Tuesday, September 19, 2006

One Month in Israel

A-Plus: 1 Month, 5 Days

First off, now that I have an internet connection, I have finally been able to upload some photos.

This week marks the completion of my first month in Israel. I remember the day I landed as if it were... well, only a month ago. The exhillaration of landing was mixed with worries. As the airport taxi hauled its cargo of groggy olim to their new homes, I looked over the dry, dusty landscape, the pains of jetlag banging in my head, and hoped I had done the right thing coming here.

One month later, despite the various obstacles I have encountered so far, I must say that every day I am more happy that I made it here. Life in the land is sharper, more real. The air is thicker, people's personalities are stronger, and the news, well, it's always newsworthy. It's taken a lot of work, but now I'm sitting here in my own apartment, doing my job, making new friends and getting to know my neighborhood.

I remember the last time I tried to live here, as a student at Ben Gurion University in 2000. At the time, I was studying in a graduate program taught in a language I didn't speak, learning a subject in which I had no experience. I remember the exhaustion of living in a new culture, with a new language. I would sit in my apartment for hours and look out through the window watching construction workers doing their physically exhausting labor, and I was so jealous.
"Imagine," I thought, "fulfilling it must be to have so simple a task in front of you, and to know how to do it."

It took enormous effort just to step outside into that strange, loud, Hebrew world. I remember feeling like a baby channeled into the body of a 22 year old, not being able to ask for so much as a can of olives at the grocery store. I was also under incredible financial strain, and was at the point where I was taking courtesy ketchup from Burger King to season my boiled potato dinner because it was all I could afford. I was sick from the bacteria in the water, and I was far from family.

I came expecting a repeat of this experience, and geared myself up for the full onslaught. I keep waiting for the 20-ton anvil to fall on my head, but so far, everything has moved very smoothly. I'm healthy, my language skills are good enough and Israelis are friendly enough for me to be able to do everything I need to do, and my savings from America are enough to keep me from starving. And if I can manage to hold onto my job, well then, things are really looking up.

So far the most difficult issue to deal with in my aliyah hasn't been the usual wars, famine, and pestilence you see coming out of the region on television. The greatest single obstacle has been the tendancy of life to simply overwhelm and devour you here.

My friend Sasha, who I met in Walnut Creek, who came out from his settlement in Elon Moreh to take me out for a tour of the Ethiopian section of Jerusalem, explained it to me.
"You know, it's such a small country, it doesn't make sense. You can get from anywhere to anywhere in about half an hour. But for some reason there is simply no time for anything."

Most Americans are used to having a huge block of time from 5PM to 10PM of liesure time. This is simply unheard of here. One reason for this is the size of peoples' families. If you have four kids, a realatively modest family size for my neighborhood, watching Law and Order every night takes a back seat. All these families mean there's always a brit (circumsition), bar mitzvah, or wedding to go to. But it's also the attitudes people hold towards schedules, rules, and the general order of life. Everything in this country, from its legal system, which is based on a hodgepodge combination of the British, Turkish, and Jewish systems as well as dictates from the high court, down to the buildings, which may or may not have had permits when built, was thrown together from what was found laying around, patched up, and, through arrangement and haggling, fixed up enough to get by. This is also reflected in people's lifestyles, in which the concept of "tomorrow" is simply not on peoples' radar. I haven't yet heard the expression, "I have to get up early tomorrow so I'm going to sleep now."

Receiving Sasha's tour of downtown Jerusalem, we are interrupted by a cel phone call.
"Ephraim, I'm sorry, I have to go now. I was supposed to meet these book dealers at four."
I look at my watch, which reads two.
"They showed up now," he continues, "at two. That's how it is in Israel. If they say four, they might mean two, or they might mean six, but they never mean four."

Still, this casual attitude towards rules, schedules, and all the underpinnings of western civilization, has something to be said for it. The Jews of Israel are outnumbered one hundred to one by our enemies. Anybody who sat down and did a serious accounting would immediately throw up his hands in bewilderement. How could such a country possibly exist in the first place? But here it is, because nobody read the rulebook, the one that says that countries surrounded by enemies don't survive.

When I had finally had enough of Israeli life four years ago and decided to head back to America, I stored boxes of my possessions; fans, dishes, pots and pans, blankets, etc. with my cousin Uri all the way down in Moshav Bnei Darom, two and a half hours south of Jerusalem. When he heard I was back in town, he drove all the way out the next morning to deliver the boxes, and spent two hours just talking to me, trying to make up all the lost time. So who'se system is really the better one?

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