After much deliberation, my post-high school college plans had finally been decided upon. Boston University. School of Communications. I had a BU ball cap and a freshman orientation package in hand.
And yet, somehow, I found myself on an airplane headed for a year at an all-girls seminary in Jerusalem.
It wasn’t going to happen, actually. I had friends who were planning to spend a year post-grad in Israel, it wasn’t uncommon at my high school. But not I. It wasn’t in the plans, of course, until it was. One of my very best friends and I decided, almost impulsively, to do it. To fill our allotted two duffle bags with modest clothing (mustn’t show your knees; mustn’t show your collarbone), Michael Jordan t-shirts, denim shirts, Doc Martens, flannel sheets, and enough Ramen noodles and instant oatmeal packages to feed the entire Israeli army. Somehow, my Rachel haircut and I were on our way to Israel. Plans were changed, just like that.
It was a school full of cookie-cutter girls. We all looked the same, dressed the same. Our accents were slightly different—some Brooklyn, some Boston, some Israeli, some midwestern (me!)—and our religious backgrounds were slightly different, but we were the same. All right Israel, what are you going to teach me? As a person who has always grappled with faith, which, I think, stems from the lethal combination of my inability to not question information that is presented to me and my excessive interest in studying history. But here I thought, ISRAEL. I mean, is there a better place on this earth to learn what being a Jew is all about?
And I did. I learned.
In between all of the trips to the mall and the newly-opened Second Cup coffee and the nights spent on Ben Yehudah street and the afternoons sunbathing on top of the school roofs and visits to my favorite bakeries, I learned.
In between trying to make contact with my boyfriend back home on my ancient IBM laptop and an Israeli dial-up modem, I learned. In between being surprised by said boyfriend’s surprise month-long visit where he opened with “Do you have the Waning of the Middle Ages?” and pretty well sold me for life and then we spent a glorious weekend in Herzeliah and taste-tested every single fettucini alfredo in the entire country before deciding that we don’t particularly even like fettucini alfredo, I learned.
I learned some very practical things, obviously. I learned about the laws of the sabbath and laws of keeping kosher and the laws of Jewish modesty and femininity. I learned straight from rabbis mouths and straight from biblical texts. But, at the end of the year, that’s not what I took away from being in the country.
I learned while climbing Masada. I learned while planting trees. I learned while visiting the Holocaust museum. I learned while visiting the Knesset. I learned while visiting the streets of Mea Shearim. I learned while walking the beach in Tel Aviv. I learned while standing in front of the kotel, the western wall. I learned while touring the tunnels underneath the kotel. I learned while visiting graves of our forefathers and mothers. I learned while visiting Latrun and other battle sites. I learned while spending the night on a kibbutz. I learned while drinking coffee at the King David Hotel. I learned while riding city buses.
I learned from the architecture, from the old stone, from the old synagogues and churches, from the water, from the gates around the old city, from the shuk, from the tippy top of the north to the tippy bottom of the south.
I learned that Israel is this little magical country, no matter what you believe. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Atheist, Agnostic. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. Belief in God, Belief in science, belief in history. It’s magic.
I learned that the importance of having a family that I spend time with is way more important than what happens if I spill some milk into my chicken soup. I learned that I care more about having a lovely Friday night dinner with candles and kiddush over wine and conversations about our day than I care about not turning on or off a light on Saturday. I learned that the incredible, amazing relationship I have with my husband is far more important than whether or not I pass him the salt while I have my period. I learned that being a good and modest person is more about HOW I behave and less about how little of my knees and my clavicle you can see. I learned that being a nice person is more important than being a pious person.
I learned that respecting of others’ beliefs (or non-beliefs) is far more important than judging them. I have respect for every single person.
I learned that I am doing something right in this world, even if some people do not think so.
I am so glad for 1996. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.
I doubt I would be saying the same had I spent that year in Boston.