It took years of reflecting, writing and researching “passing,” exploring the ways we hide our identities, before coming to terms with my own personal passing story. I was born and raised in Israel, where, some of you might have guessed, the name Roy is not exactly a popular choice for newborn baby boys. My real name is actually taken from the Bible, and is pronounced Ro-EE, meaning in Hebrew, “my shepherd.” It was Americanized, mostly due to its impossible phonetics and lack of streamlined spelling, and morphed into “Roy” when I got my first passport in preparation for a Bar-Mitzvah trip to Disney World. I lost my birth name on that trip but also fell deeply in love with America. Arriving at Newark, this little Israeli boy was soon blinded by the lights of the Big Apple. The sweetly sickening smell of the New York subway leaves its mark on you, and as I was standing on the Brooklyn pier at the twilight hour, I remember feeling Lady Liberty taking me under her wing. I returned home to the Middle East with a vow: I’ll be back.
And I did! In fact, this year marks the 15th anniversary of my new life in the U.S. (as a Roy, not Ro-ee). Now, returning to Florida—the place where my American metamorphosis started—as an Assistant Professor of Israel Studies is somewhat of a fitting closure, since the subject of my academic research is driven by the clash of two identities: the Israeli and American in me.
Still, it’s hard let go of your motherland. The Hebrew language has no alternative, and as much as I managed to cover the infamous Israeli accent with generic American English, I still think and mostly dream in Hebrew. Hebrew, or Ivrit, was also the language in which I began writing creatively.
I served as a reporter in the IDF Radio, writing and producing stories, shows and programming about Israeli arts and culture. At the age of 18, I had the opportunity to interview some of Israel’s greatest artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians. Touring the land from north to south, I discovered the fascinating tapestry of Israeli culture, a unique mishmash of local and foreign, religious and secular, of East and West, working together and against each other, all at the same time.
I continued writing for various Israeli media channels, and after moving to New York, I even had a weekly personal column where I shared my experience as an immigrant in the big city. In New York I also attended the City University and in the hallways of Hunter College I was introduced to the poetry of Langston Hughes, the literature of the Harlem Renaissance and then every African American novel I could get my hands on. As a Ph.D. student in the Comparative Literature Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, I wanted to combine my love of Israeli and African American literatures into a single comparative project. The big question was how to bring together the experiences of these distinct cultures, of two cultures that are deeply rooted in traumatic events of unprecedented magnitudes. How can I compare the incomparable?
Luckily, Comparative Literature doesn’t mean finding literal similarities and differences. Instead, think about the field as bringing different experiences into a space suitable for discussion in order to gain a fresh perspective through dialogue.
And so, my research incorporates the concept of passing into the literary criticism of Israeli fiction. The term “passing” originally describes the move of African Americans into white society after identifying, or being identified as members of a different racial group. Passing also meant erasing one’s connections to the past. If you think about it, the resettlement of the Jewish Diaspora in Israel did more than just move physical bodies in and out of the land: it also called for an erasure and restructuring of one’s identity. In order to fully integrate into the promised land, immigrant Jews had to stop being European Jews and “pass” as Israelis.
What I find most exciting about my comparative research is the exchange and interaction of ideas and theories originally developed and used exclusively within Israel Studies and African American Studies. As scholars of Jewish Studies, we have plenty to offer to—and also learn from—other disciplines, and I see this approach promoting the outreach of our field and contributing to the diversification of our research and student body. For this line of work, I was also awarded the 2020 Baron New Voices in Jewish Studies Prize, by Columbia University and Fordham University.
I am thrilled to bring these diverse professional experiences to the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida. I have heard so much about UF’s exceptional and bright students, and look forward to meeting them, virtually at first, and hopefully in person, soon enough. Finally, I am honored to become a part of such a bright faculty and a supportive, welcoming environment.