As another week passes here in Karmi’el, it is becoming easier to wake up sans the “where am I and what am I doing here” feeling. Please don’t misunderstand; I’ve been waiting for this experience for the past year, since returning home from Birthright consumed by the overwhelming urge to return to Israel. Yet after growing more than cozy back home at my apartment in Boston, opening tired eyes to a plethora of unfamiliar sights can sometimes be unsettling. Fortunately, I have come to discover support systems along my journey thus far that have proven themselves trustworthy, accommodating, affectionate and definitely entertaining.
“Hit the American in the face” at the Mercaz Klitah
Thousands of miles away from the family that has taken care of me since before I was even able to create memories and the friends with whom I’ve often spent nights forgetting memories with, it isn’t out of the ordinary to exude sentiments of isolation, even when one is constantly surrounded—willingly or not so much—by twenty others probably feeling the same way. OTZMA, graciously suspicious of this homesickness, assigns all of us host families during our time in Karmi’el, and adoptive families for the remainder of our stay here in Israel. Last week, we were each given the name and contact information for our designated host families—these individuals volunteer to take on an OTZMAnikim for three months in Karmi’el, and often work for Jewish agencies or federations in some arena. My new friend Evan and I were assigned the same host family, and our friend Gaby, whose family was away during that particular week, joined us for our first visit.
Although I was nervous about contacting Maggie, my host mom (was she going to be friendly? What if her husband or children picked up the phone and had no idea who I was? What if neither of them even spoke any English?), she sounded thrilled to have us over for dinner, and in a very enthusiastic almost too expeditious manner began rambling on about something having to do with an Israeli “American Idol” concert in the park. After hanging up, Evan and I unsure—were we invited to this concert she spoke of, or were we expected to leave shortly after dinner so she could prepare to leave for it? Either way, it was going to be an adventure.
Maggie picked us up outside of the Mercaz Kilitah and brought us to her home, where we met her husband and her son who were both leaps and bounds kinder than we could have even imagined. We were fed until we could no longer eat, and then we were fed some more. Through broken conversation, I discovered that her son was in school learning English, and we were both able to sympathize with one another for such opposite yet similar reasons. After dinner while sitting on the couch, Maggie wouldn’t let us say no to dessert, graciously offered me an espresso (to which I graciously accepted), and asked if we were ready for the concert. Guess we were going.
We all piled in the car and drove to the park where the concert was being held, which was free to the public. Parks and concerts here, for the most part, are open for the community, which is an incredible perk and so different from parks in America. A few weeks ago when OTZMA was on orientation in Arad, we went to see the popular Israeli funk band Hadag Nahash in concert, which was also free.
I made sure to sit next to Maggie, so she could translate for me and we could continue our exchange. We couldn’t get more than a few words out in between the myriad of hello’s and greetings from passerby’s, and I quickly became attuned to the fact that that our host mom was pretty popular here in Karmi’el. I’m almost positive there wasn’t a moment of silence shared between us the entire night, and in between translating the lyrics of the songs being performed, she was telling me about her family, how her daughter was living and studying in Jerusalem, and how her son was starting to think about the army. Maggie herself was in the army for an extended period of time, ten years if my moleskin remembers correctly, as a teacher and a mechanic. In the IDF, her daughter taught incoming soldiers how to use artillery. And her son looks forward, she laments, to being a fighter. We had a long conversation about how her son was looking forward to the army and how she was frightened for his specific aspirations, yet how she could never deny his plans to be a fighter, because she raised him to be proud of his country and taught him to act in what is best for Israel and Israel’s safety. The dichotomy was both humbling and spellbinding.
Looking out over the crowd at the concert, the obvious realization that everyone surrounding me had served in the army in some extent during their lives suddenly backhanded me in the face. Even the famous artists that were performing at the concert we were watching would serve in the IDF, Maggie said, or else the country wouldn’t respect them as much or invite them to perform at venues. I realized that every person in this country, having served in the army, shared a deep connection that was wildly ineffable. These people all experienced similar sights, days and nights, sweated and cried with one another, and toughed the inexplicable. These people were equals. Watching the crowd, I had a bit of a revelation that rocked me back in my chair and helped me to realize more of an understanding of this country than I’ve had yet.
Dropping us off and saying goodbyes, Maggie apologetically informed us she would be away in Tel Aviv for Shabbat, but invited us out to dinner the following week. Here in Israel, no one has the opportunity to miss out on a Shabbat dinner, and you are always invited to any dinner table as long as there is room for an extra chair and enough elbow space. A few days after, Maggie and her family picked Evan and I up at the Mercaz Klitah and took us out for probably the best meal I’ve had in Israel thus far, at a restaurant called Art de Coco. Nervously, I made sure I learned how to say, “I am a vegetarian” (“ani simchoneet”) before I left for Maggie’s and whispered it to her at the restaurant after the conversation had become more comfortable. She assured me I had nothing to worry about, and was glad that I had told her so she could remember for the future. Her concern and attentiveness warmed me in a way that I think only my mother’s could, and the fact that I was as new to her as she was to me warmed my heart even more.
Full and happy, she began to quiz us with some Hebrew and we jumped into grieving about Ulpan and how difficult it was for us, which I’ll be covering in another blog entry. Moving to Israel having known little to no Hebrew, several of us OTZMAnikim were bewildered that our Ulpan teacher spoke very little English and quickly realized this journey was going to be a bit more complex than we could have possibly imagined. Without skipping a beat, Maggie promised to help us with our Hebrew, joking about how she would be our Ulpan teacher instead.
