things were as regular as could be. I had a fair knowledge of Hebrew, I had already lived here and I was familiar with the peculiarities of the country – they only expected minor problems of adaptation to the Israeli Culture. In their minds, it was just a matter of time before I accepted my new Life and started acting in the same way my fellow citizens did.
On my side, I was confronted with a different society than the one I had known some 40 years ago. I observed severe fundamental changes, which I had noticed during my visits but which I found profoundly deceptive now that I had to live with them. The old Kibbutz spirit of solidarity and team effort had disappeared, leaving a place for an individualistic, defensive, and rather aggressive society. While the Dutch had taught me consideration and guided my behavior towards doing my best to be civil towards ‘the other,’ I found a society incredibly turned towards itself. The overall basic lack of kindness and the harsh reactions, rudeness and disrespect were difficult to observe. The solidarity only reappeared in times of conflicts and immediate security threats. On these occasions, the dominant tendencies predominated: blind obedience to the leader led even to a lack of democratic principles. Furthermore, I was profoundly disturbed by the occupation of the Palestinian Territories, which most citizens defended while hate and incitement were a dominant ingredient when dealing with the Arab question, or at least that’s how I perceived it.
The print of the American Culture was more and more discerning. I observed strange phenomena of exaggeration in all fields, in daily behavior, in ceremonial events: Weddings and other family celebrations were conducted in a magnified amplitude, with huge parties counting no less than 500 to 800 guests – totally opposed to the Dutch manners where the moto is oriented towards modesty and humility ‘Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg’: “Just act normally, that will be crazy enough.”
Where the accent in The Netherlands had been put on moral values, self-development, social contact, entertaining based on travels, Art and Culture, connection to nature and its preservation, I found here a very materialistic consumer society, attracted by money and power and by the external appearance of people and belongings. At the same time, I realized I suffered a cultural shock and my observations were too critical and negative. It led to misunderstandings with my immediate environment, clashes with others, and almost isolation. Fortunately, the beach which has always been present in my life, was there to welcome me and provide a place of pleasure and comfort. Sun, sea and sand became my daily vitamins and a refuge for my thoughts and meditation. I was thrilled by the vicinity of my family and the fact that I could visit my grandchildren as often as I wished. We organized family dinners and opportunities to be together. I observed them and tried to understand their motives, habits, music, and even their “tribal dialect” – it was instructive and funny though sometimes frustrating as it was clear I was still the outsider.
The first year was dedicated to several initiatives attempting to integrate to society and reach the stadium of being included. I subscribed to lectures on Art History and World Politics, joined a circle of Yoga, enjoyed group excursions, participated in festivals of all sorts, volunteered for assisting international activities and in a general way, tried to be open-minded towards all that was offered to me in “my” country. The issue of “belonging” played a significant role. All my efforts in this concern went towards social contacts, particularly my children and extended family. I became very attached to my sister’s tribe. Being very ill and incapacitated, I tried to play an effective and assisting role with her children. I organized large family dinners and joined all celebrations and ceremonies. Hosting all of them regularly was part of this. I tried to follow the country tradition of generous hospitality and adapt to the overflowing quantities typical of the Israeli table. It seemed quantity was as important as quality and here again, the Dutch frugality was not a favored concept.
Simultaneously, I entertained strong ties with my overseas friends and mainly with those closely surrounded me in The Netherlands. Rapidly I invited some of them to come and visit me in my new home. It was vital and refreshing to follow their lives, preserve our friendships, hear their opinions and bits of advice, and entertain contacts with what I considered to be “normality.” They had been my family for 35 years and they were those with whom I felt comfortable and who were able to support and encourage my venture. Moreover, I was determined to continue my travels and discoveries of the world. I then accepted their very kind invitations to either share their homes or occupy their apartment while they were leaving it for the summer holidays. It soon became a habit and I was delighted to spend all my summers in Europe, taking distance with daily Life and slowly gaining some objectivity on Israel, which I now consider to be ‘my’ country.
I have lived here for eight years already. It has been an arduous process of adaptation. Yet, strangely the COVID19 social crisis has brought positive developments in this: Whereas I was despised and strongly criticized for my controversial “leftish” opinions and anti-conflictual attitude, I am now happy to observe an awakening of the Israeli society, protesting violently against the government political response to the pandemic crisis, a cry to which I can identify and which makes me feel more at ease in this right-oriented society.
Wursten’s 7 Mental Images affirm that “inclusion is about people with different identities feeling accepted and being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting.” On the other hand, Geert Hofstede argues, “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster,” and Wursten adds, “Culture cannot explain everything under the sun, but it certainly helps.”
Wursten, H. (2019). The seven Mental Images of culture. Hofstede Insights. (quoted with permission)