Originally published in Danish translation in Rambam: journal of political culture and research
A Cosmopolite at Large
How a nice Jewish boy like me ended up in a goyish place like this
I’ve lived in Denmark for 15 years now, and I still feel like an outsider. But, hey, that’s not so strange. After all I am Jewish; we Jews are perennial outsiders. We’re contributors to the mainstream, yet never quite considered an integral part of the mainstream. We’re familiar with all forms of persecution, and we’re always on the move. Oh yes, Jews get around, and I’m no different.
When I was one-year-old, I got the travel bug and decided to emigrate from my birthplace of Beer-Sheeba to Los Angeles. Okay, the decision may not have been entirely mine. My parents were moving back to the States after four years in Israel. After settling down in Southern California, they tried unsuccessfully to move to Israel in 1970 before they made the move back permanently in 1979. And although they’ll now stay put in Israel for the rest of their days, they still like to travel a lot. What’s more, wherever they choose to go, they can find a family member to stay with, including of course, Denmark. I represent the Scandinavian Shafirs.
They don’t call us wandering Jews for nothing
Where all this Jewish wanderlust started, I do not know. The farthest back we can trace our family lineage is to Poland where, in 1772, the Jews were forced by the newly occupying forces of Austria to take conventional surnames. The name Mozyk Mandelbaum Szafir was officially registered. For the next 150 years or so, the family’s urge to wander dissipated. They stayed in Poland and apparently married whomever happened to be nearest. My maternal grandmother Helen and grandfather Willie had a double wedding together with Helen’s brother who married Willie’s sister. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were first cousins. Even after the family was forced by persecution to escape over the oceans to the US and Israel in the 20s and 30s respectively, the intermarrying wasn’t over. My dad left Israel to attend university in the States where he ended up marrying my mom – his second cousin (which, friends can’t resist pointing out, explains a lot).
But after that, the family circle began to widen. And widen some more. My Uncle Hal is married (third time) to a Mexican. My Uncle Jerry is married to an El Salvadoran. My cousin Lisa is married to an Afro-American. My second cousin Steve is married to an Australian. My brother Gary’s first wife was an Israeli of Lebanese descent. His second wife is a Chilean now living in Israel. My brother Dave’s wife is an Israeli whose family moved to Israel from Morocco. And then there’s me. I met my wife on Kibbutz Hagoshrim when I was there with the Nachal (an Israeli army program), and she was there with Dakiv (an acronym for Danish Friends of the Kibbutz, or as some people liked to call it, Shiksas Incorporated).
Why do I live in Denmark, you ask (Sometimes I wonder, too)
I live in Denmark because I fell in love with Lene. We married young, grew up together, and eventually started a family. I have two children who were born here, and I’ve lived here for 15 years now. That’s two-thirds of the time I spent in the States and about three times longer than I lived in Israel. I feel comfortable in Denmark, but I wouldn’t exactly say I have warm feelings about it. In fact, I’d characterize my feelings as grey. It was grey on the December day when I arrived in 1989. And it stayed grey for a month. I found the Danish landscape to be pretty, and the Danish people to be nice. But pretty and nice were as far as it went. In general, the country and its people don’t inspire me to use strong adjectives.
Sometimes, it seems like my very identity is merging into the flatness of the landscape, and I yearn for mountains. Sometimes, I feel like I’m fading into the drab greyness of the long winter months, and I long for the sun. Sometimes, I feel like my individuality is slowly evolving to conform to this homogenous group of mild-mannered people, and I miss people who stand out. People who shout when they’re just talking. Like in Israel, where you’ll see two people yelling at each other in the streets in what might look like the prelude to a fight but ends up just being two friends discussing which restaurant has the best humus.
Yes, I’ve gotten used to Denmark. Like all Danes, I’ve learned to worship the sun when it appears.
And I do admire many things about Denmark and its people. I enjoy the easy-going life, the lack of skyscrapers and smog and anything resembling traffic. I appreciate the lack of poverty, and I admire the patience of the Danish people. For instance, I remember once when I first moved here, my father-in-law was driving me down a narrow street in Vesterbro, and he had to stop for a truck that was unloading its freight. I was watching him, waiting for him to honk, yell, or at least ask the driver politely to move it. But he just sat there patiently until the driver finished unloading. I thought, I can learn something from this man.
