THE WEIRD FEELING OF BEING “ALONE” TO STUDY IN ISRAEL
By Rachel LaVictoire
To those readers who follow this article consistently, I want to apologize for my recent absence. See, about three weeks ago I landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I could just say I’ve been busy—I did have to find an apartment, move in, learn my way around, and go to my internship everyday—but it’s not only that. My disappearance has really been more due to this state of mind I’ve been trapped in that can really only be described as weird.
It all started at JFK the day I was leaving. I’d already kissed my dad, brother, and grandparents good-bye. All that was left was saying good-bye to my mom. I didn’t think it would be too hard, well, for me at least. The way I saw it, saying good-bye for 4 months was just saying good-bye for 4 months, regardless of whether I was on my way to St. Louis for school, or Israel for study abroad. I was wrong.
I kissed my mom good-bye, I waved good-bye, I went through security, and I waved good-bye again. Then, we lost sight of each other. And that was it. I immediately became aware of how alone I was. I had about two hours to kill before my flight, and even after boarding, it would still be another eleven hours before I came across someone I knew.
But still I was excited, and I think it was the struggle between my excitement, loneliness, and anxiety that first produced this initial feeling of weird. I called my dad, and I tried to muster up a purely enthusiastic voice, “Well, I made it through security!” I laughed as I spoke, trying to keep the golf ball in my throat from turning into actual tears. “It’s all just very… weird,” I told him, “I went through security and now I’m about to go get a snack. And normally I would just get peanut M&M’s without even thinking, but am I gonna be able to have things like Cheetos in Israel? Should I get those? I don’t know. I just feel weird.”
I think it was when I first got to the gate that I started to finally understand this new emotion, or combination of emotions. I was over two hours early, so I wasn’t surprised to find the seating area out front of our gate to be empty. If I remember correctly, there were two Hassidic men, an Orthodox mother and son, and two very average, very large Hebrew-speaking women. And for a reason I can’t explain, I found that to be comforting. But also, for a reason that shouldn’t need explaining, I felt very isolated.
I took a seat in the corner and pulled out my laptop to watch Gilmore Girls. The area slowly filled in, and I was pleasantly surprised by the number of other kids my age who seemed to be flying alone. Then, they opened their mouths—fluent Hebrew. They were all Israelis. I continued to fidget around on my computer, secretly eavesdropping, trying to get an idea of whether I could actually do it—had my years of Hebrew classes prepared me for 5 months of being surrounded by Hebrew speakers? The answer: כָּכָה כָּכָה (so-so).
I called my parents again, and when I hung up, something great happened. The Israeli boy sitting across from me looked up and said, with a very thick accent, “Are your parents nervous?” We started talking. He asked why I was going to Israel, and if I’d been before. Then, he looked at me and very plainly asked, “are you Jewish?” I smiled and nodded a sort of of course, and he gestured back a sort of well there you have it.
I think it’s safe to say that most Jews have had somewhat of a similar experience. You’re talking to someone you barely know, or maybe don’t even know at all. And then one of you, for whatever reason, asks the question: so are you Jewish? And all of a sudden it’s like you’ve known the person for years. You understand them in a new light, and you instantly feel connected to them.
This feeling of weird, the reason I’ve been in a sort of daze ever since I arrived here, is a strange combination of isolation and connectedness. The truth is that everything is different here. 23 year olds are just starting college, weeks run from Sunday to Thursday (so Tuesday is hump day), and there’s no such thing as filtered coffee. Even something as simple as grocery shopping has become an hour-long endeavor, because I can no longer rely on familiar packaging and brand names. So that’s the isolation.
The connectedness is something that took me time to understand, and to feel. It’s much stronger than the isolation, but also much harder to explain. It’s the fact that on Friday, everyone on the street tells you Shabbat Shalom and that most McDonalds’ here don’t serve cheeseburgers. It’s the fact that when someone asks me, “so why’d you choose to study here, in Israel,” then catch themselves and say, “are you Jewish?” When I say yes, they understand immediately. No more questions, just friendly conversation (and a lot of broken Hebrew).
Now that I’ve begun to feel a part of this community, I can promise that you’ll be hearing from me more consistently. But stay tuned. I think the nature of this article is about to go under a bit of a transformation as I travel around Israel and explore exciting places that I just won’t be able to keep to myself! Shabbat Shalom from Israel!
Rachel LaVictoire (rlavictoire@wustl. edu) is a graduate of the Davis Academy and Westminster High School, recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Elliott Merit scholarships at Washington University of St. Louis and an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. She was recently named to the board of St. Louis Hillel.