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The Israeli-Jewish Springtime Trifecta
Hello from Jerusalem!
Since I haven’t been the most diligent about writing my blogs, I thought reflecting on my mechinah’s middle of the year seminar, designed to reflect on individual and group growth, would be appropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I didn’t quite need the time to ponder my own journey because I journal – literally dedicating 20ish minutes every night to reflecting – and because I’ve discovered I’m naturally a reflective person – sometimes to a level where I wish I could stop feeling all my emotions because it is exhausting. Instead, I mused on the group community we have created. We essentially live in a commune; everyone has shifts for cooking and cleaning and is part of a committee pertaining to a certain aspect of our experience (community service, learning, logistics, shabbat, and group.) My reality here is enormously different than my old reality of sitting through a whole day of school and extracurriculars and coming home to a clean house with dinner waiting on the table. Sometimes, I am lazy, and I don’t want to plan, cook, or clean – especially clean – anything. The sentiment of “somebody else will do it” occasionally, or perhaps more than occasionally, percolates through my brain. But then what if everyone has the same reaction? During one seminar session, we discussed our favorite quotes/themes from classes so far, and one quote really stuck with me: הפראייר האמיתי הוא הבן אדם שמפחד להיות פראייר“ ” meaning “the real freier (Hebrew slang term for a sucker/a chump/someone taken advantage of) is the person who is too scared to be a freier.” I understand this to mean that putting in more than you are likely to “get” is much more fulfilling than refusing to put in anything because giving part of yourself is part of the “getting.”
As a member of the group committee, my responsibility is to help plan our weekly שיחת קבוצה (group conversation). This forum is the food and water that enables the group to exist and grow. Our conversations consist of a 15 minute discussion on practical issues – often cleaning – and then we transition into some sort of activity or question that everyone participates in or answers. I’ve learned that group responsibility is not just a practical sentiment but also an emotional one; our group wouldn’t exist if not for communication, and I have improved tremendously on this front. I wouldn’t say I used to put up walls around myself but more that I never ventured out of my dotted line enclosed comfort zone. I wasn’t scared of opening up, I just always thought I could handle my own feelings, and I rarely spoke up if something was bothering me out of fear of being perceived as brash.
However, during our middle of the year seminar, many friends complimented me on how comfortable I was sharing my feelings during our many group-conversation-like sessions. And, during our “thinking time” sessions, I reflected on how beautiful it is that I have a group to which I can give so much of myself practically and emotionally.
Growing Up Again
Everyone said that this year would be a new chapter in life, but it feels more like an entirely new book. At home, I was always the “mom” of the group, but here in Israel, it feels like I’ve started the life cycle anew.
In the beginning of my program, I felt like a baby. I was always wide eyed, not knowing what was going on but trying to absorb my surroundings as much as possible. I needed a lot of sleep because my brain was always in overdrive coping with life in Hebrew. And similar to how people stop on the street to coo over a cute baby, Israelis gave me a lot of attention because I am the exotic American girl.
In the last three months I feel as if I’ve grown to be an eight year old; I’m like a kid sitting at the adult table. In classes and group conversations I catch a fair bit of the dialogue, but sophisticated words and cultural references go over my head. I understand enough that I want to participate but I’m incapable of articulating myself fully in Hebrew, and I feel awkward constantly sharing incoherent sentences. I typically try to set an early bedtime for myself, but I usually end up going to sleep an hour, or two, or three after said bedtime. Perhaps the way in which I most resemble a child is through the connections I have with others here. There are many people whom I enjoy hanging out with, people I can laugh and sing and even cry with, but I can’t tell you personal details or idiosyncrasies about most people nor can most about me. My Hebrew is just not at a level where I can express myself enough for people to know the real me.
The one thing that has saved me as I gradually hack at the language barrier is journaling every night. I prefer typing than writing, so I have an app on my phone where I write down what I did, feelings I had, thoughts I wish I could have conveyed that day… Even getting in bed at 2:00 a.m. after a fun night, I can end up writing for 30 minutes because my brain is just swirling with hazy thoughts and putting everything down on paper ensures I can fall asleep and wake up with a clear head.