With Maggie and her family proving to be a fine substitute to my support system thousands of miles away, the only thing I was missing was some culturally inclusive experiences that were more age-friendly. Thankfully, one of my good friends here on this trip, Arielle, grew up with an American named Ari who moved to Israel to join the army. When Arielle made the decision to move to Israel for a year, Ari made sure to put her in contact with an IDF friend of his who happened to live in Karmi’el, named Avi. Avi might be one of the more special people I’ve met here in Israel, for a multitude of reasons. He has shown us kindness, generosity, and probably the most beautiful waterfalls and trails I have ever laid my eyes on.
Quite a few days ago when Arielle and I walked down to meet some OTZMA friends who were at the economic demonstrations at the park in Karmi’el last week, the two of us ran into Avi who was more than happy to paint us more of an accessible understanding of the craziness that some were naming the “Million Man March.” For those who haven’t been following, the rising cost of rent and overall living in Israel has prompted Israeli citizens to gather in unity to the streets of Tel Aviv and multiple cities and towns this summer to demand social justice. Many are tagging these risings “tent cities,” as young and old Israeli citizens are leaving their houses to camp out in parks, on streets and in town squares, blocking traffic and besieging the Knesset.
Other protests, like the thousands of parents marching in Tel Aviv with their children in strollers demanding government subsidizes for products like baby food and diapers, have followed suit. It seems those inspired by some of the surprisingly successful repercussions of the Arab Spring are responding to the misconducts they are facing in their countries as well, and Israeli citizens are refusing to swallow the “because I said so” sentiments from their own government.
The vigorous chants at the specific protest I was at last week in Karmi’el, “ha’am doresh tzedek hevarti,” were pouring out of the mouths of men, women and children alike. Realizing our confused expressions, Avi patiently translated, “the people demand social justice.” The protests brought out quite over a few thousand people, and being a part of something so politically motivated was like getting my academic “fix,” if you will—even though we all spoke different languages and experienced different wrongdoings by our own governments, the communal energy was contagious and all of the sudden our mother tongues no longer mattered.
Economical protests in Karmi’el
After we had enough of the commotion, Avi informed us rather boldly that we were going to go on an adventure. Pushing the sixty-five year old woman that is my alter ego aside, I quickly nodded my head in realization that this was the first time I was going to be taken out in Israel not on a guided tour or heavily micromanged jaunt. A pack of us piled into his car and we rode off into the darkness towards ‘somewhere’ between Akko and Nahariya. Arriving at a beach heavily lit up only by probably more stars than I have ever seen in my entire life, we were amicably greeted by Avi’s friends who were, fortunately for us, looking to practice their English. Exchanging stories and picking up some Hebrew slang by the bonfire, we were graciously offered Arrak, a tastey Israeli liquor reminiscent of black licorice which mixes surprisingly well with lemonade, and Poyke, a slow-cooked stew-like concoction of whatever the group felt like throwing in that night. Guitars were passed around generously and conversation was stimulating, as the night wore on and Avi kept checking in on us to make sure we were comfortable,, happy, and full with drink and poyke.
Driving us home to the Mercaz Klitah, Avi invited us all for Shabbat dinner at his house one week, and thanked us for the night. Us? No, of course he didn’t mean to thank us, rather accept our thanks with welcome. But he was indeed thanking us, and I was warmed by our new friend, who barely knew us but wanted to show this group of Americans who came to his country and gave up a year of their lives to volunteer and learn what it’s like to live in Israel, a good time.
A few days later, Avi invited a small group of us to camp with him and friends along the Kinneret and then hike the following morning in Yehudiya, which borders the Golan. Picking us up, his car was stocked for the night: pita and hummus, vegetables for an israeli salad, meats, drinks, and even vegetarian snacks. We drove towards the Kinneret, or the Galilee Sea, and set up camp. Our Thursday night included night swimming in the Galilee, barbequing, hookah, and literally sleeping under the stars on the beach. Greeting the sun at dawn, we piled back into the car and set off for Yehudiya, where the five of us hiked, swam with schools of fish under clandestine waterfalls, and leapt from cliffs into the most breathtakingly beautiful pools of water hidden between mountain crevices. While the group of us would be considered althletic and certainly healthy and outdoors oriented people, the Mediterranean sun has crept up on at least a few of us since being here, and Avi, a native, ensured that we were all drinking water and wearing sunscreen. After an all day excursion, we shuffled back to Karmi’el, exhausted and exhiliarated.
Between Maggie and her family and Avi and his friends, Israeli hospitality now holds a growing place in my heart. I have learned that there are people in this country that are more wonderful that I could have imagined, and am fortunate to have met Israeli’s who will laugh while I try to pronounce words that are unfamiliar to me, but who are always patient and kind, excited to teach and share experiences with those who come to their country. Rocked backwards by the kindness of those Israeli’s who I have met, I am also blessed to be smelling, seeing, tasting and hearing things that I would have never experienced just traveling the country as a tourist, gauging the country from an outsider’s perspective.
I leave with the words of my friend Alex, who I was cringing with on the topic of having to reconstruct this incredible week into words for my blog. Living in Israel, I have been afforded sensations, experiences, and thoughts that I can’t even fathom documenting in any tangible sense, and that feeling is inexplicably frustrating. I want to share my life with those whom I’ve left at home in Boston and CT and those I love and want to share my year with, as well as the readers of this blog.
Alex conveyed to me quite poetically, “It’s the job of an artist to successfully and accessibly relay the emotions of an experience to others that would generally only be accessible to those who experience it themselves.”
I hope I am able to at least scratch the surface of this experience, as time moves forward with or without my concession.
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