Friday, March 20, 2009

Adjusting To a New Community - Hannah's Story

A Guest Post by Hannah Katsman from A Mother in Israel.

I met Graham via Twitter and our mutual friend @leoraw from Here in Highland Park. On Twitter, Graham asked others to share the role that organizations play in cross-cultural adjustment. I offered to write about my experience immigrating to Israel from the U.S. with my husband and oldest child eighteen years ago.

Moving across the street takes a period of adjustment. Moving across cultures takes a lifetime. I went from being someone whom others consulted, to asking for help with the simplest tasks. When do the stores open? Where do I get a driver's license? How do I open a bag of milk?

Operating in a new language added another layer of difficulty. I spoke and read Hebrew. Yet I found I couldn't argue with the bank manager, or make small talk with the woman in the elevator. I could tell that the news was reporting on a sports game, but didn't catch which team won. Unless someone took pity on me, I had to ask for help or remain frustrated.

Besides my husband, who worked long hours, his aunt and uncle were the only people I knew in town. In the US I had many friends and could make new ones with confidence.Now I was an outsider, and forming new friendships took effort.Still, I made it a priority.

Humans want to feel needed, not needy. And the best way to feel needed is to become part of a community or group where you can contribute your time and skills to others. I was lucky to have a ready-made community that welcomed me.

A few days after I arrived a woman named Annie brought me to a talk at the local English-speaking chapter of a women's organization. The next time I was called about a program, I offered to make phone calls. It didn't take long for someone to invite me to join the chapter's committee where we organized meetings and fund-raisers, and had a great time. Annie and the women I met there are still my closest friends in Israel. They are my community and substitute family.

I reached another level of inclusion ten years later, after training to work as a volunteer breastfeeding counselor. Helping mothers allowed me to connect to women on a basic level and to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers. I remember when I ran into a native Israeli mother who had recently discussed her difficulties with me. She smiled warmly and held out her hand to take mine. At that moment I did not feel like an outsider.

I wish I could report that the warmth she shared remained with me until today. But after eighteen years the "Israeli" mentality can still drive me crazy. There are days I miss my family and old friends and wonder whether I will ever "belong." Then I remember that everyone feels misunderstood, displaced, or lonely at times. And I recall that through my role in local organizations I have made a difference (I hope) in the lives of others in my new, imperfect country. And that has made the difference for me.

Thank you, Graham, for giving me the chance to share my story.

You can read more about cultural adjustment, mothering, Israel and the Jewish community at my blog, A Mother in Israel. Or follow me on Twitter: @mominisrael


For those who want to read more from Hannah, here are a few posts from her blog that I particularly recommend:

Cultural Differences

Interview: A Christian Mother in Israel

Your Daughter is Smart, But . . .

Between Two and Four

When Neglect is "Normal"

As always, I'd love to hear from you. I'll make sure that Hannah sees any comments you leave here for her. Also, I'd like to hear from others who are living in a country other than the one they were brought up in. I'm thinking of starting a little guest post and/or interview feature.


Leora said...

I'm thrilled with this post, Hannah and Graham.

"How do I open a bag of milk?" Do other countries besides Israel sell milk in plastic bags? ;-)

Moving to New Jersey was a bit of a culture shock to me (only 1 ATM in the bank? After a row of 10 in Cambridge, MA?). But nothing compared to moving to a new country.

Hannah, your experiences make you a great helper, because you "get it."

Graham, I'm glad you connected with Hannah. She writes well on such a variety of topics.

Graham said...

Leora - I'm thrilled that Hannah agreed to write a guest post for my readers too!

Although there are times when I've felt I'm speaking in a different language from those I'm living amongst, I can only imagine how difficult it is to add the extra complication of having to learn a foreign language.

I'm convinced that getting involved with local organizations is a fantastic way to connect with a new community. These organizations are almost always extremely grateful to get the help, you meet wonderful people, and learn about your new home.

mother in israel said...