While I am infinitely grateful that my peers here have been like parents to me, supportive and patient, I’m excited to “grow up” more and forge real friendships.
A Lot Has Happened, Here Are My Takeaways
To say a lot has happened in the last five weeks would be an understatement. I spent four days in the desert meeting 70 Israelis; I spent Shabbat at an American friend’s house; I moved into my apartment at the mechinah for our five day opening seminar; I went to my cousin’s house for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and then quarantined there for two weeks because of a corona outbreak at my program (fortunately I didn’t get sick and those who did had a mild case); and then I spent a few days with a friend from my program whose family made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) from South Africa 9 years ago. Too much has happened to write about everything, and frankly, I don’t want to dwell on my second quarantine… so instead here are nine things I’ve learned/experienced.
- Israelis speak super fast and mumble; I swear half the time they aren’t saying words, merely stringing random syllables together.
- It is acceptable to eat salad – cucumbers and tomatoes and if you’re lucky peppers or some lettuce – with tachina (tahini) at every meal.
- You have to lean into the awkwardness because five minutes of discomfort can lead to an hour long, wonderful conversation.
- Though Israelis are more blunt and brisk than Americans in impersonal situations they are infinitely more welcoming and friendly in personal ones. After brief introductions, where my accent gave me away as American, everyone was inviting me to their homes for the weekends we have off. We are still teenagers, so I do sense cliquey inclinations in a few people, but it is staggering how much more open and supportive Israelis can be than Americans.
- You never know what’s going to happen until it’s about to happen. As I have said before, conveying information is not Israelis’ strong suit, but this shortcoming is exacerbated by Corona’s ever changing restrictions and my mediocre Hebrew comprehension. I frequently miss bits of information or just don’t catch on to certain things. It’s been hard transitioning from always being on top of everything to always being clueless.
- People have more children in Israel. As an icebreaker, we all went around and spoke about our families; I was shocked when person after person said they had three, four, five siblings. Some had even more. I am one of two that comes from a family of two kids, and there are no only children. Stereotypically, religious families have a lot of children, but now, even secular Israelis have a lot. In a religiously affiliated country, sometimes religious customs/actions/imperatives simply become part of the culture.
- The lazy Sunday that all Americans cherish does not exist here! Sunday-Thursday is the Israeli work week, Thursday is “going out night,” and Friday is spent cooking/preparing for Shabbat (which starts Friday night and ends Saturday night). Most of the country shuts down starting Friday afternoon for Shabbat. Coming from The City That Never Sleeps, I’m not used to grocery stores and drugstores closing and public transportation not running for a whole day.
- Many Israelis smoke cigarettes, some habitually and some just socially. Every time my friend lights a cigarette, I open my mouth in shock but then quickly close it so I don’t choke.
- And finally the one you have all been waiting for (if you read my first blog post)…an update on my Blundstones. Almost everyone at the mechinah has a pair, so when I wear mine they all exclaim “ישראלי ממש את ,אבי” (Abby, you’re so Israeli). The only thing is that I own black ones, whereas almost everyone here wears tan/brown ones. I guess my shoe choice reflects that as much as I try to fit in and immerse myself into Israeli culture, I will always be American.
Three Weeks, Two Different Worlds
A lot of people say the secret to happiness is living with low expectations, but I disagree; how can you possibly be happy if you maintain a pessimistic outlook? Instead, I have adopted the no expectations approach. In my last blog, I had grumbled about the lack of information given to me about my program, but my ignorance worked to my benefit regarding my two-week quarantine. I wasn’t disappointed at the dingy apartment we were placed in, and I was surprised and pleased when the program manager mentioned we could sit outside. When I told anyone that I had quarantined for two weeks they flashed a pitying smile and asked if I went crazy. But, in fact, I enjoyed two of my most relaxing weeks ever. Although I was cooped up, I experienced an unexpected sense of freedom. Usually, when you have time off from school or you’re on vacation, you feel pressure to do something: meet up with friends or family, have a cultural experience, cook something… But since we couldn’t do anything in quarantine, we could just be. My roommate and I spent our days reading, exercising, sitting outside, and watching Israeli tv shows (pro tip: watch a show on reduced speed to improve your language skills).
