As a person who grew up close to New York City, where everything is impressive and accessible, I never felt much of a need to go anywhere. In typical New York fashion, I considered local parks sufficient greenery, and never thought about traveling to places where the sky might be visible or that might have clean air. So it is not surprising that until last year the extent of my world travel consisted of several trips upstate, going to visit friends in New Jersey and Connecticut, and a couple of trips to Boston. In comparison, almost everywhere I could have chosen to go in the year after high school would have outshone all my previous travel experience. However, even if I’d have gone all over the world beforehand, I am convinced that nothing would have compared to the experience I had of spending this past year in Israel.
I was never much of a traveler. In fact, I preferred to have my life as orderly as possible, and hated the idea of living out of suitcases. The thought of packing a bag or two and taking off into the wilderness was completely foreign to me, as was packing out of my school dorm each weekend to stay at a stranger’s house, armed with nothing more than an address and the reassurance that if I wouldn’t like my hosts, I wouldn’t have to go back. As a typical demonstration of the nature versus nurture argument, all my neatness tendencies and obsessions for orderliness took a back seat when I found myself in a foreign country, halfway around the globe from all that was familiar to me.
The first experience in Israel that stands out in my mind was that of traveling on the roads. Somehow, all highways in developed countries have the remarkable characteristic of existing beyond space. If one were to ignore the road signs, one could imagine being anywhere, on any highway, as long as they don’t turn on the car radio to the local station and have it blast out music in a foreign language. In some ways, therefore, the trip from the airport to Jerusalem, where I would be spending the year, was a comforting experience; even if every other part of life would be different than anything I’d ever known, at least the highways were the same as those I knew from America.
As I looked around the bus at the twenty people I’d never met and with whom I now would be living, I wondered how the relationships I hoped to form with them would compare with my first jet-lagged impressions. I was distracted from those thoughts, however, when I noticed the groves of palm trees along the side of the highway. This was the first time I had ever seen palm trees, but the only thought I had at the moment was, “I didn’t know they grew here!”
Over the course of the year, I got to see more palm trees, as well as many other natural and historical sites. My class visited the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi Waterfalls, the Banias Waterfalls, Masada, and many other sites and attractions that Israel has to offer. Living in Jerusalem also gave me the opportunity to visit the Western Wall periodically.
The Western Wall experience was very special to me. Going to the Wall was a time for me to pray and connect with G-d, when I felt particularly lonely, or whenever I felt the need of a break. There is a special feeling I would feel as I went through the security checkpoint and into the plaza surrounding the Western Wall, which lasted until I’d leave, always a bit regretfully and usually turning around an extra few times to engrave the image of the Wall in my mind. Since I have gotten back to the States, there were times when I felt lonely or overwhelmed, and my first instinct would be to take a bus over to the Western Wall, before realizing that from here, that journey would necessitate a plane trip, not just a simple bus ride within Jerusalem.
One of the most exciting aspects of living in Israel was getting to taste the different types of foods that are common there. When I first arrived, jet lagged, disoriented and tired, I tried to stick to the most familiar looking foods I could find. As time went on, however, I had lots of fun experimenting with Israeli and Middle Eastern style foods.
Most notable for me were the vegetables. Growing up in New York, I had never seen an authentic farm, and the closest I had come to authentic produce was when I went apple picking at the age of ten. I was not accustomed to fresh fruit and vegetables, and when I first tasted salad in Israel I was so amazed. I never believed vegetables could taste so good. I was also not aware of the variety of edible plants that are available. Though I got used to many foods during my year overseas, there were many vegetables I was never brave enough to try, among them olives, radishes, sprouts, and a whole array of foreign looking roots whose names I still haven’t learned.
Aside from the food, which was generally more spicy and flavorful than what I’m used to, the culture in Israel is, metaphorically a bit spicy and flavorful. Unlike in New York, it is not uncommon to hear unsolicited opinions and advice from strangers, and there is a comfortable feeling of casualness that makes you feel as if everyone is part of one big family. Until I got used to that sort of camaraderie, I was often insulted by what I felt were rude remarks from strangers, which, ironically, were not unlike the kind of blunt talk that is normally used only among family and close friends.
One of the funniest differences I’ve noticed between New York and Jerusalem is in the actions of pedestrians when reaching a crosswalk. It always amazed me to see a crowd of pedestrians waiting to cross a street, patiently waiting for the cross-walk signal, even with no cars in sight. At busy intersections, sometimes one or two people would walk across, disregarding the crosswalk sign, in which case they were either looked at disapprovingly or given the benefit of the doubt that they were tourists who don’t know better. I admit that there were many times that I was one of those odd ones out who crossed against the traffic signal, and I hope the astonished spectators gave me the benefit of the doubt, since I was, in fact, a tourist.
The year I spent in Israel was a wonderful experience for me in many ways. The spiritual, as well as personal growth I achieved during the year is something I will always treasure. Though the trip may not have turned me into a true traveler, it has deepened my appreciation for the growth and opportunities to be found in new places and experiences. I miss Israel very much and hope to go back one day, but meanwhile, I have many special memories to treasure as I try to re-acclimate to life in New York, and, once again, to life without clean air.Y. Michel
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