Over the past two weeks, I’ve come to the realization that this strange desert town I call home is just about as opposite from my life in Kansas City as it could possibly get. Besides the fact that I am trying out a completely new profession, I’m also exposed to a new culture with its own social norms and nuances that I am just beginning to understand. What’s funny is that it’s not even in those larger life changes that I am finding the most challenges because, in reality, every job and living situation will have issues and drama. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the challenges are coming from the minute happenings of daily life. The look someone gives me on the bus as I mistakenly hand over the wrong amount of change. The religious man disguised as a runner who literally runs off the road to avoid me, a female. But I suppose it makes sense…life’s in the details, right?
My average Israeli day starts with an hour-long commute to a primary school where the children either look at me like an alien or a teen popstar. Some of them know what I am saying and some of them don’t. More importantly, most of them consider time with me to be a reward and something to work hard for – aka every teacher’s dream.
The teacher’s room is an oasis from the balagan (chaos) of the schoolyard where students pull each other from stairwells by their extremities and scream at the top of lungs for reasons I don’t even think they understand.
During my third day at school, it just so happened that I was the center of the balagan. I seemed to get in the way of a very determined teacher looking to get her mid-morning coffee fix. As she “nudged” me aside, my hand holding a cup of boiling hot coffee spilled across my arm and the pain quickly swelled from my skin and onto my perturbed face. What felt like 50 (but was only 6 or 7) Israeli women began to swarm and hover over the “American.” I was exposed and raw in the very overwhelming situation. The women screamed and yelled in Hebrew across the small room trying to decide whether I should go to the hospital or not. They grabbed my hand (in the most loving way) to make their own diagnosis. It was clear that personal space was not an issue to them and I have come to find that this notion pervades the entire Israeli culture. One of them made the decision to run home during the short break to get some cream for my burn. That’s just what these women do. They help.
During the fiasco, all I could think was, “Where the hell am I? How, and more importantly, why did I get myself into this situation?”
Where was the order and the rules? Students call teachers by their first name and use the bathroom as they please. People actually tell you what they are thinking as opposed to what they think you want to hear. Where is the fake banter I am so accustomed to?
What happened to the comfort of an air-conditioned office filled to the brim with organic granola bars, unlimited K-cups and happy hours? Gone are the days of the 5-minute commute, brewed coffee and a proper salary.
You want to know something else? For now, I’m OK with it. It’s all because I am getting some amazing things to replace those pieces of my life that used to give me comfort. I get to meet men and women who show compassion and a genuine interest in ways I can’t even describe yet. I get to teach students who have opinions and express them. I get to go to a market and barter for my produce (it’s extremely rewarding to knock even a couple shekels off of a purchase). I get an extra two hours a day to listen to music, study Hebrew and write blog posts on my commute. I get to meet people from all over the world every day if I choose. I get invited to Shabbat dinner by strangers on the street and am welcomed into people’s homes as if they’d known me for years. Right now, at 23, this life is all I can really ask for.
This past weekend I was able to tag along with a group (a mix of Israeli, French and Russian twenty-somethings) on one of the best hikes of my life. After a short 30 minute drive, we went further into the Negev Desert where civilization completely stops. The hike was tough, but extremely gratifying. Every turn of the trip there was another obstacle challenging us. We scaled along white rocks in the heat of day, used affixed ropes to propel down through the river canyons and found shade under various rock formations that we couldn’t believe were natural occurrences.
Ok, I was going somewhere with this. I just can’t help but use the hike as a metaphor for my first few weeks in Israel. This entire time I’ve felt completely alert, always looking ahead to the next big gap or surprise cliff around the corner. I’ve felt alive, strong, and capable. There is no room for the faint of heart in Israel. People have seen and been through too much.
I’ve learned that in order to survive, I must expect the unexpected. It’s invigorating and scary, and it’s what I want. I want to challenge myself and live without the conveniences that, for my adult life, have been what I considered necessity. It’s going to be exhausting; I can already tell. But worth it? Totally.