The old city in Jerusalem, Israel.
Many would describe it as an intense conflict zone in the middle east.
I describe it as HOME.
The tensions in the area were wild during my childhood years: cars were burned often, tourists were stabbed brutally near my home, I had to take a gas mask to school with me during the gulf war (I should mention that I drew hearts and stars on my gas mask’s box - a sign of an optimistic oblivious child with an early sense of irony!), suicide bombings shocked the nation, peace protests and demonstrations became a regular occurrence in the conflicted political realm of the city, and the tensions between the different religious communities in the old city often lead to disputes.
To add to the collective conflict around me, I come from the only family in mount Zion in the old city that was not religious. I was the only little girl walking around wearing pants surrounded by ultra-orthodox, monks, nuns, and devout Muslims. It was a unique perspective to be immersed in a world and yet not be of that world. To belong somewhere and yet constantly be told I do not belong. As early as I remember myself, I became an observer and the characters in the old city started taking shape in my stories: from the English man who moved to Jerusalem so he could play a harp and dress as King David by the Zion Gate, to the Bedouin with the camel who thought me how to train camels to sit and walk and so on, to the kind Armenian shop owner who to this day I only buy ceramic bowls from.
Despite the news and the noise in the region, I’ve watched many times a Hassidic man playing backgammon with a devout Muslim, both respecting each other’s faith and other general acts of kindness and unity that one wouldn’t expect to see at such a place.
I learned early on to observe, which is my primary tool as an actor and writer.
I also learned about nuance and that comedy often rises out of the darkest places. As a way to survive the pain. I often find myself in my writing testing the waters of dark comedy and building characters that are nuanced and flawed like the figures in my childhood that were anything but ‘black and white’.
I may not have grown up with a sense of belonging in that part of the world.
But that exact sense of not belonging gave me the world that I belong to the most:
My inner world.
A Question Of Belonging Part 5
When I immigrated to the unites states, to follow my American dream (yes, we non-Americans have that dream as well, sometimes even more strongly from the outside world) I didn't anticipate the sacrifice that was in store for me.
Yes, I knew well that I would miss my family and friends, and my favorite foods and smells in my home town, and the language I grew to only speak and write in.
But I didn't fully understand the sacrifice that a full immersion would bring along.
It was in my first year in New York, at the acting conservatory I was a student in, that a light bulb turned on in my head: In the middle of a scene (Eugene O'Neill if I remember correctly) I had to say the words 'I LOVE YOU.'
But I have never said those words before.
Those sounds never came out of my mouth with the vibrational pull that comes along when one utters words of love to another.
I have LOVED before, sure. Several times, in fact...
BUT I spoke Hebrew when I expressed those words before, so the actual words 'I LOVE YOU' were fresh and vacant of actual lived experience.
Of course, I learned a lesson in acting and in SUBTEXT that day... BUT I also learned that 'If I want to have richness to those words in the same unconscious way I have when I utter them in Hebrew - I must practice what it's like to actually MEAN them in English.'
From that moment forward, I was set on fully immersing myself in the American culture, mentality, life, language... I worked tirelessly to eliminate my foreign accent and felt great pride when people were shocked to find out I wasn't, in fact, American. I especially enjoyed those moments when I'd catch surprised expressions when I admitted I didn't know who 'Mr. Rogers' was or other well known figures from people's childhoods didn't ring any bells to me. I was a foreigner despite my passing disguise.
As 'passing' as I may have found myself, there were many situations that forced me to face that I was a foreigner no matter what.
Some may not know this, but legally immigrating to the US is no easy task. It takes a lot of dedication to go through the immigration process and I had my share of experiences, believe me. But also 'smaller' things would occur and remind me of what I was:
Say surveys and questionnaires, for instance.
I always found myself clicking the ‘other’ box, with a constant burning question running in my head: "Am I an OTHER? Other than WHO? Other than WHAT?"
I still ask that question. And I still feel like even in a simple survey - I don't belong.
After many years living in the US, fully immersing myself and for the most part loving it dearly - little by little I have awakened to realize I've sacrificed a part of myself in taking on another identity. I LOST something. There was a loss of the person I would have grown to be had I didn't immerse. There was a loss of connection to the identity I once had. There was a loss of time.
