I was eighteen years old and two and a half thousand miles away from home in Kiryat Moriah, Jerusalem. The course was a prestigious one – Machon Le Madrichim Hutz L’Aretz – the crème de la crème of the future youth leaders from around the diaspora. Yes, they were all there…and then there was me – not Devon clotted double cream but more like the squirty stuff from an aerosol can. And parev at that.
I was part of a contingent from the UK with the group FZY (Federation of Zionist Youth.) One of a number of groups with initials e.g RSY (Reform Synagogue Youth), AJY (Association of Jewish Youth) and ULPSNYC (I’m still not sure what that stands for.) Machzor 75 was the Northern Hemisphere, so for the first time we were mixing with other Europeans, Americans and more excitingly, South Americans. My dating history was limited – pasty British lads who were more spotty than hottie. So imagine my joy when I feasted my eyes on scores of tanned, long haired (it was fashionable in 1984) Mexican male. I would love to continue with tales of how they all fell for the little lass from Yorkshire, but alas the Mexican females were equally beautiful. And tanned. And slim.
We were housed in long corridors – 4 to a room (in theory), 2 rooms to a unit and 2 showers and 2 toilets to each unit. There was no privacy, no room for manoeuvre. You used the toilet, the next customer was outside. There was no giving it 5 minutes. Sound awful? It was at times, but for the most part, it was fun.
The beginning was tricky. There were so many people and so many egos. It wasn’t a course for shy flowers. I was lucky enough to have gone with 3 close friends and although I did make lots of other friends, they were (and 2 of them still are) my besties. One poor soul had quite a difficult time as he was the only member of his group. He was a lovely lad and no fool, for he brought with him something far more precious than a friendship group complete with shared history and ideology. He carried through customs something that would hold him in the highest of high esteems amongst 18 year olds far from their home comforts. He brought a toasted sandwich maker. That contraption could turn the stalest of bread and the blandest of cheese into the finest Welsh Rarebit. And he knew it. That lad peddled his device to the best of his abilities and quickly became the most popular boy on the course.
The food at Kiryat Moriah was akin to school dinners – Israeli style of course. Schnitzels were plentiful and…gosh, I really can’t remember anything else they served. I even remember skipping some lunches to work on my tan – it must have been bad. However, there was another commodity that satisfied, and I use that term roughly, our hunger pangs – the ‘Agala’ (trolley). This was wheeled out at break times packed with weak tea, undrinkable coffee, bread, butter and if you were lucky, some red jam. I was taught, not that I needed any technical help, to put sugar on my bread and butter for extra nourishment. It tasted good and I will re-visit it if I’m ever offered a film role for which I have to fatten up. The Shabbat morning trolley had extra goodies on it – the beautiful creation that is the Milky – Epicurus’s own chocolate pudding. However, it was first come first served and I was not the best getter upper, especially at the weekend. This meant that I often missed the choco treat and only managed to procure the sugar on bread. There had to be a solution to this. It would need careful planning, rule-breaking and uncharacteristic agility. We would have to get the agala into our room before any else could get their hands on it. I cannot remember the details exactly (it was 27 years ago) but my accomplices and I pulled it off in an SAS like mission of breaking, entering and finally slurping. We had had to set our alarms early and felt quite sick afterwards, but it was worth it. There must have been a punishment, but happily I can only remember the good bits.
Another famous food event of Machzor 75 was the great food fight of 1984. We sat in the chadar ochel waiting for it to happen. Hell, it had been planned for weeks and the French had come wearing waterproofs in preparation. It just needed someone to start it, but it was out of my league. I had already been found in the bedroom playing backgammon when I should have been at classes and I wasn’t looking for any more trouble. One flick of a pea and within minutes the room turned into a scene from Bugsy Malone. The staff locked us in and the instigators had to ‘fess up and clean up. They got a letter sent home and I don’t mean a chatty one either.
I loved living in Israel and the highlight of the week for me was the regular trip ‘downtown’ for Choccochino. I’m not sure if it still exists, but there was a cafe where everyone met on a Friday afternoon called Finzi’s. Now that was some serious cream on that cocoa. However, trying to immerse myself in Israeli culture didn’t always pay off. My hair had gotten long and I was in need of a trim. I decided to go for it and get this trim at a real Israeli salon. I’m not sure if it was lost in translation or the hairdresser just fancied a laugh, but I was given the worst haircut of my life (and I’ve had some bad ones.) Two hairstyles, one head. I was 18 with a mullet. (see photo)
Things were bad enough in the cool stakes and now I had a bad do. I didn’t have the right clothes either and even if I had I wouldn’t have worn them in a cool way. Some of the cool kids had 501 jeans. Funny how now they’re seen as middle aged jeans. (Having said that I did see a teenager in a pair the other day – although they were both twisted and worn with his tuchus hanging out.)
Some people on that course oozed cool. Nonchalant, sophisticated cool. I really thought I’d been cool back in Leeds as I didn’t follow the crowd. The posters on my walls weren’t of Duran Duran or Human League but of far deeper fibre. However, cute dogs with long fringes spouting philosophies such as “I see better with my heart,” didn’t cut it in those circles. Their posters were of Che Guevara and Martin Luther King. I was out of my depth.
Sadly my fears were realised in the classroom too. Out of my intellectual depth was an under-statement. Where did they get these people from? I secretly think they were all about 25 and had Masters Degrees in Arab-Israeli politics. One American was particularly nasty to me and asked me why I had bothered to come on the course. I felt utterly intimidated and ashamed, he had a very good point. However, every cloud has a silver lining and the patronising git bought my (un-read) “Jew in The Modern World” off me for $20.
It was the wrong course for me and in lesson time I became more and more introverted, never opening my mouth at all. In retrospect I should have spoken to my madrichim and looked into changing to something less cerebral. I was having such a great time socially though, the best experience of my life. My Hebrew lessons were going well (I’d learnt at school) and I wasn’t disruptive so when I was ‘taken to one side’, I promised to try harder and they let me stay.
I’d had a fantastic five months and had learnt a lot. I could sleep through all sorts of shenanigans going on around me and swear in Spanish. I’d kissed a Mexican (not one of the aforementioned buffed Adonises, but hey, at least he wasn’t English) and had my mattress pulled out from under me by the director of the course (see photo – the director, not the early morning event.) Okay, so Spinoza wouldn’t be impressed and I was selective in what I wrote to my parents about my experience. But I was 18 and nobody got hurt. Give me a break.
*Stand by for part 3 – Kibbutz and Moshav in 1985.