Okay, guys, take it easy on the flattery! Thank you so much for the kind words.

annie said...

Graham, thank you for giving Hannah a platform to relate her experiences. I immigrated to Israel straight after school and I remember how hard it was to make friends initially, even though I spoke Hebrew fluently. The saving grace for me was my work place in a large Jerusalem hospital, where everyone in my office was young, most of them single and English speaking. I even met my husband indirectly through my workmates!

Hannah, thanks for giving me a mention but I can't really take all the credit. Your late aunt knew me from our synagogue and she was the one who put me in contact with you in the first place, otherwise I'd never have met you.

Thus began a great friendship. And our committee would not work half as efficiently without you!

Graham said...

Annie - thanks for introducing yourself! I'm really delighted with the way that Hannah's guest post turned out.

Synagogues, temples and churches are obviously another place in which you can find a "fast-track" to your new community, if you are of a religious inclination.

Work can be another way in, although it largely depends on your work environment and its size.

Baila said...

I am 16 1/2 years behind Hannah in the "moving-across-the-world,-I-must-be-nuts" process. Feeling like you belong is always perspective. Next to Hannah I am still very green around here. I remember feeling lonely when I moved from Brooklyn to Long Island; it takes time, but eventually I know I'll feel like I'll belong.

Graham said...

Very pleased to hear from you, Baila! Just wandered over to take a look at your blog too - loved it.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post Hannah. It is also a means of discovering Graham's blog.
Where in the UK are you from Graham?

Graham said...

Pleased to meet you ilanadavita. I'm from Luton, a large town about 30 Miles North of London.

I believe you're in France, am I correct? Whereabouts? I did quite a bit of traveling around France at one time.

Anonymous said...

I live in Saint-Quentin which is roughly between Lille and Paris. I spent a year in Britain, in Leicestershire, in 2001-2002. One of the best year sof my life.

Graham said...

ilanadavita - I always recommend people to do some traveling. I did mine around France in my thirties. Better late than never! I'm a strong believer in the "gap year" to travel, but I didn't get an opportunity to do that, so I did it after being laid-off from where I was working at the time. One of the best things I ever did. Travel opens the mind. I learned so many things about myself.

Lion of Zion said...


"Yet I found I couldn't argue with the bank manager"

on my last trip i got into 2 arugments with a car rental manager and a hotel assistant manager i won both. either my hebrew is better than i had thought . . . or israelis are getting softer.

mother in israel said...

annie--I'm sure we would have met eventually. And it's okay to take some of the credit.
Baila--Just think of it as a growth experience.
I-D--thank you.
LOZ--Good for you. I usually lose.
Graham, I always volunteered even before moved here. It's a very important aspect of Jewish life.

Graham said...

LOZ & Hannah - I rarely get in arguments with anyone? Is this a cultural thing?

Hannah - Thanks for stopping by and checking out comments. Regarding the volunteering: You mentioned that volunteering is a big part of Jewish life - is this volunteering for Jewish causes, or can it reach out further than that?

In my capacity as President of the Friends of the Edison, NJ Public Library, we often get calls from parents of catholic kids going through their holy communion. As part of this, they evidently have to do some kind of volunteering. When we take these kids on as volunteers, we've sadly found the kids are sometimes very reluctant volunteers - they just want the letter saying they did their two hours, or whatever. This happens often with high school seniors as well, who often need to achieve a certain amount of volunteering.

Of course, we usually agree to take them on in any case - with the hope that they'll catch the volunteering bug!

Lion of Zion said...


i don't knoew if i would read too much into it about it being a cultural thing. israelis aren't known for customer service, but the arguments i had could probably have happened in america also.

Graham said...

LOZ: Thanks for clearing that up! I hope you didn't mind me asking - I didn't ask that in order to be inflammatory, I'm genuinely interested in some of these cultural stereotypes and how sometimes they are based on real (though generalized) characteristics.