In short, this mermaid started walking on two feet and before she knew it - she forgot about the ocean altogether.
But it's never too late to dip in.
Who knows? I may find out I am more than an OTHER.
Maybe I am all of it.
The other and another. And another. And another. And ANOTHER.
A Question Of Belonging Part 4.
If you meet me at a party, be it small, or fairly large, a theme birthday party at someone's house, or a flashy networking event, you would think I'm an extravert. I'm comfortable, confident, I start conversations easily most of the time, and know how to work my way around a room. I've been called a social butterfly more than once or twice, and I like that title. (Mainly - because it includes 'butterfly' in it.)
Thing is, I wasn't always comfortable in a social setting, nor am I an extravert.
In fact, the inner most precious part of me, is no doubt an introvert that wants nothing more than to be by myself and enjoy my own company, crafting, puzzling, writing... drifting in my imagination to other faraway worlds... But since I also always 'seek to belong' (Don't we all?) I learned how to assimilate, and yes, how to grow to be a social butterfly. It was nurture, NOT nature, in my case.
I vividly remember the time when I flat out decided to assert a 'new way of being'.
A confident demeanor! A NEW me to unleash onto the world!
It was the summer between fourth grade and fifth. I had a very hard time in school until then. VERY. Let's just say the word 'shy' doesn't even begin to cut it. I was almost mute from fear of the other children and incredibly scared to make my voice heard, or be seen, or BE somebody. Or God forbid, to belong... The fact that I was head over heels in love with the class king, was only making me more frozen in my fear at those years. And the class' bully - a Brunette girl with a raspy voice that still gives me nightmares - didn't make things easy on me with her vast amount of dominance. The irritable boy who teased me daily wasn't making things easier either. Thankfully I wasn't a total outcast - there was a girl even quieter and 'weirder' than me, and I guess I did have a few friends, sort of.... kids that were patient enough to accept me although I was practically a GHOST. But the worried faces of my parents struck a cord with me. They couldn't understand how I was a happy child and an imaginative performer at home, and then in school - I was petrified from the society of children in my class.
I knew I had to make a change.
And so... I did:
The summer between grades is always an opportunity to 'invent one's self anew'.
Two months of summer are a lifetime in the life of a child, and those two months offer plenty of opportunities to figure out what that 'new you' may be. I don't recall where I got the idea, and I doubt I heard the term 'Fake it 'till you make it' at that young age, but at the summer between fourth and fifth grade I made a decision.
A commitment, between me and myself.
"This year I will come to school DIFFERENT. I will be CONFIDENT."
I would repeat the mantra in my head every day on my way to school until I no longer needed to.
I changed my fashion style to match the 'confident girl' I was going to be. And my real opportunity to shine with my 'new self', was a couple of months later - in a class about the COURT SYSTEM.
First, you should know that I didn't attend an ordinary school.
My elementary school in Jerusalem, was named 'The Experiment.' And indeed, it was....
It was a school that put emphasis on collaboration rather than hierarchy, and didn't support homework, tests or grades, but rather a real discussion and collaboration between the student and teacher. Age groups were often mixed and the students got to actually choose their own teachers. Sounds dreamy right??
Well, this type of school won't fit every child - especially one that needs more boundaries - but it was a perfect fit for me as it provided me both the tools and the freedom that I needed to be the best student I know how to be: a SELF-TAUGHT one. (*Probably the most useful skills I have are to be self-taught and be creative and adaptable.)
So... back to the class about the court system.
This unique class was an immersive role play of a 'trial.'
The teacher assigned roles (in advance, thankfully) for students to play roles of the attorney, the judge, the defendant, the prosecutor, and so on... and I was randomly picked to play the defendant. We had a loose structure and 'story' to start off from and the freedom to collaborate and explore our 'roles.' It was an improv game, really. And since it was my first opportunity to perform in front of my classmates... I went 'all out': I picked a costume, put on my mother's lipstick, and crafted a detailed story about why 'I couldn't have been guilty in the crime I was accused of.'
It was a MAJOR success. Not in the trial of course - I was clearly lying through my teeth and the judge gave me a guilty verdict - as deserved. But my delivery of the character I created, and the fun I had and humor and drama I brought in to the class - was the talk of the year in my class.