I still feel like an outsider in Denmark, yet it has become my home. I speak the language reasonably well. I own a house here. My own business. A dog. The one thing I don’t own is a Danish passport. Maybe, I would have felt more inclined to get a Danish passport had I come here at a younger, more impressionable age and more fully mastered the language. But the truth is, I just don’t feel Danish. And I probably never will. Yet I can’t let go of either my American or Israeli passport. For all my citizen-of-the-world affectations, I hold on stubbornly to some part of my identity as an American. As an Israeli. And not least, as a Jew.
A bisl American
Growing up in the States, I always felt a bit different, though not in a bad way. Maybe I even felt a little bit special as an outsider, as a Jew. Now, here in Denmark, the part of my American identity that I sometimes feel strongly about is intangible and transient, at times trivial even. The American part of my identity has to do with staying up late at night as a teenager in the company of Johnny Carson from the Tonight Show, every American’s father figure. Or staying up even later with Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart and Fred Astaire studying the all-important culture of classic movies.
It has to do with afternoons in front of the TV watching reruns of black and white TV shows from the 50s about WASPish families in which the children all had straight noses and freckles and the parents never raised their voices. But my American identity also has to do with playing touch football outside in the middle of our quiet suburban street in a part of Los Angeles that wasn’t that far from the innocence depicted on the old 50s TV series. Or at least, it didn’t seem to be. But in the background, my parents were watching nightly news broadcasts of body bags returning from Vietnam and racial unrest down in Mississippi. In retrospect, I know that the innocence of my idyllic youth, and my American identity, is largely in my head. The American part of me is gone. Did it ever really exist?
A bisl Israeli
My father is Israeli. I have lots of cousins in Israel. My parents and my brothers and their families live there. I’m a sabra, and I served in the IDF. But the Israel I feel part of doesn’t exist anymore, either. Not really. The deep part of my Israeli identity is a jumbo jet that lands in Lod airport to the tune of Jerusalem of Gold and to the applause of the passengers. If you look carefully at faces of the passengers, you might even see a tear or two. As we wait for our baggage, half of my Dad’s family wave at us through the glass wall separating the passengers from the locals (This glass wall was later removed for security reasons after the Lod massacre of 1972). Stout men with thick black moustaches hug and kiss my parents. Dark haired women, whom I can’t really distinguish from each other, kiss and pinch my cheeks. At the center of it all is my grandmother who kisses and pinches more than anyone, and who always dominates her surroundings, whether in the airport directing family members to carry suitcases or in Shuk Hacarmel (the open market in Tel Aviv) haggling with the Arab grocers. This is the Israel before cable TV, before the Internet, and before McDonalds. Before Yigal Amir, before the Intifada, and before suicide bombs. It’s the Israel of my childhood, my special place. And it’s gone.
Am Miesten Jewish
The other day, my son’s friend was sleeping over, and I overheard them talking. Like my son, the friend has a Jewish-American father and a Danish non-Jewish mother. But my son’s friend doesn’t attend the Jewish school, Carolineskolen, and his family is even less religious than we are (if that’s possible.) The two ten-year-olds were discussing how Jewish they were. My son, Joshua, insisted that he was half-Jewish. His friend, Emil, knew that Joshua attended a Jewish school and reasoned that he therefore must be more than half-Jewish. I was smiling to myself, but I wasn’t really sure what to tell them. Was there a formula for figuring out the percentage of your Jewishness. According to Halahic law, of course, neither one is Jewish. But I don’t care much about that. I’m certain that my 10-year-old son, and his 13-year-old sister, Zoe, feel Jewish somewhere deep in their identity. Whether it’s one-half, one-third or one-quarter, I can’t say. They are what they are, and Jewishness is a big part of it.
Personally, I believe that my own Jewish identity and that of my children has to do with history. With the history of a people who were persecuted and had to flee Egypt. The history of a family, our family, who were persecuted and had to flee Poland. Those in our family who did not flee were killed. All of them. Such an event shapes the identity of ancestors for many generations to come.
Our Jewish identity also has to do with values. The values of a people who place great importance on family, on children, on life. A people who prioritize study, taking care of the weakest members of society, and perhaps most importantly, treating strangers fairly. Because if anyone knows what it’s like to be on the outside, we do. So, if it turns out that my son and my daughter feel a bit like outsiders sometimes, too, that’s okay. Anything else would be strange.