I am not completely sure how to pronounce my name.
I had this bizarre realization in January 2021, when I decided to take time away from online college to pad out my short resume with professional experience. Applying to 50-plus jobs and internships as an adult meant that I had to change outgoing voicemail message, which was 10 years old—recorded before my voice dropped.
I hadn’t rerecorded the message because my mother would often remind me—in the way characteristic of doting Jewish parents—what a “travesty” it would be to lose that bit of my childhood. I’d held out as long as possible, but the time had come. It needed an update.
Sitting in the living room of my parents’ apartment, I began the process of recreating my 10-second introduction to the world. I do not have separate numbers for work and school and social life—and as such, my cellphone is dialed by everyone from my siblings and my grandparents to my professors and my friends. I wanted to sound friendly and kind but not childish, professional and put-together but not aloof. Most of all, I wanted to sound sure of myself. On a fundamental level though, I was not. I am not. The most important part of an outgoing message is the name: “You have reached Ishai Melamede.” And that’s where I very quickly got stuck.
A name is a sacred part of human identity—it is one of the first gifts that we receive, often from the people who gave us life. It is meant to be shared, exchanged, and enunciated. People call you by it. But for me, a culturally American dual citizen with an Israeli name, I don’t find in my name the solid foundation of my social identity. Recording my name in Hebrew—with an Israeli accent—felt paradoxically authentic and disingenuous: I was honoring my heritage but felt I was shrouding the fact that I had spent most of my life in the United States. Using an Americanized version of “Ishai” felt equally confusing: It was more in line with how I am addressed by most of the people who know me but certainly was not true to my parents’ original intention. I was lost.
My mother is from a small beach town near Cape Cod, and my father is originally from Tel Aviv. They joke sometimes about the fitting nature of their wedding taking place at the Columbia School of International Affairs. And while it would be an exaggeration to say that I had an “international” upbringing—before college, I’d never lived outside New York City, much less the United States—it was one of my father’s first commitments as a parent to my siblings and me to file for our Israeli citizenship. He spoke Hebrew to me for most of my infancy, but after a while we fell out of the practice—quite frankly, I just couldn’t keep up. But somehow, much of what I was exposed to in those early years has stuck. Despite never really attending formal Hebrew school or living in Israel, I often can understand conversations between Hebrew speakers. My Hebrew accent is not totally native, but it is far from noticeably American. I straddle the line.
Over the course of my life, my name—Ishai—has been pronounced to me innumerable ways by an even greater number of people. My Israeli family says it one way (“ee-SHY”); my American family and friends have typically said it another (either “EE-shy” or, with an emphasis on the second syllable but with a short “e” sound at the front—“eh-SHY”). And what strangers I meet for the first time will call me is anyone’s guess. One might think that growing up in New York City—one of the world’s more diverse urban centers—would mean that people are generally better at pronouncing non-American names. My experience was often comedically the opposite: For the most part, the unique ego of New Yorkers meant that far from asking or learning, they were just aggressively confident in their butchering of non-American names. At doctors’ offices, coffee shops, or at the beginning of the school year when teachers were taking attendance for the first time, I am consistently called anything but my name. Most recently, “Ishan Melenday” was the preferred pronunciation of a staffer at the Kings County Jury Duty office.
But despite my Israeli blood and New York City upbringing, I’m fairly conflict-averse. When people say my name for the first time, I respond with a smile and an encouraging nod if it’s generally in the right neighborhood. Correcting people about the pronunciation of my name has always felt like an imposition—and especially when meeting people for the first time, not one I am willing to make. Over time though, this noncombative instinct just meant I was avoiding tougher, less easily answered questions about who I was. When people would really press me (“No—I really want to know how you say it”) I was often left speechless; I would insist that the way they had done it was correct. But far from being evidence of my easygoingness, maintaining a chameleonlike quality was easier than reckoning with the deeper implications of unknowing. I was avoiding having to answer the question about whether I was more Israeli or more American, about which side I wanted more to be a part of.
I was not raised in a particularly patriotic household, which is ironic because both of my parents were raised in homes where love-of-country abounded. My mother’s parents—Jack and Audrey Macdonald—were an archetypal small-town American couple. They revered Ronald Reagan, the U.S. military, and Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums; they went to church, flew an American flag, and were part of local organizations like the Pilgrim Women’s Investors Club and the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society. My father, on the other hand, was raised by Israeli parents whose formative years took place in Mandatory Palestine and during the founding of the State of Israel. Though neither of my grandparents fought in the 1948 War of Independence, their coming of age in the state’s early days—where it felt like everyone was doing something important—has continued to color the idealistic, aspirational, and often uncritical way that my family generally views Israel.