It's as if the other kids saw me finally for who I really was, and they LIKED it. At last, I belonged somewhere.
Who knew that I'd belong in a character of a middle aged kleptomaniac woman with a high pitch voice and way-too-much red lipstick on. Who knew!?
It's well known that some people need to wear some sort of a mask in order to be seen.
Lots of performers would, for sure. And I - among them.
I will continue wearing my mask of social butterfly with joy. After all, I've worn it so long it is now a genuine part of me. It seems that the fifth grader in me understood this well - "If you want to belong, you have to just DECIDE TO. Nobody belongs anywhere anyways."
To be continued...
A Question Of Belonging, Part 3.
New York City, two thousand and...something.
I am a young enthusiastic actress, fresh off the boat foreigner with big dreams and 'chutzpah'.
I go to an acting conservatory in Times Square during the day, and watch theatre on and off Broadway, at night. My life revolves around theatre. I left a country behind, a language behind, a boyfriend behind, an actual acting career behind in Israel, to hone my craft in NYC because 'If ya make it there, ya make it anywhere.'
If this sounds familiar, it's because there are millions of others like me. Millions of young dreamers, setting foot in the city that never sleeps. The city that may be the answer to their prayers, the starting off point of their careers. Be it in theatre, music, art, or even wall street.
Embarking on my journey to the United states, wasn't a thought I had to dwell on. Not even for a second. It was something I knew I'd do years before. Back when I was a little girl in Jerusalem, I adopted the American dream as my own, and as an actress - I knew I had to be in New York City.
So here I was, living my dream as an international theatre student in the big apple.
It sounds magical in retrospect, but it was a bit of a grind in reality.
I went through a healthy portion of hurdles in those days, but a particular one is important to mention: The English Language. How to speak it. And how to sound native to it.
As someone who was born and raised in another country, speaking Hebrew as my first (and only fluent) language, I had to overcome loads of language barriers (Um, occasionally I STILL have to), and learn how to eliminate my non-American accent. (something I STILL work at, though I can fool most people as being American nowadays). And I wasn't going to let the hurdles of speaking with a foreign accent, and having a limited vocabulary, stand in my way. After all, I was driven by fearless ambition and 'chutzpah', remember?
So I began...
Reading ONLY English. Speaking ONLY English.
Studying speech & dialects diligently with the help of a dialect coach (Leigh Dillon, I'll shout-out your name forever 'cause you're the BEST!), and re-training my tongue and mouth as if they were muscles. (Because, well, they ARE.)
I would practice daily.
In the subway, to the mirror, with a cork in my mouth. Whenever, wherever. I was hungry to learn. I was hungry to succeed. And mostly, I was hungry to disappear into another identity.
Bear with me as I fast forward to some years later: I am in the City of Angels, I am a working actress (working sometimes, I mean - the ups and downs of this industry are things I know all too well. Sigh..) and among my many supplemental jobs, I am finding myself coaching a Ukrainian actress on how to reduce her accent. She has a great ear, and can repeat sounds perfectly, but retreats back to her Ukrainian accent when she forms words and sentences. Although she has all the technical skills needed, she is clearly resistant to reducing her accent. In a heartfelt chat, we discover why: She doesn't want to let go of her identity.
And in that moment, I realize: I DID.
In fact, It seems as though I wanted to let go of my identity more than anything.
Speaking and sounding American, was sort of like a 'mask', or a self-given permission to BELONG to the new environment I was in.
That 'mask' fits well, and believe me - I get immense pleasure when people are surprised by my country of origin. But underneath the mask of 'Perfectly sounding American accent'?
Underneath, I am an outsider. An 'other.'
One who is still seeking to belong, but accepting that I may never will.
To be continued...
*Photo: 'Lunch Atop A Skyscraper'
A Question Of Belonging Part 2.
I remember wanting to belong when I was as young as three, or four years of age.
