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Growing Up in Israel, Part 3

Ilana Masad
March 18, 2015

Voting Rights (or Lefts)

by Ilana Masad

Read other installments in this series here.

VotingWHEN I WAS 6, the excitement of going for the first time with my parents to my elementary school to watch them vote was palpable. My mother took me with her behind the flimsy cardboard booth where we put two pieces of colorful paper into two separate (also colorful — I believe blue and yellow) envelopes. One was a vote for a party, and the other was a vote for prime minister. I don’t remember whom my parents voted for that day in 1996, though I’m sure it was a left-wing party and a lefty candidate. But politics were then, and remained for years, firmly off my radar. Getting to slip those envelopes into the big cardboard box, which sat squarely on one of the little tables I spent my schooldays sitting at, stands out as the most thrilling activity of that day.

Many, but not enough, Israelis today are agreed on one thing: anyone but Bibi. Benjamin Netanyahu was first voted in as prime minister in that 1996 election, the first election in which citizens voted directly for candidates rather than for parties. With yesterday’s attempt once again to oust Bibi, my inability to vote loomed large in my mind. There are no absentee ballots, even though up to 750,000 Israelis live in the diaspora; it would be unfair to the resident citizens to have their elections decided by those who don’t live, experience, and suffer the country’s day-to-day tumultuous normalcy.

THE SUMMER I TURNED 6, we moved from our first apartment in Givatayim (which was on the second floor and where we had terribly loud neighbors stomping around above us) to an apartment that my parents purchased. It was my first time having a room to myself, and I got the biggest one, for some reason. My older brother liked the smaller bedroom; even though he was only in fourth grade, there must have been something in him that anticipated his later teenage desire to burrow in a dark room and listen to Iron Maiden. My parents got the room with the teeny-tiny en-suite bathroom, which had a shower. We used that shower stall for storage rather than bathing.

It’s an incredible apartment: not huge, but gorgeous, and at the moment, still on the top floor. In recent years there’s been a spate of contractors buying old buildings like ours and making them more earthquake-steady while also adding two or three floors and an extension onto the whole structure. It’s as if the old buildings are encased in slightly larger ones, swallowed inside the newness. Our building has so far escaped that fate.

The reason my mother fell in love with it, and the reason it was so good for us kids, is that it is situated right above a park and has vast windows, stretching all across the kitchen and living room, which overlook its two semi-circles of grass surrounded by an old concrete path. Trees line the paths on the outside of the greenness. They seem weather-resistant; some do lose their leaves, but many don’t, or not completely. Israel is technically a tropical country. Recently, parrots who’ve escaped from the so-called safari in Ramat Gan, one city over, have taken over the trees in front of these windows. They’re not native but they’re stronger than some of the other birds. We’ve spent the last few years watching the poison-green parrots duking it out with the crows.

I vaguely remember my first night in my new room, all alone. I remember how quiet it was. I don’t think I tried to sneak into my parents’ bedroom to sleep between them that night, but I may have. I did that occasionally.

I STARTED FIRST GRADE a few weeks after we moved in. Instead of going to the school near our old apartment, where I already had a friend, Orin (whom I’ve known since we were both 3), I had to go to the school closest to where we lived. There isn’t really a private-school alternative system in Israel, and residents are simply assigned to school districts. There’s a way to override these rules, but it involves a lot of paperwork and red tape. The school we were zoned for was conveniently right across the park. My walk to school was about 200 meters long, or about two American football fields. In other words, a very, very short walk.

I arrived at school on my first day extremely excited. I had a multicolored backpack that I used for years, until it became so uncool, so obviously a first-grader’s kind of backpack, that I got embarrassed. In an attempt to make my parents buy me a new one (it was in perfectly good shape, so they saw no reason to), I ended up using scissors to snip one of the straps. It was so obviously a clean cut that I don’t know whether they believed me when I said it had somehow gotten torn.

My classroom was on the top floor of the school (older kids got the more convenient classrooms, for whatever reason). My brother was going to the same school (and, four years older than me, was on a lower floor). He was in fifth grade, but he came home that first day and told my mother, “Ima! I have friends!” The four guys he met that first day stayed friends of his throughout the rest of elementary school, and a couple he kept touch with in high school. I had a crush on one of them, Artur, a beautiful Russian boy who was kind to me and didn’t laugh at me like the others did. He was a good guy.

I also made a friend on that first day, a girl named Yarden who hit me with one of her braids. A few years ago, she found me on Facebook and friended me. I haven’t seen her in years.

WHEN I STARTED going to college in the U.S., I quickly realized how many misconceptions people have about Israel. Those born into culturally Jewish families knew enough about Israel to be aware that it is for the most part a Western and Americanized country (though, I’m proud to say, Starbucks failed rather miserably in Israel; espresso-based drinks are everywhere, and brewed coffee is simply unheard of; people use instant coffee at home, not coffee makers). People who weren’t raised in Jewish homes mostly knew nothing about Israel — which was rather a relief most of the time, except when they asked me whether I spoke “Israeli.” I do, but what they meant to ask was whether I spoke Hebrew. I also never understand it when people say how “cool” it is that I grew up in Israel. My standard response is always a shrug, accompanied by “Not really. Things went boom a lot.”

Let me set the record straight on this: Israel is not a third-world country. We have running water (except for some minority populations living in the Negev, Israel’s desert); we have electricity (except for some parts of the Negev, as well as various Palestinian villages and territories); and we have malls and theaters and museums and restaurants and bars (that too depends on where you live. Hebron definitely doesn’t have all of those.) Israel is a first-world country, that is, if you’re Jewish and white enough for it.

It’s a land of dichotomies, of haves and have-nots. I was lucky and privileged enough to be on the side of the haves. I was lucky enough to be able to vote, even when I was just 6.

Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.