But in the Brooklyn apartment where I grew up, national identity primarily exists in the background. A satellite map of Israel hangs on the closet door in the bedroom I shared with my brother; biographies of Menachem Begin and Lyndon Johnson figure prominently on our living room bookshelf. Nowhere though are there explicit homages to either American or Israeli pride. The stacks of books for the social-contract philosophy classes that my mother teaches and the scattered spreads of the days-old New York Times that clutter our coffee table point to the household of a liberal intelligentsia that has disdain for such things as nationalism. Much more than being taught to be proud of our citizenship, my parents focused on instilling the value of manners, sticking up for yourself, and egalitarianism. If there was any place-based identity my parents sought to cultivate in us, it was one of being native New Yorkers.
In the New York City grade schools I attended as a child, being a dual citizen was not particularly unique or even very interesting. Many of my friends had a much closer relationship with their non-American heritage than I did. There were a couple reasons for this—for one, the fact that my parents were from different backgrounds meant that we got a diluted version of each of their divergent histories rather than a unified picture. My siblings and I call my father “Aba,” and would ask for neshikot (kisses) and kesef (money) when we left the house in the morning, but that’s the extent of the Hebrew that commonly makes it into our family vernacular. My family also did not frequently visit Israel: My aunts, uncles, and cousins on my Israeli side all live in the U.S., so it’s far more economical for my grandmother to come visit us from Tel Aviv than to have us all crowd into her apartment. Neither Americanness nor Israeliness was particularly important to how I understood myself in my early years.
My most recent trip to Israel was in the summer of 2017; it was one morning then when questions about my nationality began to really percolate. My father, grandmother, and I went to visit a museum in the Galilee region, where we met with a colleague of my grandmother’s. Without thinking, she introduced my father and me (in Hebrew) as “my son and his American son.” My father quickly interjected to mention that I have an Israeli passport—that I wasn’t obviously “American”—but the moment quickly passed. I don’t speak Hebrew regularly with my family, so it is hard to know whether my grandmother and my father were aware that I understood the words of their interaction. But the rest of the morning I walked around in a daze—I was lost as to why my grandmother felt it was important to introduce me as her American grandson, but perhaps more importantly, why my father felt it was necessary to correct the record and add that I was (also) Israeli.
Many thoughts started to develop for me. One was the realization that possessing a passport was not enough to claim a home in a national group—or at least not enough for others to claim you. Another was that despite the fact I didn’t find it particularly important to define myself as American or Israeli, it was certainly a heuristic through which other people (like my grandmother) understood me. But most importantly, my father and grandmother and bickering threw into stark relief the profound idea that national identity is somehow negotiable; that we are not assigned to exist in a certain group but can litigate where we belong. While on one level this is a freeing idea, for me the fact that I had choices that I could make—that I needed to make—was frightening. Decisions that once felt benign, like recording a new voicemail, were suddenly loaded with broader implications for what national groups or narratives I wanted to belong to. Questions swirled: Was I American? Was I Israeli? And what did I need to do to prove it, one way or another?
There is an uncomfortable in-betweenness that I think you hear in my current voicemail.
There is a joyless, forced feeling to my words. The awkward moment comes when I switch from speaking Hebrew (“Ishai Melamede”) to speaking English (“at 347-988-****). While the transition is quick—and perhaps, not easily noticeable—listening to the audio again brings me back to the uncomfortable moment when I made the message. This was my sixth or seventh try; I’d had to figure out how to not trip my tongue up on itself while the sounds fell out of my mouth. The two languages felt like oil and water, each pushing the other out of the way. They did not flow; they resisted a mix.
This voicemail is emblematic of how I understand my name today, and on a broader level, how I understand my national identity. In my experience, nationalities don’t mix—with practice, they coexist uncomfortably, at best. I’m thus trying to reframe my own journey to understand myself not as one of becoming more authentically American or Israeli, but to recognize that I occupy each identity independently. Yes, my name is “ee-SHY”—it is an Israeli name, and should be said in the Israeli way. The country’s culture, language, and conflict have shaped my life and worldview in foundational ways. But to ask my American friends and family who to change how they say it would be refusing to recognize the existence of a separate and distinct identity that I have in the U.S.—one which is centered on very different things.
So for now, in my voicemail, I am introducing myself with an Israeli pronunciation; I’m saying my name the “right” way. But I am not “Israeli-American” or “American-Israeli.” No such passport exists. Like the Hebrew and English in my voicemail, the national parts of me do not have to blend—they can’t. Instead, they’ll just continue to rest uneasily beside each other.
Ishai Melamede is a former Tablet Fellow. He currently studies Political Science at Grinnell College.