The children in my neighborhood - ultra orthodox kids from the nearby Yeshiva - were playing. I don't recall what they were playing, but I remember the laughs, the joy, and the togetherness they had. And I remember myself wanting so bad to be a part of it all. Imagine my dismay when my desire to play with those kids, was flat out rejected. Not with any words whatsoever, but physically - they literally ran away as soon as I came close. I tried approaching a couple more times, but they stayed away from me as if I was the plague. (Or, well, a corona virus.) I have a vivid memory of an image of them laughing at me and my sister (my comrade in that era), and gossiping to each other as we walked by. Years later, I found out the lessons they learnt from their parents about us: they were warned to stay away from us, because we were secular. See, our "virus" was that of living a secular life.
The children's parents made my family know very clearly how they felt about our presence there. They fought, started law suits, and even turned violent more than once, in their efforts to get us to leave Mount Zion. Once, a group of yeshiva students broke through a wall to our home, sat there and prayed, declaring that they have the true right to the property. I don't know the exact details of that incident, but I interpreted it as if they believed they were entitled for that land because of their devout faith, and us - as seculars - were not. Of course, a child's perspective is fairly simplistic. And there may have been other issues they had with my family that I wasn't aware of. I may have not known those details as a child, but I knew the feeling of not belonging to the environment I was in.
In a way, we all have moments of that feeling, don't we? Every time we visit a faraway land, or learn something new, or learn a new language or word... we meet that part in ourselves that is of a beginner. When we are welcomed, we learn easily. And when we are not welcomed? Some of us may be driven to prove people wrong and learn anyways, while others will shy away, defeated. I think where I belong (no pun intended) on that spectrum is that I accepted the notion that I didn't belong. I didn't challenge it, I just quickly adopted that notion as my own, and learned to live as an outsider.
As coping mechanism, for my new 'truth' as an outsider, I found a great escape that fulfilled me then, and still fulfills me today: Imagination. Story. Fantasy. Dreams. I was that kid (hey, who wasn't!?) that would wear costumes and put on shows to my family, to passers by, or even to no one at all. I would play all the parts of my created stories, and no one could tell me what was 'allowed' or what wasn't, or that I didn't belong, because these where my own worlds that I created. See, I could belong to all of these 'other' worlds I've created, because they weren't REAL. They didn't have risk of rejection. My belonging to them seemed peaceful, effortless. Seemed right.
I finally belonged somewhere: my made-up world.
It was only natural for me to become a total theatre kid. One that would live, think, and breathe theatre. Since it was the first environment that I truly belonged to, how could I ever, even for a moment, turn my back to it!? I couldn't. And there began my love affair to storytelling.
To be continued...
A Question Of Belonging
An identity crisis is described (according to the gods of Google) as 'A period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person's sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.'
I think I was BORN into an identity crisis.
You see, I don't remember a time when I wasn't, in one way or another, unsure of my identity and its place in society. You see, I was raised in a bit of an unorthodox neighborhood...: The old city of Jerusalem, Israel. At the top of Mount Zion, to be exact, at the entry of Zion Gate, which is steps from the Western Wall and Temple Mount. The old city is a tourist destination with an assortment of more historic and holy sites than most places in the world. My neighbors to my very first home were ultra orthodox Hasidic jews, Christian monks and nuns, devout muslims, and random tourists who would come and go, checking off the Old City of Jerusalem off their bucket lists. The famous 'Last Supper' room was behind my house, and so was King David's Tomb and other interesting sites in the streets I grew up in. I used to love getting 'lost' in the scenery while walking my Rottweiler dog Pinchy on the ancient stone wall surrounding the old city, exploring ruins in every corner of every alley, and smelling the spices in the Muslim market. The bus that would drive through the walls of the old city was bus number 38. It was a smaller bus than the other ones, because it had to drive under a few curved roofs and narrow roads. It seems as if even the bus had to minimize itself to belong to that environment.
Fitting into that particular environment, was hard.
And as a secular Israeli little girl in a heavily religious environment, it was EXTRA hard.
Wearing pants instead of a long modest skirt like the other little girls in my neighborhood, and roaming the alleys and cobblestone streets barefoot and free... were turning a lot of heads of my religious neighbors. I remember being spit on and feeling alienated.
I, and my family, were sent a message - that we didn't belong.
Nevertheless, I loved living in the old city.
