I’m eating sabras. That’s my way of taking Israel with me when I have to leave the country: inside, the sweet juice adding another small roll of flab on my hip and tiny needles itching under my skin. I know all the metaphors, of course, about sabras and native-born Israelis. Prickly outside, but sweet inside (although I actually consider prickly as something interesting, almost attractive too). Curiously enough, no one has ever mentioned the third layer to me that appears when you just begin to enjoy the sweet pulp: little seeds that can be as hard as stone, much harder than I remember them from Spanish or Californian cactus figs.
Maybe that’s what differentiates sabras from prickly pears—the Israel experience: don’t relax too early. Enjoy the warm weather and long beaches stretching from Haifa to Ashkelon, but make sure you always know where the next shelter is. Accept the warm invitations you keep getting to people’s homes, but don’t be surprised if a good friend cancels a party you’ve planned together for weeks just the moment you’ve finished setting the table and airing the wine. And when you’ve got used to all these flipsides of the Mediterranean ease and feel you’ve really arrived, almost settled, then there is the Israeli bureaucracy. I won’t even touch on that. I’ve written a whole 16-pages true story about it, and each of you can sure add another 160 pages; so we’ll leave it at that, just naming the thing. It’s not a pebble covered in sweet orange pulp, it is a full-grown rock crunching between our teeth.
But there is the juice, and even the prickly skin that lures you to do it all over again. That’s why I eat sabras before I leave, to stay connected and to know I’ll come back. Having seen the flipside of many things, I admire the people even more, the sabras and most of all the olim chadashim who leave comfortable lives in moderate climates to bite on stones here. But also to plant a lemon tree in their backyard that bears fruit throughout the year. To buy fresh strawberries in the shuk in February. To join spontaneous street parties on Purim, set up the minute the rain stops and lasting as long as people will dance. To fast in the heat of Yom Kippur—and to take over the deserted streets of Tel Aviv with hundreds of bikes, hundreds of children cycling down the Ayalon Highway enjoying the unfathomable freedom. I am still trying to metaphorize this aptly: that the most serious, heaviest day in Jewish life is at the same time the most joyful one, the one embodying the highest freedom. But that’s it of course, the very content of Yom Kippur, not its flipside. It is what is inside the hard shell of atonement: forgiveness, a fresh start, and new ways to go. You can hear and feel it in the synagogue on that day, and you see it happening on the streets and sidewalks when you step out of the door.
And I can almost touch it as I leave the synagogue during Sukkoth and see the Bavarian Brasserie right across serving beer and sausages. A German place, of all things, as if the wild abundance of contrasts in this city wasn’t already enough. The white and blue walls—the Bavarian colors—strike me as curious coincidence; but the fact that it is located right here, downtown Tel Aviv, is no accident. It is a symbol for the profound liberty and power of this country. While anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Germany, there is space and freedom for Germans and German culture in Israel. They can sit across the International Synagogue as respected neighbors, they can dwell and drink and struggle with the unpredictability of Israeli life, just like everybody else. I have pierced my fingers with prickly spines here, I’ve bitten on lots of stony seeds in the last two years, but not a single one of them was related to the fact that I am German. This liberal hospitality is astounding and—I apologize if it sounds sugary—sweeter than sabra juice. It hasn’t stopped to amaze me ever since I’ve visited Israel for the first time; and it gives me the freedom to return as often as I can: as a tourist, a university student, a writer, and a friend. That’s why leaving isn’t so hard this time, as I am hooked, with sweet little spines.