One year and a few days ago, I arrived in Israel for the first time.

I was in one of those groups that heralds rising shook prices, signals a boon for bars, are the saving grace of Judaica shops, and cause olim to mysteriously forget they know English.

I still remember the “Guns and Puppies for Sale” sign in Tzfat, and the obnoxious (or genius) falafel guy in the food court near the Golan Brewery.

When I go on weekend trips or one-day excursions, I still have flashbacks of sitting on that god forsaken bus, and when I eventually return to California I will say a prayer of thanks that Aerosvit (Aeroshit) went bankrupt. My flight back to America was set for August 8, so I’ve recently been reflecting on my times of Israel. (Did anyone get my not-so-clever pun there?)

Israelis understand marketing to American tourists. Neither weapons nor puppies were sold here … a disappointing advertisement..

Then, last week, I pulled the trigger and confirmed my stay here for a bit longer – a seven month extension. Without realizing it, I committed to making my five month excursion into a year-long experience on the anniversary of arriving here on Taglit. I’m not one to believe in fate or that the arbitrary position of the stars in the sky at my birth determined anything about me (I’m a Libra, more correctly spelled Liberal), but the timing was an odd coincidence.

Yoav Cohen (IL) visiting Alex Leviton (US) in Florida one year after our birthright. Yoav couch surfed his way across the U.S. in 2013, staying with many of our taglit peers.

During my birthright trip, Israel was an amazing place that excited and surprised me at every turn. The one surprise I wasn’t thrilled about was how little of an impact Jerusalem had on me. I expected more. I don’t think I said it at the time, hoping my feelings would change. I wanted to feel something different, to have some sort of spiritual connection. Maybe a dream about something Jewish – a Technicolor dream coat appearing during a daydream would have sufficed. Alas, although Kingdom of Heaven and the plethora of history classes I have taken flooded over me on the approach to the walls of the Old City during my Birthright adventure, that was it; I didn’t “feel” anything special.

My view of Jerusalem since that Taglit trip has been a city of historical significance that will always be a part of Israel (I hope), and a place of religious and spiritual gathering for many. Fast forward 11 months and a few weeks to a recent day trip to Jerusalem, where I attempted to make a new friend or two at a meeting of TOI bloggers.

I stumbled (only once or thrice) out of a fantastic Irish pub in the late afternoon to what I easily could have confused for Tel Aviv. There were lights, people, street performers and traffic – not the ghost town of historical, rigid, non-secularism I had come to expect. Jerusalem has a night life that I could almost compare to going out in North Park or Pacific Beach back in San Diego. It dawned on me that there might be more to Israel’s capital than the Knesset, Western Wall, Dome of the Rock and Jesus’ Trail.

“Jerusalem is kind of awesome,” I thought, during the long trek back to middle-of-nowhere (Shlomit). Finally, it seems, I can think of Jerusalem as a place I enjoy as more than a tourist destination. It’s not only because there are bars and a secular night life, or because its spiritual, cultural and historical relevance gets the history buff in me revved up, but because all of these things coexist in one place in a relatively peaceful manner. One day, when there is true peace, I think we’ll look back at the challenges facing Jerusalem now as the mountain we conquered. It’s a tiny place in a small country that contains more than some continents.

San_Diego_toVegas_InIsraels

Such a small country with so much to offer. My roommate and I often measure distances in the U.S. in “Israels.” San Diego to Las Vegas? About 1 1/2 Israels.

I’ve been living in Israel for almost five months now, and looking back it’s no wonder I had such a narrow-minded view of Jerusalem. I never gave it a fair chance. It’s taken me a while to see Israel’s capital this way, but where else can I get liberal in the legislature, woeful at a wall and blitz on beer all in one day?

Maybe it’s just me, but thinking of Jerusalem as more feels pretty good. Next time I visit, the pang of regret I usually get when skipping Tel Aviv might not weigh so heavily – maybe I won’t even notice?