Of course, despite a rather pleasant quarantine, we left the second we could. We had a free week before our program started, so like any youngster in Israel with time to kill, we headed to Tel Aviv! We had a blast doing the usual activities: going to the beach, buying fruit and chachkas in Shuk HaCarmel (the Carmel Market), and roaming the slightly disheveled, art-deco streets. We did, however, have one rather unusual experience. My friend read about an outdoor play at the Jaffa Theatre in the Jerusalem Post and asked if we could go. I had lacked cultural stimulation for the previous five months due to Corona, so I jumped at the chance to see a play. I was surprised that I not only loved the play but also understood most of it! We were so impressed with the acting that we approached the actors and asked them to sign a program as a memento. They stared back at us incredulously, so flattered that they invited us to their next show! I hope we can make it, but I’m not setting any expectations in stone.
I love making lists, whether it’s a post-it note to-do list or a messily scrawled grocery list. There is simply nothing more satisfying than a document that clearly conveys information.
Unfortunately, that is not the Israeli way; my program has not communicated what I should pack or what I should expect. In fact, almost everything I know about Mechinat Beit Yisrael is thanks to American alumni of the program. All alumni have their “two cents” about useful supplies, but everyone has recommended I bring Blundstones.
Consistent with go-with-the-flow Israeli culture, Blundstones are boots suitable for a morning of hiking, an afternoon of shopping, and then an evening of dinner and dancing. To Israelis, Blundstones are not merely boots but their own category of shoe. The only lamentable thing about them is that I’ve always found them quite unattractive.
Typically, I’m not one to succumb to social pressure; if I learned anything in high school, it’s to be proud of my quirks. I was prepared to show up in Israel Blundstone-less until the one other American girl doing my program said she had them. I rethought the issue; maybe they will give me some semblance of fitting in as one of four North Americans among 70 Israelis. The truth is that despite studying Hebrew for 15 years, mine is far from fluent; and, given my inability to follow American pop culture, who knows when I’ll understand Israeli cultural references.
A trait that comes with my love of list making is an inclination to be prepared, so I researched and wrote down possible Ulpan classes I could take to brush up on my language skills. The first Ulpan – literally meaning instruction, teaching, or studio – began in 1949 in Jerusalem to introduce new olim (immigrants) to Hebrew and Israeli culture. They are now widely offered at multiple levels, and I just completed an advanced virtual class through my local JCC (Jewish Community Center). Although the first few three hour zoom sessions were utterly draining, by the end of the four weeks, I was used to being in a Hebrew environment for that long.
One practice I found helpful and will continue is keeping a Hebrew word journal. Whenever a fellow student or I asked what a word meant/how to say a word, my teacher would write the Hebrew word in the chat. Throughout class, I diligently, yet sometimes frantically, wrote down every word so I could review them later. I am so glad I took the Ulpan class, but writing down 150 or so new words every day made me acutely aware of how much I still have to learn.
Now my Blundstone opening was not a red herring; if you haven’t guessed already, I caved and bought a pair of (not so) shiny, new Blundstones. The truth is, my Ulpan class will probably make a much bigger difference in my adjustment than my Blundstones, but who knows?! I have been dreaming of taking a gap year in Israel since eighth grade; even though I am beyond ecstatic for this life changing year, I never expected to be so anxious that I would buy a pair of boots in an effort to acclimate.
After seeing the Blundstones in my room every day for a couple weeks, they are no longer an eyesore and may even have grown on me. Now that I’ve cobbled together a packing list, studied my vocab words, and brainstormed activities to busy myself during quarantine upon my arrival, I feel I’ve prepared enough and am ready to rip the band-aid off. I know that after the initial language and culture shock, I will view the year that lies ahead not as a daunting challenge but as an eye-opening adventure.