I walk six blocks each morning through the Florentine neighborhood of Tel Aviv to the bus stop for the 51. At block number five, in the shade off to the right of the sidewalk, I spot the familiar sight of the old man sitting in a folding chair. We don’t know anything about each other, yet a friendship has somehow blossomed between us: a 20-year-old American girl and an elderly Israeli man. It started five weeks ago with simple pleasantries, me eager to use my rusty Hebrew and interact with real locals. Our daily “boker tov” pleasantries soon turned into a routine, the face of the aged gentleman breaking out into a smile as I walked by. He often asked with genuine concern why I wasn’t eating breakfast, as if eating a hearty Israeli style meal was exactly what I should be doing on my brisk walk to work.
One humid Tel Aviv morning as I walked by, the old man reached under his chair, offering me an unopened bottle of orange juice he had purchased. I fervently declined, but after he insisted in typical borderline-aggressive Israeli fashion, I relented, taking a sip but claiming “ani lo rotzah et ha kol”, giving him back the rest. A week later he asked me why I was always in a hurry, telling me to slow down, to enjoy. Since then, I have.
Somehow, throughout my time here, a war has emerged. Somehow, between the nights out in Tel Aviv with friends, World Cup viewings on the beach, sunset runs along the boardwalk, and afternoons spent in cafes on Rothschild, countless rockets have sailed through the air above my head, causing terror in their wake. Running into bomb shelters has become a reality I could have never foreseen.
I experienced first hand the horror of the kidnapping, the hope and the support of the community as we gathered in Rabin Square with the victim’s parents to pray for their sons’ return. The shock that reverberated throughout the country when less than 24 hours later the devastating news of their slaughter that had occurred almost a week before became known. The fear and utter disbelief when the first sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, the surreal act of running to bomb shelters to seek protection, and the resignation when the sirens and rockets did not stop for fifteen days straight. But the resilient nature of the country and its citizens immediately showed through, visible in the collective pride for the soldiers who fight so bravely, in the smiles of the faces of Israeli’s in #bombshelterselfies, and in Israeli innovation and technology, specifically the strength of the Iron Dome. The feeling of loss is still there, the overwhelming sadness inflicted by each death, each Israeli soldier killed and really the loss of lives on each side of the conflict. Blows to the soul that are felt personally, that sometimes cast a dark shadow over the day and cause a heavy heart that is inevitably experienced when living here, with only a few degrees of separation from soldiers killed on the battlefront.
But here, life goes on. Throughout it all, I have learned to appreciate. Just like the advice the old man extended to me as I powerwalked to my bus stop, I have slowed down, I have become aware of the beauty of life, of all there is to be thankful for and enjoy. Gorgeous sunsets still draw crowds, the cafes are still bustling, and the nightclubs are still packed with swaying, sweaty bodies. The Israeli mentality to live each moment to the fullest, to embrace one another and live with vibrancy is a lifestyle that I have begun to embody.
This morning I walked by the old man, sitting in the shade of the sidewalk, and extended my daily “boker tov” greeting with a warm smile. He motioned for me to wait, slowly rose from his chair, and handed me a Bueno chocolate bar. I’m not sure if I would have accepted a candy bar from essentially a stranger in the streets a month ago– I certainly would not have even glanced twice at this elderly man back home in America. But this act of generosity, the genuine kindness this man exudes, the care that he has expressed for me despite me just being a stranger who passes by for merely 5 seconds every day, caused me to accept this small gift, embracing our friendship.
It has been a true adventure to live here amidst the chaos, but the irrepressible nature of the Israeli people, the fierce unity that has emerged between friends and strangers alike, have allowed me to feel safer and more united with the country I love so much than ever before. I return back to America not just cherishing the time I spent here and the bonds I’ve made with friends and Israelis, only possible from sharing these extreme circumstances, but I leave also knowing in my heart that I have an insatiable need to return. And I know for a fact that I will.