A friend of mine recently asked me a series of quick questions like, “how are you? How do you like Israel? What is your life like there?”
With little time to answer, I tried to be curt and honest in my response. Here is a more expanded version of what I said to her:
I’m doing sporadically well. Some days I feel spiritual, as if God illuminated me in everything I did. I walk down the street and things seem to have a purpose. These are usually the days where God makes sense to me, where Judaism feels not like a distant ancestral line but an oath of laws the men and women of my bloodline took centuries before my own parents were born. Other days I feel lonely and angry and out of place. These are the days that the world seems to make much more sense to the religious than it does to me. These are the days when a rabbi tells me that the law of the Torah insists a man who pays someone to kill another man cannot be persecuted in a Jewish court because God will take care of him in the next world (this isn’t the only reason, but it is a fundamental one). These are the days when, over Shabbat dinner, a friend in my program tells the story of the gay couple that got married in his reformed synagogue, and the wife of the Rabbi – an otherwise beautiful, loving, caring individual who happens to be a phenomenal cook and a great mother – explains what my friend just said to her 8 year old son by saying that “something not very nice happened in his synagogue.” It’s when I hear the disdain in her voice that I realize we are on different planets, that when I heard the story I thought of beauty and freedom, and that when she heard it she thought of the demise of the Jewish people. Israel (Jerusalem specifically) is a very, very intense place to live. It is a lot and it is all the time. It is impossible to live here without contemplating the actual reasons for existence and my secular or atheistic or whatever-you-want-to-call-it attitude is challenged and ringed out every day. I’ve had some new and enlightening thoughts about the possibility that God may exist and I continue to have moving experiences with myself, gaining an understanding for who and what I am. I am changing.
The first month is in the books, and as I expected it has turned time into a conundrum. While I feel like I have lived a year of experiences, thoughts and revelations in the last month, I also feel like I arrived only 10 days ago. With some time to think on it, I’ve tried to put together a list of the things I’ve grown to love and hate about this country, and I’ll do my best to tie in some stories about the last few weeks on the way.
5 Things I Love About Israel
Weather – Some of you might read this first one and immediately laugh at the thought of me in a Middle Eastern climate. For anyone that’s ever spent an hour with me outside, you know that I have a tendency to go from red to redder to the reddest (“apple head,” as Nate Sandlar once so endearingly called me). The sun is not something I’d describe as my friend. Despite that, I have fallen in love with the weather here in Israel. It is true that the sun is brutal, and between the hours of 1pm and 3pm I generally avoid being outside. However, the weather here is consistent. It has been sunny and cloudless, no chance of rain for a single moment I’ve been here. When I say that, I mean it – no afternoon thunderstorms, not a single grey to moderately dark cloud, no drizzles, nothing. There is no humidity, ever. Each day, the sky is blue and clear and the sun is bright and loud. Around sunset, the weather goes from great to phenomenal. There is nothing better than dusk in Jerusalem. The entire city turns to gold. The Dome of the Rock glistens, the tops of buildings shine, a cool breeze sets in and the nights become the kind of cool that made calling someone cool a good thing. It’s cool in the way that you can wear long pants or a long sleeve shirt but still enjoy the breeze shirtless without ever being uncomfortable. It’s cool in the way that you can have your hood up without feeling hot, but then sit down on a bench or on the ground and feel it still warm to the touch from the sun that was up just hours ago. With little exaggeration, the weather here is perfect.
