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The program I am on is called “Hevruta,” translating to ‘partners’ in Hebrew. As the only gap year program made half of North Americans and half of Israelis we are a bit of a social experiment. The Israeli Ministry of Health calls us an organic family because while we might not be a family, we are trying to live like one. In my apartment, we are seven girls all from different religious and cultural communities. My roommates are Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrachi Jews coming from homes in New York City and settlements of the West Bank. We are reconstructionist, conservative, orthodox, and secular. The only thing that binds us together is that we are all Jewish and that we now live together. Weekly, this results in challenges in figuring out what to cook and how to observe the sabbath in a way that makes everyone happy. At the same time, it’s an enriching experience. We all have different dreams of how we want to live in the future. Hearing my roommate’s dream to live on a farm in the middle of the desert inspires me to think about how I want to live in the future – not just what classes I want to take in college.
Israel is now under a national lockdown to reduce the number of coronavirus cases. This has meant that the Israelis on my program have had to spend over a month away from home instead of returning home every other weekend as expected. Ideally, the American participants would go home with them to experience Israeli culture more authentically. Many of us Americans came to Israel only expecting to see our families at the airport when we return home. Unlike American college students that often live on a college campus far from home, Israeli young adults see their families a few times a month during their mandatory military service. The pandemic has exposed many cultural differences between the American and Israeli participants. The organizers of the program have worked tirelessly to find a way to let the Israelis go home for a weekend while keeping everyone feeling safe. At the same time, these current challenges have forced us to lean on each other during difficult times and strengthened our bond.
In the last few weeks, we have been studying the relationship between American Jews and Israelis and questioning why we have chosen to be here, building relationships with people from a wide range of Jewish backgrounds. For many years what kept Jews together was a blood-relationship, shared belief, and shared hardship. Since the creation of the state of Israel, many of these ties have weakened. There is more inter-marriage among non-orthodox Jews, many Israeli Jews are secular, and anti-Semitism is something that many American Jews have never encountered. So what is the goal of strengthening a weakening bond between Israeli and American Jews? In the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the name of my program “Hevruta”, partners. At first, I thought the name was about learning in partners, something we will be doing throughout the year. Recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe it is the goal – to become partners in preserving a Judaism that is tolerating and accepting of different traditions. This is something that my roommates and I have been working towards by having a kosher kitchen and observing the sabbath in public spaces. While these efforts are small, I think they are the first steps towards us becoming partners and hopefully a family.
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.
The importance of packing light was apparent within the first few hours of our two-week trekk as I soon regretted bringing five pounds of trail mix. No matter how many times my instructors advised me to pack frugally, I needed to experience the hip bruises and aching muscles to truly understand what items were essential.
I did a mental inventory of my backpack in attempt to identify all the unnecessary items dragging me down: the set of ten colorful MUJI pens, a four hundred page Stephen King book I don’t even enjoy reading, a five dollar rain jacket that is most likely not waterproof, and two sets of extra batteries for my headlamp. As days passed and I got strong enough to help carry some extra items for my struggling group members, I realized the heaviness weighing me down the most was emotional baggage. I wasn’t able to sort through “good” and “bad” thoughts, leave the unwanted, burdensome behind and shove only helpful ideas into my backpack to bring along. The strain of spending the majority of the eight-hour hikes alone with my thoughts became too much. One day, I just sat in the middle of the trail and cried.
Trekk challenged me both physically and mentally. I cried a lot, coughed up blood, walked until my bloody blisters throbbed, lost feeling in my fingers at night, and contemplated giving up too many times to count. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of trekk. Of summiting a mountain just to go back down again. There are a lot of things you have to do in life that may be confusing at the time, but it is important to reflect on those experiences and always ask, “why?”.
It took me a while, but I believe the “why” of trekk was to learn a little bit more about yourself, show up for your group and help redistribute the weight when life gets to be too heavy, and forge deeper connections with the sacred Himalayas. Humbled by the immensity and beauty of Nepal, during trekk we came together as a family and made life a little lighter for one another.
When returning from Nepal, the most strikingly obvious difference was my physical surroundings. Nepal was lively and colorful; I would spend ten-hour bus rides mesmerized by the views. The vibrant cities gave way to lush hills which turned into the breathtaking Himalayas, whereas December in New Jersey was gloomier than I remembered and everything seemed to be washed over with a pale, cold grayness.
I missed the noises, too. I missed turning off my futile 7 A.M. alarm after waking to the sound of scrappy stray dogs and the monastery bells. I missed the shopkeepers shouting across the street to one another over the background of Nepali moped horns. I missed the extensive bargaining that preluded each and every purchase. I missed debating with my friends how to best spend our two dollars at the grocery store. The jarring silence of the suburbs was eerie.
In an attempt to assimilate back to life at home, I offered to run errands for my mom. Upon walking into ShopRite, I was immediately overwhelmed with the surplus of food. My eyes darted all over the store, trying to absorb everything at once. In Nepal, fresh daal bhat is a daily ritual eaten for lunch and dinner. Now, there was too much going on. Too many options. I walked down each aisle slowly, so that I could focus on small sections at a time.
