April 30, 1998
Israel and the Cure for Teenage Angst
By Teresa Strasser
At 16, I was so uncomfortable in my own skin that my dailyoutfit of choice was a drab army jumpsuit I bought at a thrift store.It zipped up to my chin, and that almost wasn't far enough forme.
As summer approached that year, my mother gotdumped by Syd, her two-bit Berkeley poet boyfriend who was alwayshanding out Xerox copies of his latest works. I don't want to say shedidn't take it well, but for two weeks she stayed in bed, forgettingto buy groceries and generally remaining incoherent.
It started to look like she must have forgottenabout my upcoming trip to Israel. The synagogue had provided us witha list of items I would need -- sunscreen, bathing suit, shorts, acanteen -- none of which I had. Two days before my trip, however, shesnapped out of whatever she was in and proceeded to go on a spendingspree the likes of which I'd never seen. She skipped the sale rackswe normally perused and bought me the best of everything, throwingdown her credit card with a guilt-induced fervor.
Next thing I knew, I was at the airport, clutchinga suitcase full of new clothes and reluctantly joining a herd ofJewish teenagers as we left our parents behind. Lots of mothers werecrying but mine was inconsolable, tears streaming down herexpressionless face as I walked away for the summer.
That was how I came to be sitting on a plane tothe Holy Land. The gum-smacking and insidious giggling of the otherkids is like a knife in my brain, I thought. Great, now I'm going tohave to simulate normal human behavior for five weeks or be exposedas the Sylvia Plath-in-training I think myself to be.
I imagine, looking back, that we were all reallythe same to a degree. All of us American teens sent to Israel wereplucked, midstream, from some form of pubescent angst. And it'sthrough that prism that we first got to know Israel.
When you're 16, you don't have much cognitive roomto consider your spirituality and cultural identity. In Israel, thoseissues can't help but sink in somewhat, but I think most of us wereconsumed with just figuring out who we were relative to each otherand to our parents back home.
We experimented with drinking, flirting andsmoking lung-searing Time cigarettes. We got our ears pierced anddouble pierced. We listened to the Grateful Dead and pretended tolike it. Our ids were allowed to run wild in Israel, free of ourfamilies and in a country less uptight than our own. For thosereasons, at least, most were left with pleasant memories of theJewish state, even though nothing identifiably "Jewish" seemed to behappening to us. Or so we thought.
For me, a couple weeks of sunshine tanned over myblemishes, inside and out. Syd's driveling poetry and my mother'sheartbreak were a million miles away. Dreading heat stroke more thanexposure, I ditched my army jumpsuit. It seemed pretty stupid anyway,there in a land where young people actually fought wars and carriedguns.
I found a small sense of comfort among my peers; aplace for myself, a couple of friends with whom I still keep intouch.
It wasn't until I returned as a journalist eightyears later, however, that I got to know the country in a new way,beyond the itinerary of a teen trip.
Traveling alone to write stories about tourism andnight life, I was struck by what probably strikes many Jewishtourists: the simple fact that almost everyone I encountered wasJewish -- the cabbies, the cops, the waitresses. I never knew justhow different being Jewish made me feel until it didn't.
It's like when you quit smoking and you canbreathe and you realize you never knew you weren't really breathing.In Israel for the second time, I could breathe. I remember standingon my hotel's balcony, staring down at the ocean, watching peoplethrow a frisbee and thinking these totally new thoughts.
I don't have to be unhappy. The world doesn't haveto be a bad place. Happiness is a choice.
A simple notion -- just a silly axiom really --but it suddenly seemed revolutionary as it settled in my mind. I heldonto that idea for months -- knowing it was true, but also knowing itwould slip away. I believe I experienced that moment-- one of thebest I've ever had -- because my brain was free from all the thoughtsthat coat its walls about being Jewish, about what people will makeof it.
I don't know when I'll go back to Israel. Or whoI'll be when I get there next.
I do know that beyond golden domes and desertsunsets and holy landmarks, the Promised Land promises somethingunexpected, something that may change for those of us lucky enough toreturn when we've shed the stifling skin of adolescence.