Dorit Sasson is the author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.
A few months ago, I emailed an old friend hoping she’d host me for the book tour for my book Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service in the Israel Defense Forces while I visit Israel with my family for the first time in five years. Two emails later, she mentioned that no one from the English teachers at the school where I once worked would really care about my story.
Once the sting had dissolved, I realized that my friend had just illuminated why I couldn’t have written my IDF memoir during the eighteen years I lived in Israel: I never felt I had a voice.
Each time I tried downloading a scene from my IDF service in Israel, a voice would try and stop me. You’re no longer a nineteen-year-old trying to prove to your Israeli father that you can become your own person. But the issues would go much deeper than that. I didn’t feel that what I did by leaving my mother and New York City was important. On one base in 1991, I’d written, “I know from all these experiences that I’ve got a story inside me I need to write one day.” But that “one day” would be almost twenty-five years later.
During all that time, I played it safe by hiding behind my American identity. From the moment I got inducted in the IDF, I was preoccupied with trying to be an Israeli. I would rarely use English, choosing to speak in Hebrew when managing a classroom and teaching English as a foreign language to Israeli schoolchildren. I was afraid to be rejected by my Israeli peers if I tried to be an individual, but deep inside I was yearning to express myself beyond the “survive and thrive” mode.
The closest I ever got to revealing a vulnerable side happened at a teacher’s meeting many years after the army. I had showcased how many of my students had come full-circle by learning to analyze American literature. I cross-paralleled their growth with my own personal breakthroughs, only to encounter dead silence by the other teachers. No one responded or asked questions. I even got a few quizzical looks and glares. It felt lonely.
That experience reminded me that no matter how hard I tried to be accepted, my individual story didn’t carry much weight. I’d have to stick with the wolf pack mentality if I wanted to make it in Israel. “I now understand that living in Israel requires a group mentality,” I include in my memoir. “Israelis thrive in groups in a way that Americans do not. Where Americans take pride in their individuality, Israelis don’t strive to be singled out – they prefer the cohesion of the whole, whether in military, religious, or secular life. They’ve earned their reputation for traveling in “wolf packs” because they tend to hang out in largish groups.”
The day finally came when I finally decided to time-travel to that period in 1990, when I decided to leave New York City forever. It was 2012, and I was five years back in the United Sates, finally mustered the courage to write about a difficult time in which I sought to prove to my Israeli father I could be my own person, away from Mom’s fears and paranoia about the Middle East.
I thought I had conquered my former anxieties once and for all when I moved back to the States, but in fact each time I wrote I felt vulnerable, scared and naked. I connected with writing groups online and in-person in my hometown to validate that part of my identity which ushered in that individuality. I could still survive and thrive in my new American home; I’d just have to switch mental and emotional gears. I didn’t have to try so hard to win over a bunch of Israelis anymore.
Over the two-and-a-half years it took to write the memoir from start to finish, I learned one important thing: the fear of writing my memoir would never go away. I would have to drum up enough will power if I wanted to take ownership. To give voice to my memoir, I needed to feel safe and emotionally supported.
Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is currently touring for the 2016 – 2017 season on her memoir Accidental Soldier through the JBC Network.
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Dorit Sasson writes for a wide range of print and online publications and speaks at conferences, libraries, and community centers. She is the author of a featured chapter in Pebbles in the Pond: Transforming the World One Person at a Time, and hosts the global radio show Giving Voice to Your Courageous Story. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her husband and two children.