Tradition – It is easy to uphold American traditions that are less than 300 years old, and we still do a pretty crappy job of it. But here in Israel, the people uphold traditions that are thousands of years old, and they do it well. For example, yesterday marked the conclusion of Tisha B’Av, a holiday of mourning that designates time to reflect on the destructions of the temples and the many tragedies the Jewish people have faced. Interestingly, the Jewish people have faced many hardships during this “holiday.” According to the Torah, God first implored these hardships of Tisha B’Av on us when we were stuck in the desert for 40 years, trapped between Egypt and an Israel the spies had told us was unsafe to go to. But this time is solemn, and to show respect for everything from the destruction of the First Temple to the travesties of the Spanish Inquisition the religious prohibit things like eating, drinking, bathing, wearing leather shoes, sex, study of Torah not related to the day, even sitting on regular chairs. The result is a lot of Orthodox Jews sitting on the floor in crocs. But if you are ever interested in being moved, I suggest visiting the Western Wall on the eve of Tish B’Av. When I went on Monday night, I had never seen it so packed. There were thousands of people there, many of them sobbing openly, looking and pleading to the sky for forgiveness, or salvation, or Lord knows what. It gave “Wailing Wall” new meaning to me. Whether you believe in God or the Jewish God or any God at all, what is simple fact is things like the destruction, the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, they all happened – and these people are poised not to forget. My people are poised not to forget. That is something I admire (There is a story I’ve heard told about Napoleon giving the Jews a blessing. According to legend, he once came upon a Jewish settlement that was in mourning for TIsh B’Av. When he asked what had happened, seeing everyone crying, the people told him they were mourning the destruction of the Temple. When he suggested revenge for the destruction, they explained to him that it had happened hundreds of years before. Upon hearing this, as the story goes, Napoleon said that “if these people are still mourning the loss of a Temple that old, they will get it back”). He probably proceeded to slaughter and rape and pillage whatever town he was heading to, but it is still a great story.
“I hear” – It is impossible to know how it started, but I have picked up on a mannerism of Israelis that I find absolutely fantastic. It is so funny because almost all of them do it, whether they’re American or religious or Israeli by birth or whatever. When you’re in a discussion about a topic that there is any degree of disagreement on, and you are expressing your point, they will acknowledge what you’re saying with the simple phrase “I hear.” For instance, I’ll be saying, “it is absolutely idiotic to let someone who employs a hit man back into society without punishment. The Torah excluding him from punishment isn’t just dangerous, but it’s illogical and frankly just dumb. A 10 year old has better sense than that.” To which the Rabbi would respond, “I hear, I hear…but…” and so forth. Something about the way those two words hit you is more comforting than “I understand,” or “I got you,” or “I get it” – no, they hear you. I love it. And my roommate called me out on using the expression a lot recently, so I guess it’s really starting to rub off on me as well.
Hebrew – Hebrew is the most logical, simple, archaic language there is. It might not be the oldest, but it definitely sounds the oldest. And it makes sense. Every single word in Hebrew has a three-letter root, or a shoresh, and is then sandwiched with a prefix or suffix that gives it tense, gender and plurality. Even better is that every root word relates to the word it creates. For instance, most of you probably know the word “Shalom” means hello, goodbye and peace. The shoresh of this word is made with the Hebrew letters shin, lahmed, and mem (shin makes the S sound, lahmed the L sound, mem the M sound). What this shoresh actually means is “whole.” So when someone says Shalom, they’re really wishing you peace – which can be described as “being whole.” Then, when someone says shee-lam-tah, which is spelled with the same root letters (shin, lahmed and mem) as shalom, even if you’ve never seen this word you know it has something to do with “being whole.” Shee-lam-tah’s actual translation is “did you make whole?” or, in English, “did you pay?” The entire language runs on this structure, so if you learn 50 or 60 root words and some grammar you can actually begin to understand hundreds and hundreds of words, phrases, expressions and sentences.
Shabbat – We’ve been over this a bit, but I’ll just say that ending the week by turning off your phones and computers and TVs and spending the time eating, drinking, singing, dancing and reflecting is simply unbeatable.
Honorable Mention: Shwarma – with little rival, the best junk food in Israel.
5 Things I Hate About Israel
Cost of beer – In Israel, they don’t sell beer by the case. This is true in every single part of the country that I’ve been to (if anyone knows differently, please let me know). They don’t even sell six packs. You can only, whether in a bar or a gas station or a liquor store, buy beer by the individual bottle or can. I don’t think I need to say much else about this.