Just a note to my readers, in case you didn't realize: When the names of the people making comments here appear as a link (underlined), it usually means the person has their own blog. It's always worth clicking on these and checking the blogs out - I'm flattered that my readers are such a prolific and thought-provoking group of people.

Leora said...

Graham, wow, you've gotten some great visitors to this post!

I think the argument thing is cultural. And it's not just in Israel. It's very difficult to be an administrator in a Jewish school...too many Jewish parents, too many opinions. The Talmud is one argument after another. It's a question of how do it without it becoming ad hominem attacks.

Graham said...

Oh, that's so interesting, Leora - thanks for sharing that!

I'm afraid my knowledge of the Talmud is limited to what I've learned from The Rabbi Small mysteries by Harry Kemelman (which my Mother-in-Law - whose Husband was Jewish - recommended me to read as a light introduction to Judaism).

annie said...

Graham, you asked about volunteering in Jewish life and if it is only for the Jewish community or outside it too. The answer is it realy depends where the person lives. Of course in Israel most voluntary organizations are Jewish because this is a Jewish country, but they are not necessarily Jewish in essence; i.e. there are organizations for hospitals, museums, new immigrants, the poor and needy - all the universal causes which need volunteers all over the world - besides Jewish faith organizations like synagogues, Jewish educational outreach programs etc.

Outside of Israel there are many Jewish volunteers in all kinds of organizations, not only Jewish ones.

I think what Hannah was trying to say is that volunteerism is considered a "mitzvah" - a good deed - both in Jewish law and culture. It comes under the heading of doing kindness to your fellow man.

It's interesting that you mention the reluctant volunteers on high school programs in your library. In my limited experience with my own high-school age children, they were very happy to volunteer ("compulsory volunteering" it's called here. LOL!) as long as they had some say or choice in their place of work. For example one son entertained children in hospital with his guitar, the other took an old man in a wheelchair to synagogue every day, and my daughter coached children in remedial maths. One just needs to find what interests the kids (and adults too, come to think of it).

Sorry about this very long post...

mother in israel said...

Not only that, but the Jewish community needs a lot of infrastructure: the synagogue, caring for the dead and for mourners, caring for sick and poor, hosting guests, and raising money for Jewish causes. In Israel some of this is done by the government (like it or not). In the US I was always involved with specifically Jewish causes. If I had stayed there I don't know that I would have become a breastfeeding counselor.

Graham said...

Annie & Hannah - thanks so much for taking the time to explain more about this to me. Very interesting.

You're certainly right, Annie, about the teenage volunteers. I've learned over the years that when a parent (usually the Mother) calls me to ask about volunteering, I always ask for the child to contact me. What the parents have in mind for the child, and what the child is interested in, are often two different things entirely.

But the parents think "My child is likes books - volunteering at the library is what they should be doing." Volunteering at the library itself has nothing to do with us - we are an organization primarily dedicated to raising funds for the library. So often the best we can do is allow them to help out at one of our fundraising booksales.

Jannie Funster said...

"Humans want to feel needed, not needy. And the best way to feel needed is to become part of a community or group where you can contribute your time and skills to others."

I wish every sad and / or / bored / lonely person could read this and take it to heart. No one would ever be sad, bored or lonely again.

Well, as if I NEED another blog to follow, but hers seems too intriqing not to check out!

Thank you, Graham.

And you know what is interesting to me, a blogger I follow moved from Israel to the U.S. maybe about the same amount of years ago since Hannah moved over there. What an interesting post it might be to her their juxtaposing stories. I will send her the link to this post, see if it piques her.

Graham said...

Oh do please do that, Jannie! That would be so interesting to compare and contrast!

I'm glad you felt the way you did about Hannah's story. The part you quoted resonated with me also.

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. Check out Jannie's blog also. A very entertaining and thought-provoking read.

mother in israel said...

Thank you Jannie. I'm glad the post spoke to you, and I'll be interested to see the other blogger's response.