Eight months is a very long time to be away from home, and it seems even longer when you’re in country like Israel. Most of what I remember are mere flashes of images or sounds shuffled together like the Mizrachit music on my ipod. Like many students studying abroad at the Masa Israel-accredited Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I came to Israel for a break from my normal routine.
I spent much of my time on the back of my Israeli boyfriend’s motorcycle. It was my first time riding one, and I wrapped my arms tightly around his stomach as he drove me down the arteries of Jerusalem. No one knew me. Often I worried about feeling accepted and how I sounded in Hebrew, but when I was on that bike I stopped caring. It was the only time when I could see the world without anyone seeing me back. I spent a lot of time on the back of that bike, and to put it simply, I fell in love in Jerusalem.
When I met him the summer before, he told me that he was a commander in the Israeli air force. He didn’t have to say more. I was taken almost immediately by his natural charm, good looks, and cute accent—or maybe I was just allured by his foreignness. Regardless, he was new and exciting, and for a girl traveling from the outskirts of Hollywood, he was the perfect start to my Israel experience.
I lived with four Israelis in a small apartment near Hebrew University’s campus. One of them, Matan, and I became very close. We talked about many things, and when I started to get homesick, he was there to make me feel better. Living in Israel wasn’t as easy for me as I originally thought. Fears of growing up and not being good enough started to surface. When I complained, Matan simply looked at me and said, “Yihiye beseder. It will be okay. I’m 25, I’m only in my first year of school, and I still don’t know what I’m doing. I didn’t have the luxury to go to university after high school.” He was right. I was worrying about things that hadn’t even happened yet. I had friends in Israel my age still serving in the army. While I had the freedom to go out on the weekends, they were stuck on a base smoking cigarettes in a pair of army boots.
On the Mount Scopus campus at Hebrew University there’s an amazing view of East Jerusalem. One time I was standing with a girlfriend and a security guard while heavy protesting picked up at the bottom of the valley. We could hear the firecrackers and even the faint echo of shoes hitting the pavement. The guard lit a cigarette and told us stories, detailing his time in the army, and how things like this happen every year. He told us how he’s used to it, and how he can’t sympathize with people who would kill in the name of God. I couldn’t relate to him because I only knew Israel from TV. Even within Israel’s borders, I felt like a spectator and as I watched, I started crying as tear gas blew in our direction. To the left of us were two Palestinians sitting on a bench watching the same scene. I wasn’t afraid, but I wondered if they hated me.
The last month of my trip is still vivid in my mind. “Don’t take the buses,” my boyfriend called to tell me. I was on the other side of the city and I needed to get back home. “Don’t leave.” The sun was dipping into the horizon, and hesitantly I set off for the bus station. I took two different buses to avoid the city center. I sat in the back so I could keep tabs on the people entering and exiting. There was word going around of a possible attack in Jerusalem. I told myself nothing would happen. Yet, for some reason images of crying babies trickled into the forefront of my mind. I knew I was imagining things. But I also knew that I wasn’t. A few days earlier a bomb blew up a bus in Eilat. There were shootings in Ramallah. Perhaps today there would be an explosion in Jerusalem.
On my last day in Israel, I went to a free concert on the beach. I sat with some girlfriends drinking frozen mojitos while singing along to the band’s rendition of Beatles’ songs. For me, that single night alone epitomized everything I had experienced during those past eight months. I thought to myself, “This is life in Israel.” It’s a life where uncertainty hangs in the balance, and where futures are shelved for a more convenient date. It’s a life where you enjoy the moments riding on a motorcycle. It’s a life where what you and I agree to be normal is very much skewed.
I chose to come to Israel because I wanted to leave a routine that I thought was, for lack of a better word, boring. I didn’t think that when I returned I would bring with me a more realistic view of life and an appreciation for people in other parts of the world. What began as an innocent exploration turned into a conflicted yet loving relationship with Israel.