Women – Whether they’re Israeli or American, women in Israel are tough to love. The Israeli women are drop dead gorgeous. I mean that – I’d say upwards of 70% of the women here are what I’d classify as good looking and almost half are just absolutely beautiful. They’re all tan, confident and in great shape (the latter two usually a product of their time in the armed forces). This is not me speaking; this is a general consensus. Even an Israeli girl I spoke to who went to high school in Atlanta and then moved back here said that “in the states, I’d say like 2 or 3 out of every 10 of my friends were pretty. Here its like 8 out of every 10.” Her words ladies, not mine. While this is cool for a tourist, the reason they fall under the hate category is because they are absolutely unapproachable. I don’t mean just in a bar setting or at a club or on the beach – I mean that almost every single Israeli girl I’ve met, with the exception of the ones I’m introduced to through a mutual friend, immediately assume I am some low-moral, arrogant chump from the United States who is just trying to sleep with her. I’m not saying that they don’t have good reason for this feeling because I’ve seen a lot of American guys crash and burn while trying to make passes on Israeli women. But still, it is undeniably frustrating that you can’t approach a stranger of the opposite sex here without her immediately assuming you want to go home with her. On the other hand, all of the American women here are busy falling left and right for every Israeli guy they see, so I kind of hate them too. Not even in the jealous hatred kind of way, but just in the way that they’re giving American women a bad reputation the same way the American guys fumbling over Hebrew pick up lines they’re attempting on Israeli women are giving me a bad reputation.
Racism – It is important to understand that racism here is not like racism in the United States. This isn’t, “oh that damn Mexican stole my job” or “black people are good at basketball” racism. This is, “those Arabs are going to try and kill my children. I’m not going to sit by and watch as they blow themselves up in my synagogue.” Or, on the other side, its “those dirty Jews are stuffing my family into refugee camps like sardines and their corrupt military is putting bullets in my children’s head for throwing a rock at their tank.” This racism is not surface, skin color, financial standing racism. This is racism about the core of someone’s character – his or her intentions to do harm, to kill, to ruin, and to destroy. It is a racism that burns inside people with thousands of years and millions of lives of momentum, fervor and angst. Racists here don’t want the person they hate to use a different water fountain or find a new job – they want them dead. In no way do I mean to imply that all or even most people are racist, they’re not. What I do mean is that I have encountered it, and when I have it has held bitterness like I’ve never seen.
“Religious” People – “Religious” people, in my mind, are those that dress the part but proceed to live with actions that don’t match their attire. For me, these are the worst kind of people. They are worse than the close-minded religious zealots who are actually obeying everything about their Good Book they know. They are worse than the stubborn atheists who refuse to believe in God and look down on believers as stupid or naïve. “Religious” people are like the man who sat at my table for a Shabbat dinner amongst 90-100 people, wearing tsis tsis and a kippa and a black hat and used the “N” word to describe four different players on the Miami Heat. When I asked him politely not to use that word, and explained to him that it made him sound both like an idiot and a racist and made the rest of us look bad, he stared at me dumbfounded and said, “Well I don’t know how else to explain them.” In other words, this man believes he has the brain capacity to make decisions about the reality of God, devote his life to it, spend hours studying Torah, but can’t think of a better word than “nigger” to describe Chris Bosh. This man epitomizes “religious” people.
Guns – Guns are cool. That isn’t a misleading or tricky statement. They look badass, they are intricate, they are complex, they come in different variations, they are loud, they are expensive, they blow stuff up and you have to get permission to own one. They are cool. But I hate them. I don’t hate them in the way that I wouldn’t go to a gun range and use one – in fact that sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Still, the truth is that here – in Israel – they are everywhere, and they are a constant reminder that they need to exist. Amongst my American friends, we’ll be walking down the street wrapped up in an engaging conversation about this place and all it will take is a group of soldiers walking by for our conversation to break off for a moment. It is impossible not to look, to pause, just for a moment, and consider that those guys are armed with killing machines that can’t leave their sides. Something about their presence here is eerie in an utterly unpleasant way.
Honorable Mention: Wifi – usually, I have to type these emails in Word and then copy and paste them into an email during a brief moment of Internet connectivity from the Camel’s belly.