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.