An hour later, I realized my cart still only contained ten items. I looked around at the carts filled with mounds of food and thought about how Nepal grocery stores didn’t have shopping carts, nor was there a need for them. As I paid, the cashier made a comment about my refusal to put my produce items in individualized plastic bags. And for the first time in my life, I thought about where my trash ends up. Once I bring the bins to the end of my driveway every Tuesday night, I never think about where it all disappears to. In Nepal, I didn’t have to wonder. When the trash piles would grow too high, they were set on fire to free up space. Acrid smoke from burning plastic fille dour nostrils, quite literally forcing us to choke on our own trash.
I rushed to my car and cried in the parking lot. I cried because no one in the grocery store had talked to me besides the cashier. I cried because I missed all of the honking annoyed motorcyclists, inviting street vendors, and human interaction involved when making a trip to the local ten by twenty grocery store in Nepal. I cried because I was dumbfounded as to why I wanted strangers at the grocery store to smile at me, something I probably would’ve considered creepy in the past. I cried because I knew my homestay family, living in a small village in the outskirts of our consumer-driven society, was more influenced by climate change than anyone at the store. I cried because I felt misplaced and lost in a town that I had lived in my entire life. I cried because I was confused about who I was. I cried because I knew a piece of myself was still in, and always will be, Nepal.
Acostumbrarse. The Spanish verb for becoming accustomed to and also one of the first words I learned upon my arrival in Cuenca. Within those first few weeks of learning to live with a host family, speak a new language, and maneuver an unfamiliar city, I thought that I would never become accustomed to this strange new way-of-life. At times, I felt almost overwhelmed by the amount of challenges I faced on a daily basis. Luckily, within my first six weeks of being in Ecuador, I got to experience the levity and merriment of Carnaval, one of the biggest holidays celebrated in Ecuador and in South America. Due to this festival (and the copious amounts of pan con dulce de leche that I consumed), I was able to overcome many of the stressors of cultural adjustment and begin to truly enjoy the breadth of Ecuadorian culture.
Carnaval is a momentous occasion here in Ecuador. Back in January, when I first moved in with my host family, they were already discussing their plans for Carnaval: where we would go, what we would eat. It was not a matter to be taken lightly. In the weeks leading up to the festivities, our house became a storage center for water guns and cans of carioca, or party foam. Bottles of Coca Cola and Pilsener began to collect on our porch.
Then, on February 15th, about a week before the official start of Carnaval, my host family and I traveled an hour outside of Cuenca to the Valley of Yunguilla. Here, we met up with thirty other family members from all over Ecuador. For me, this was when Carnaval truly began.
Upon our arrival, and as we unloaded the seemingly endless amounts of food and drink from the car, several of my host family members began to set up a station where we were to “play Carnaval.” I’ve learned since then that “playing Carnaval” can take many shapes, but for my family, it involved becoming a “human mess” and then eventually getting “cleaned” of all the gunk that covered us.
At first, I had no idea what was going on, but once my tío oh-so-gently threw chalk into my face, my tía sprayed the entirety of my body with carioca, and a family friend rubbed some avocado on my cheeks, I began to understand the whole “playing Carnaval thing.” Or so I thought… Because once I was covered in chalk, foam, and avocado, I was rushed over to a stool where a trash can full of water (and shoes, for some reason I have yet to uncover) was dumped over my head.
Then, these steps were repeated again and again for every person until the sun began to set and the combination of our wet clothes and the nighttime breeze made us shiver and rush over to the hot tub. And while I thought then that the party was over, in reality, it had only just begun. Shortly after our escape to the hot tub, five hours of karaoke began as my host family members fought over the microphone and danced to every new song.
And after that, a week of Carnaval activities followed. My favorite activity? Jueves de Compadres y Comadres, or the Thursday before Carnaval when the people of Cuenca gather in a plaza in order to spray carioca into each other’s faces (aka eyes). Thankfully, I wear glasses and had some semblance of protection. Others were not as lucky.
Following the events of the previous weekend and Jueves de Compadres y Comadres, I had imagined that the weekend of Carnaval itself would be nothing short of crazy. But after watching a parade in the city center of Cuenca, where (surprisingly, I know) there was more carioca and chalk, my weekend was spent relaxing with my host family.
We traveled to Yunguilla, ate traditional foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and Mote Pata (an Ecuadorian soup only served during Carnaval), and played board games. This togetherness and family bonding time was one of my favorite aspects of Carnaval, as it helped me strengthen my familial relationships and I learned my new favorite board game: Rummy-Q.
While completely crazy at times, I am so thankful I got to experience Carnaval here in Ecuador. The time I spent immersed in all of its festivities, from being sprayed down with foam to eating a traditional soup with my family, was time I spent learning more about the Ecuadorian culture and abandoning the stress of acclimating to a new, unfamiliar place. And after experiencing the fun-loving, carefree attitude of Carnaval, I have decided to adapt certain elements of that attitude into my own mindset as I look toward my next three months here in Cuenca.
¡Que viva el Carnaval!