Today marks five months in Israel. I am halfway done with the ten months of the Israel Teaching Fellows program. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. I have reached many milestones that I didn’t expect to, so I feel older for quite some time, but the days are blurry. As this country grows, I do, too.
Of course, as much as there are highs, there are also lows. ITF-Netanya, ITF-Be’er Sheva and ITF-Beit She’an spent the weekend of Tu Bishvat in the Golan Heights for a seminar on how to be eco-friendly. I was still battling (and continue to battle) this illness that has plagued me right before New Year’s Eve. My Fellow, Aliyah, told me to just try and focus on the seminar and that it would be able to help me take my mind off of my illness and all the other minutiae that had been entering my head since 2014 had started. She was wrong.
Everything had been going okay until the arrival to Kibbutz Afik. One of the girls at this seminar made a decision that concerned me without my knowledge or consent. While this decision had only set the tone for the weekend, it was almost as if she had not remembered how a similar situation had happened to me during the first week I arrived in Netanya. I tried my best to not show everyone the emotions that this girl had caused me at that moment. Bewilderment. Anger. Misery. All three emotions and more hit me hard and without warning. I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. Avoiding this girl for the weekend didn’t help. I wish I could just mention how I feel to her since I can’t avoid her forever, yet I can’t muster up the courage. Seeing her in the flesh, completely unaware of the impact of her choice, makes my throat hurt and the pain begins to bubble in my veins. I have to stop myself from grinding my teeth. Any sane person would tell me to not think twice about this, but I can’t seem to do that. I’ve been cordial with this girl the few times I’ve seen her, but I don’t miss the chance to subtly roll my eyes when her name rolls off someone’s lips.
I tried talking to my Fellow, Seth, about this, among other things, during the seminar. We hadn’t had a tête-à-tête in a long time since he hadn’t been around and I had recently joined the gym and would stay there as long as humanly possible. I laid everything out on the table—that I don’t understand how I’m sick when I take care of myself, how I can never repay my father for always bailing me out when the Americans here give up on me, that I don’t like not feeling respected, that I was so enraged at the girl for making me go through déjà vu with her actions and that even though my students, the only people I’m certain I love, are amazing, I feel burnt out. The fears inside me blinded me. I breathed heavily, threw my head back against the counter and let my voice quiver until I broke down. I curled up into a sobbing mess in the chair I was sitting in and let everything that I’ve been feeling for all of this month all out.
I used to talk to Seth all the time. And when I didn’t, when I tried to hide my feelings, his eyes lay the rest of me bare. Once I calmed down, he told me that I was dealing with something that he had been going through right now—an identity crisis. I thought my identity crisis was why I moved to Israel in the first place. Maybe it’s possible to have this issue more than once. It must be because I don’t know who I am anymore.
Seth walked me back to my room after we finished talking and gave me a hug. After he went back to his room, I looked up at the moon for answers. She gave me nothing. It was at that moment that I realized I am, truly, having an identity crisis. The moon wouldn’t respond. The old me won’t come back. The reality of trying to figure out who I am now overcame me. I felt like I was at the bottom of the ocean with bricks in my pockets. I kept on trying to fight it.
But in the end, after collapsing onto my bed for a pitiful attempt at sleep, I had to let myself drown.
I suppose that at the end of the day, no matter how confused I am, I still know I’m a Jew. Being a Jew is an astonishing act of passion. The Jewish road is long, if we are lucky, and complete with land mines—experimenting with Hebrew words and learning to cook elaborate things on a hot plate are small concerns in the universe of worry. I need to tighten up my proposed itinerary for when Cassie and Paul get to Israel in April. Another small concern, a luxury, really. But I am scared that some of the magic of this trip will be educated right out of my soul. I want to put on a good show for them. I want them to go back to the US seeing how wonderful Israel and her Jews can be. But I am realizing that being a Jew may not get easier as I get older, but instead harder in different ways.
I was recently accepted to the Masa Israel Activism Fellowship and I begin my first session tonight. I was accepted to another Fellowship as well, but the former was my first choice. I’m happy for Masa and I cannot thank them enough for giving me opportunities that college and London denied me. I think Masa knows that when one of us is hurt, physically or emotionally, it will take time to navigate how to heal the wounds. They know that it requires courage to let us feel pain and to own those feelings as opposed to distracting us. They know that a lot of trust is needed in something other than ourselves if we want to try and fix our problems. Masa gives me tikvah when no one else does.
Sometimes I am struck by the reality of Israel’s sorrow, but most of the time, I am struck by her aliveness. Israel habits herself to the dazzle of light, wears her good sandals on a regular basis and pours rain from the sky just because. She breathes life into me all the time. She will always be more than herself.
Despite the sadness that can still permeate my days, I can rely on my students to be the light shining down from the lighthouse when I am still floundering in the waves. While my students work on vocabulary, asking me if I like some random singer or band, they wear grins on their faces and talk louder. They talk a lot. If my students were mute, it would be easy to see their silence as nothing other than foreseeable. But they’re not. Maybe that’s because I talk to them. I’m quick to acknowledge their new words.
My students are getting better with the “th” sound and with their homonyms. They don’t put their heads down on the table when they don’t understand something. I am not sure when the changes occurred, although I know they must not have happened on a single day, but rather over time.
I looked dreadful this past Friday, after having spent the day before celebrating my teacher’s son’s upsherin. My hair was a mess and I was in gym mode. Donning my Oxford University tee shirt, sweatpants and sneakers, two of my favorite third graders, Ava and Lihi, smiled at me and proudly exclaimed: You are beautiful!
My students work so hard to string together sentences. Long ones. Very imaginative ones. Exhausted from post-sport, they ask the deep questions: Why you no have boyfriend? Or pointing at the word “FOX” that adorns some of the sweatshirts of the other students: What does the fox say? Or headed into the hallway for a sip of water: Waterrrrrr…please.
My students do their best to enunciate every word. I can see their brains working behind their foreheads, see the colorful spinning beach balls in their eyes—a wait cursor while their oral document works itself into a sensible draft. Although they do their best to articulate each syllable when they read as if they were trying to pass an elocution test, their vowels aren’t perfect and some sounds continue to prove tricky. But my students continue to grow and fight to be with me each day. Sometimes, instead of yelling I want Taylor! they say more calmly, less loudly and with very deliberate care, I want Taylor today, please.
My students say güd for good, spell fur as fer, and laugh when I say the number six. They teach me Hebrew when I write out a quote from SpongeBob SquarePants in English and they translate it for me. This forces them to think in English while they improve their Hebrew and I learn more of it, too. They love doing this and every day is a chorus of: We be teachers today?
Eventually my students say most things in a way that people outside ITF might not recognize. The adjustments—both my students and mine—won’t happen on a single day, but over time, I am sure. And I hope, when I return to Boston in five months, I will still be able to elicit a smile when I look in the mirror while wearing frumpy gym clothes and thinking of the chorus that says, You are beautiful!
I don’t feel beautiful often, but maybe as the next five months approach, I may start to.