Last Wednesday night, we were invited to our friends’ house for a unique rite of passage, to celebrate the 10th grade students, who were receiving their first identity cards called Teudat Zehut. Most kids around the country simply go with a parent to the Ministry of Interior carrying the necessary forms and photos, wait to be served, hand in their paperwork, wait a few minutes and walk out with the card. At Daniella and Simone’s school, the principal gathers the kids’ forms and goes to the government office for them. A few days later, on Yom Yerushalayim or Jerusalem Day, the school distributes them in a ceremonial way.
After milling around the food and drinks table for a while, we were ushered into the living room. Rows of chairs were set up and sofas were pushed back so that everyone could sit. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the Jewish Studies teacher addressed us and introduced the principal.
“Brochim habayim,” Aharoni said to welcome us. And then he made a joke, telling us that since Meitarim is a pluralistic school, which celebrates the entire spectrum of Jewish affiliation, that obtaining Israeli teudot zehut is a total contradiction of pluralism and therefore we could forget the whole thing and go home. Those of us who understood chuckled. My parents and a few other non-Hebrew speakers just sat politely and listened.
Aharoni continued to explain why the school chooses to distribute the cards on Jerusalem Day. Becuase Jerusalem doesn’t belong to any particular people but rather to the whole, to every group of people that claims it. The city is the very symbol of pluralism.
After he finished, one of the boy’s fathers was called up to speak. A sabra or native Israeli, he held up his blue, worn plastic bi-fold with his ID card to show everyone. Why is the ID card so special, he asked. What’s the big deal? Everyone 16 and over has one in Israel but why celebrate it? “When do you have to renew the card?” he tested the kids. One mom shouted out, “Af paam!” Never, exactly the answer he was looking for. The compulsory Israeli ID card is a one-time bureaucratic experience. So, he explained, if we keep it all our lives and we reach old age and look back, we’ll see ourselves stuck in time at age 16. We laughed.
The card, he explained, must be with you at all times and is used in every aspect of life, as a healthcare identity number, when ordering theater tickets by phone or when going to the polls to vote. It’s laminated and held in one of two inner compartments of its plastic cover and includes the following personal details:
- unique number, called Identity Number
- first and last name
- name of father
- name of mother
- date of birth (both Gregorian and Hebrew dates)
- ethnicity (only in cards issued before 2005)
- place and date of issue (both Gregorian and Hebrew date)
- color portrait photo
Beneath the card in the inner compartment is a folded paper called a sefach or appendix that contains the following information:
- current address
- previous addresses
- previous name(s)
- citizenship (the bearer may be a permanent resident with a foreign citizenship)
- name, birth date and identity number of spouse and children
As a kid, the father explained, the meaningful part is the top one with the photo. But that shifts through time; now, his ID card has become more about who his kids are and their ID numbers. “And do you know what happens if you lose this sefach and have to get it replaced and your kids are over 17?” he asked. “They no longer appear because they’re no longer your dependents. Some of us oohed and aaghed while we digested the information. Those of who are more recent immigrants with perfectly intact blue covers wouldn’t know this tidbit. Just as those of who have not lost a son or daughter in the army or any act of terror wouldn’t know this.
The Jewish Studies teacher took over and told us we were going to divide up into small groups, with our 10th graders, to create a new symbol for the cover. The current cover is dusty blue with a menorah and olive leaves and the words Interior Ministry and teudot zehut written in both Hebrew and Arabic. After about 15 minutes, some kids presented their groups’ designs, one being a tablet (as in the tabernacle) within a tablet (as in Apple). A modern take on an old idea.
Finally, the principal called each student up one at a time to give them their cards. The kids smiled while parents and grandparents snapped their cellphone cameras. There was no Pomp and Circumstance, but somehow it felt as big as a graduation and as emotional as other more mainstream rites of passage.
Before we were dismissed and free to mingle, we stood for the HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem. I looked around at the students, their parents, many of whom are foreign born. I looked at Philippe and at my parents and felt that familiar wave of emotion pass through me, the one I struggle with that wants to hold onto my American self and embrace the other Israeli one too. The many sides of me, of us, as we settle in this country.