These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Lost (and Found) in Jerusalem

Posted on January 19, 2013 by Ma'ayan Dyer

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From my blog:

After seven months in the States, living a solitary Jewish lifestyle (meaning, an incredibly hollow one, sans community), day after day of ten hour shifts of packing candy on assembly lines, sitting on my tuchus in a call center selling fruit baskets and truffles to rich elderly folks, and waitressing a few hours here and there at a local Indian restaurant, I’ve somehow found my way back to the Holy Land. It’s been a journey, mostly one of monotony and a perseverance of the type that I didn’t realize I was capable of, and at long last, I’m back; back in the Middle East, in Israel, in Pardes, in Jerusalem, in Rachavya, in my old apartment, with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, as my unlikely neighbor. I think I’d be a better fiction writer if my life weren’t stranger than fiction.

Because Israel is a place of surprises and unlikelihoods converging together to make up an entire country of simultaneous contradictions that somehow function in a strange, kind of symbiotic harmony that on the surface doesn’t appear to function at all except by happy accident, I find myself surprised, and yet not, by the way in which I’ve reacted to my familiar, but new surroundings. When I began my day long trek from the West Coast of the United States to Israel, I expected myself to be a bundle of excited nerves and emotions; after all, I had dreamt about Jerusalem every day since I’d left, and had been pining away and longing for the vibrant Jewish existence that allows converts such as myself to fall in love with Judaism all over again in every enriching moment that we’re here. I romanticized my return to an almost absurd degree, expecting myself to burst into happy and exhausted tears during the final descent into Tel Aviv, and to feel an immense amount of pride in myself for tirelessly striving for the moment that my feet would hit the hallowed grounds of the Holy Land, even the parts beneath the pavement of the Ben Gurion airport’s runways and streets. Surely, the heavens would open up, angels would sing, I’d kiss the dirty, holy ground without shame, and my happiness would burst forth from the very center of my nefesh, enough to power the sherut cab all the way to Jerusalem.

Of course, this ecstatic state of being, didn’t happen to me–not exactly. My emotions, though always a bit more intense than I’d like them to appear, stayed in check, as I was too grumpy from lack of sleep and was nursing a slight hangover from the night before, as my sister and I had one last hurrah in the wee hours leading up to my early morning flight. I boarded four different planes over the course of 20 hours or so, tried to sleep, failed, watched two good movies (The Fighter, and quite fittingly, the Israeli film Footnote), suffered through half of Dinner for Shmucks until, in my half-confused exhaustion, I wondered why I was subjecting myself to abject torture in the midst of a 20 hour long trip half way across the globe, turned it off, bored myself with a dry documentary on the Great Wall of China, watched two episodes The Big Bang Theory that I’ve seen at least a billion times, chatted with the excited and bubbly Birthright kids that I was sitting in between, and tried to focus on Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, until I realized that my brain stew was not retaining enough of the novel to actually recall a word of it, and then tried (and failed) to sleep some more. Just between you and me, it’s hard to be a bundle of excitement and happiness under such circumstances.

Still, there were glimmers of incredibly happy moments along the way, especially on the last leg of the trip from New York to Tel Aviv, such as when I found myself smiling at the busy and obviously excited crowd at the terminal. Amid the buzz of the crowd, there were dozens of Birthright kids chatting noisily about their typically Jewish, over-achieving academic aspirations, brimming with excitement over the prospect of partying in Israel, and the cute IDF soldiers and lowered drinking age laws awaiting them. There were large Haredi families that I couldn’t help but watch later on with quiet fascination as they davened Shacharit, the morning prayers, right in the aisles of the plane while the rest of us dozed restlessly or stared at our movie screens with glassy, tired eyes. Then there were the tourists who have been to the Holy Land dozens of times, and yet think of it as a second (if not first) home. And of course, there were the Israelis heading back to their country and, in typical Israeli fashion, doing their part to turn the line to board the plane into a crowded free-for-all, all while shouting in Hebrew into their cell phones.

Such moments I’ve come to expect after living in Israel for a year, and from becoming familiar with the ways in which this country works, how Jewish life here exists both in Israeli and visiting Anglo terms, what it means to be a part of it, to be swimming in it, to be an extension of it, and how absurd, amazing, frustrating, exhausting, trying, fulfilling, rewarding and strangely normal it can suddenly all be. I know from experience that it can be impossible to explain to people who haven’t been afflicted with Jerusalem Syndrome (the kind where you fall hopelessly in love with the place, not where you suddenly think that you’re Jesus or a biblical prophet) what it’s like to be here and feel more at home than anywhere else in the world, even with the language and cultural barriers, even with the political situation, even with the existing tensions, and even without all the luxuries of living in most places in the West (public transportation and open businesses on Saturday and readily available hot water are a couple of things that come to mind). It’s not a paradise if you’re looking for a slice of an idyllic and relaxed life, where people and the environment are easy going and life seems to hand itself to you on a silver platter. Life here in Israel is far too complicated for that, and being here does require a thick enough skin to appreciate Israeli brusqueness (a friendly kind of bluntness, in my opinion), a sincere and realistic understanding of the political situation in order to realize that living here isn’t nearly as treacherous as the media in the West would have you think, and perhaps of course, a love affair with Judaism that is as complicated as every other love affair that I’ve been involved in (love is never so simple, is it?)

But it was all so normal for me to come back to, as though I was simply picking up my life where I’d left off after taking a long pause. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy being with my family and friends back in the States, or that I didn’t value the time that I did have to collect my thoughts about my next move in my life, and the direction in which I’d like to go; far from it. Whatever steps I had to take to get back to this life that I ultimately want to call my permanent, settled, day to day living, they were a part of a larger learning process where I was, more or less, figuring things out. My parent’s home will always be the home that I grew up in, and Oregon, from Medford to Portland, is also a place for me to call home–and there’s a certain kind of security and comfort in the familiarity of it all. But the difference between those homes and Jerusalem as my home, is that I’m all grown up now, and being grown up means to leave the nest and build one of your own. This nest will take some time to build in its entirety, but I’ve found the tree to build it in, which is the first step. That tree is called Jerusalem. Perhaps my quiet happiness over my return to Jerusalem, as opposed to the grandiose emotional display that I was bracing myself to erupt in, is a signal of my settling in. I don’t feel as panicked this time about missing out while I’m here, or what I’m going to do about aliyah, or if the perceived legitimacy of my conversion is going hinder my ability to be as freely Jewish as one who was born into their Jewishness. This time, I feel much more Israeli in my approach to my life here: “yihyeh beseder…le’at, le’at” (it’ll be fine…slowly, slowly).

After landing in Tel Aviv, I had an extraordinary turn of good luck and spent only minutes in customs, which was not the case last time I came to Israel, (“Are you Jewish? What was the last Jewish holiday you celebrated? Can you speak Hebrew? Why are you in the country? Do you know people here? Did anyone ask you to bring a package into the country? Why are you traveling with a Tanakh? Do you know what your “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’uman” sticker on your laptop means?”), found my bag almost immediately, and hopped on a sherut just minutes later, and was on my way to Jerusalem. A rare morning snow had blanketed the city, and as we careened into the city limits (what other way do you travel with an Israeli driver, except to careen madly down the road?), a white carpet greeted me as I became reunited once again with the city that I’ve come to think of as home. For the next five months, Jerusalem will be my home, and is there ever anywhere better to be?