It was probably the hottest day of the summer. The air was so humid and dense it felt like summertime back home. Inspite the weather, the Dizengoff Shopping Center was buzzing with life. I could hear the voices of my husband and our friend Yaron behind me. They were talking about work, but the only thing I could focus on was the elderly man with a grey beard dressed in all black and adorned with curly sideburns rollerblading down Yaffo holding a yellow flag emblazed with a blue crown! Noticing my bewilderment, Yaron paused from his conversation and said, “He’s a rabbi and he’s holding a Chabad messianist flag.” It turns out, that the man was part of a Jewish Hassidic movement to warn others about the return of the Mashiach.
A few blocks later, I snapped back into the world again when I heard my husband ask our friend, “how are you able to live as if nothing happened? There was a terrorist attack two weeks before just blocks from here. This was the third incident in the past month!” Yaron smiled and said “just be Israeli.”
It had been nearly two months sense my husband and I arrived in Israel. My husband was preoccupied with clerking for the Supreme Court, leaving me plenty of time to explore and worry about the news. While I explored the Old City and the holy sites, the constant threat of attack all around only ever seemed to bother us visitors. Living in a country where you’re surrounded by its enemies on all sides is difficult to describe. Hezbollah is to the North and Hamas to the South. Within, Israel is rife with the religious tension that permeates throughout the entire country. Yet, it was that simple piece of advice, “just be Israeli,” that made the last month of the trip the best we had and spending my time chasing the meaning of that advice taught me more about Israel and its people then all the guidebooks, tours, and exploration combined. What it means to be Israeli is to be yourself, fight by persevering and by existing in the face of adversity, and finding your roots so nothing can take you away from them. It means growth both upwards and inwards.
For me, that growth came in several different ways. This growth was difficult and came with its own set of pains and challenges. The language barrier was always a constant issue and never knowing exactly which parts of the city was safe occurred often. The culture is far more aggressive than I’m used too. The atmosphere in the Mahane Yehuda Market or the Shuk is a good example. The Shuk is a huge open air market filled with a variety of colorful spices, dried fruits, kosher meats, and restaurants. The Shuk is a busy bustling place filled with vendors yelling out in Hebrew and customers haggling. I’ll never forget buying fruit and veggies from the Iraqi vendor or the grumpy pita guy around the corner from him. Oh and eating the fresh baked chocolate rugelach from Marzipan Bakery. My favorite way to end the day was to walk around the Shuk at sunset. It was just so different and peaceful at night. It’s funny, the Shuk intimidated me in the beginning because it can be very intense with the crowds. However, by the end of our trip we could haggle and navigate the crowds with ease. Well, my husband was more comfortable with haggling than me, but even I got into it by the end. These almost daily excursions into the Shuk and forced interaction with locals and tourists alike, surrounded by great diversity, made me more comfortable in crowds, with difference, and by dealing with the merchants, with standing up for myself.
However, I also came more alive as the city quieted down each evening. I became more outgoing by exploring the city at sundown but had a difficult time during the day because of the heat. When I did explore during day I loved discovering all of the local street art and cute little coffee shops nestled in hidden stone alleyways. Jerusalem is a really cool mesh of modern and ancient. A favorite memory would be spending Shabbat dinner with friends and visiting the Wailing Wall (kotel) on Shabbat. The crowds of people were praying, singing, and dancing the hora. I was nervous at first because I didn’t want to be in the way, but I eventually summed up enough courage and went to the wall and prayed.
I also learned how to be brave. The Old City is a very interesting place to explore. I loved hearing the call to prayer echo off the yellow stone walls of the Old City, but along with the beauty there is ugliness to be found. After a tour, we were so lost in the Muslim quarter that the street we were on wasn’t even on our map and we found ourselves surrounded by pictures of “martyrs” plastered all over the walls. They were pictures of mostly suicide bombers and political prisoners. I’ve heard of this, but I never expected to see it with my own eyes. We had just walked past a group of children playing a block before and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Just thinking about the children in the area that are growing up in oppression and poverty, knowing that they’re playing in these alley ways and looking up at those figures as heroes. It’s heartbreaking to see the brokenness of this city. Every child deserves more.
Overall, the three months in Israel were a complete love and hate experience and I don’t regret any of it. I learned to not be afraid to speak my mind or speak up when something is bothering me. I learned how to haggle. I learned how to be more trusting of strangers. Yaron, once told us that “no matter what happens, life keeps going and the moment you stop celebrating life that’s allowing your enemy to win.” It was confusing to hear this at first, but then I realized he was alluding to the fact that life is about conquering your fears. So, remember the next time you’re abroad “Just be Israeli.”