These and Those

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

“Are you crazy?” They ask.

Posted on August 12, 2014 by Alana Bandos

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Alana BandosAll summer long (not the Kid Rock song), my peers, my parents’ peers, my aunt and uncle, my bosses and their neighbors, the random lady painting my nails, my SCUBA instructor, the guy from Verizon selling me a new phone, and just about everyone else has been asking me this one question: “Are you crazy?” Now, I generally don’t talk out loud to myself (at least not in public), so this question would normally come as somewhat of a shock. However, the question is always preceded by me explaining calmly that I will be returning to Israel within a few weeks. In the space of a moment, generally relaxed people flare up and inquire about my sanity. You would think I had cut lanes in front of them while driving or blew a stoplight the way their nostrils flared in anger and disbelief. But no, all I did was say I was traveling… to Israel. The kinder people then follow their question with a prayer for my safety abroad or ask another question about my activities for the coming year and their proximity to Gaza. Most people however, simply drop the conversation at that moment and walk away shaking their heads. Often, I can hear them muttering under their breaths so loudly that I start to wonder if they are the crazy ones.

The first few times I received this reaction to my travels, I was expecting it. Israel was in the news a lot, and hey, the people who confronted my sanity were only simple Wisconsinites who couldn’t help but watch the TMJ4 6:00 o’clock news once home from work. I came prepared with my answer: “Jerusalem is safe and the war is far away. The news doesn’t portray the day-to-day realities of life for the average Israeli not living on the Gaza border.” It sounded rehearsed, because it was, but the answer got some people off my back. They returned to their normal, calm selves and changed topics to cover up the moment. I grinned and allowed myself to be swept away in the new topic, oftentimes the too rainy summer in Wisconsin. Now, after weeks of the same response, I’m just getting annoyed and frustrated. Can’t these people see how much I NEED to be in Israel right now? Don’t they understand the yearning that is filling my soul and my every thought? Aren’t they the crazy ones for asking me why I’m going?

The truth is, no one, least of all someone I barely know, is aware of my struggle. The struggle is a quiet one and only internal. I’ve been struggling to exist in America as the same person I became in Israel. Sometimes, I succeed. I cook delicious meals with only fresh ingredients because I can’t deal with the amount of processed food outside of Israel. Other times, I have failed. I have felt myself change to adapt to this startlingly old and yet completely unfamiliar situation. I stopped observing any degree of Shabbat, mainly because of convenience. I have become a people-pleaser again, and not in the same healthy way of hosting a dozen people for Shabbat meals. Rather, I have become someone eager to hide my true self to get along with my family and friends for the time I’m in Milwaukee. I allowed a very judgmental Rabbi to bash every form of non-religious Judaism and didn’t once stand up for myself and where I fit into the Jewish spectrum, all in the interest of keeping the peace. I learned to avoid any argument altogether rather than disagree with passion and respect as I so often did in chevruta. In short, being back in my hometown has, for however brief a time, changed me and my personality.

Don’t get me wrong, being back in America has had its fair share of perks too. I haven’t exactly had a bad summer. On the contrary, my brother got married, I went SCUBA diving for the first time in over two years (and am going again next week when I visit my cousin in Florida), I have a good summer job, and I got to hang out with my two best friends. You can be rest assured that I have enjoyed the grocery stores in this country immensely; it’s almost shocking to get in and out of a grocery store in under 20 minutes with a week’s worth of groceries and some money left in my wallet. The clothing shopping has been great too and I already have a suitcase full of Neutrogena face wash and deodorant for the next year in Israel (who wants to pay 93 shekel for one face wash anyway?).

Seemingly, everything has been dandy for me this summer. Here’s the catch though. The two best friends I hung out with; well they were the only two friends I met up with the entire summer I’ve been home. I truly realized that the community I once had in Milwaukee has disappeared; all of my high school friendships have faded from time and space. I miss having dozens of close friends in the same building or even the same city. Pardes aside, I had plenty of friends from other Jerusalem programs to visit and share experiences with, often meeting up by pure coincidence downtown or on a bus. For the last year, Jerusalem has been my home and Milwaukee, my proud hometown, has taken the backseat. Returning to Milwaukee has been like trying to grasp sand; the more I try to hold onto my previous life here, the more it slips through the cracks. I’m left with an insane craving to be back in Jerusalem. The stories of soldiers giving their lives to defend Israel only make me want to be back that much sooner, to join in solidarity with all Israelis. The war is pushing some people away (perhaps why my plane ticket back was so cheap). In my case, the war only entreats me to enter the country and go straight to the Lone Soldier Center, where I volunteered all of last year. Right now, in the midst of a war, I have a crazy desire to be in a country where everyone else gets exactly why I’m there too. In the meantime, I feel like I am going crazy without my friends, my Shabbat meals, and the only place in the world where I’ve ever been able to be entirely myself and accepted on such a large scale. With less than two weeks left before my flight, they still ask: “Are you crazy?” Yes, perhaps I am.