I remember my imagination going wild in that environment. See, I grew up on stories of explorers, treasures in faraway lands, archeologists and kings and queens of biblical times. And in that environment? I saw all that I could imagine right in front of my eyes. In all the odd characters of my surroundings: Like the English man who uprooted his life and moved to the old city because he believed he was a reincarnation of King David. So he would situate himself every day near the Zion Gate, dressed in a robe and a crown, playing the harp to tourists passing by. I remember thinking he was a real king when I was a child.
Now I know he had a 'Jerusalem Syndrome' (according to the gods of google, Jerusalem Syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions, or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem). But when I was a child, he was the king of my neighborhood. Also, there was the redheaded Arabic man that always had a smile on his face. And always - a cigarette in his hand. I don't recall his name but his nickname was 'Gingy', for his 'ginger' hair. My dad once told me Gingy was a secret agent. I don't know if that was true (my dad is quite the storyteller) but I found Gingy to be a fascinating figure in my neighborhood. For years, he and I shared smiles towards each other - us redheads do that with one another. As if we have an understanding. A bond. It's a thing.
Another neighborhood friend of mine was a camel. Yup. A camel that tourists would climb on, giggling, several times a day. He was a gentle giant, a beautiful animal. His handler - a bedouin gentle man with a soothing voice - befriended my dad and so I was able to enjoy the camel's company as if he was my very own. I knew how to tell the camel to stand up, how to walk, and how to sit. I spoke the 'language of camels.' (Well, not quite, but ya know what I mean...) In several of my birthday parties, the camel was the real attraction for my friends who would build up the courage to visit Mount Zion. See, at that time, and what made my fairytale childhood rather dark in that unique environment, was the sense of danger that was always lurking. I kept hearing the term 'Intifada' as a child. But I didn't know what is was about. I started hearing that people, primarily tourists, were randomly stabbed in the streets of the old city, and that rocks were thrown on passers by, and cars were burned. Later on, when my family car was burnt outside our home, I learned that the 'Intifada' was the Palestinian uprise against Israeli occupation of Gaza. (Today, I know it is the violent despair that people turn to when they want a better life and don't know any other way to get it.)
There was, and still is, in the old city of Jerusalem, an intense heaviness that is always felt. It's historic. It's political. It's....charged. Some people are taken by it, call it 'energy', 'the divine', 'holy'... while others want to wash Jerusalem off of them the minute they enter the city of gold. I was born and raised into that intense heaviness. It was normal. It was home. It took me many years to realize how abnormal that environment really was. And it wasn't only in the streets around my home. It was in my very own home also: I grew up in a unique underground house - a restoration of an ancient ruin, ranging in parts from 1000-2000 years old. Yes, you read that correctly. Two thousand freakin' year old home. And yes, underground. It had a fossil in the kitchen, curved stone ceilings throughout, and dead haunted silence that can only be felt in - what people usually call - 'a haunted house.'
My home was a world in itself, and to it - I DID belong.
But even there, I always had an eerie feeling that I was only visiting. That I was observing. And that one day, I will find myself in another world.
It has been some... years since my childhood in Jerusalem. And ups and downs. And learning, and growing, and making mistakes and achieving some goals, but the sense of my identity in question - has never left. In fact, it is something I carry with me in my life pretty much always. I live in Los Angeles now, and I love the newness of the grounds of California. It rings very different than the grounds of my upbringing. This city offers a different kind of gold to me. And I love being its observer, its visitor, and its resident.
Lately, with corona virus putting the entertainment industry - my industry - in a bit of a pause, and the political state bringing up issues of oppression, racism and social injustice into the conversation more than ever (in my years here, that is), I have been reintroduced to questioning my identity within this community. For years, I have latched on to my identity as an actress - a chameleon who can take on many identities for the fun of it - because it was the most pleasant identity for me to take on. But when I meet my other identities, like my Israeli-Jewish-Immigrant-white-skinned-woman-raised-in-the-middle-east identity... the confusion often comes back. And it's back with vengeance. It keeps me up at night, it shows up in my dreams and make me see my world from a different set of eyes: An eyes of someone who belongs to not belonging. Who is comfortable as an outsider. And who also is deeply conflicted with all that.
To be continued...
In April 2020, while experiencing her first ever global pandemic, Tamar Pelzig pledged to write something every day, even if it's only a word, so she welcomed to the world a daily blog to keep her creative writing wheels rolling.
Header Art: Daniel Landerman