I spent this past summer in Israel, interning at a startup and exploring the country with the security of knowing other Americans scattered throughout Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’er Sheva, and Eilat or the Golan, depending on the weekend. When I left, I wasn’t ready to return to the States. I had already experienced reintegration into American society when I came back to America as a junior in high school, yet somehow my return this summer was different. It was more challenging to come back because I wasn’t ready to leave.
This summer, I got to know Israel intimately. I wasn’t living on a gated campus with a curfew and with planned trips throughout the week. This summer, I lived in Bat Yam and felt momentarily immersed in all of Israel as I overcame public transportation, attempted to defeat my pre-established tan lines, and expertly navigated the labyrinthine Israeli malls. I honed my Hebrew and gained a new level of confidence in myself and in my abilities to live self-sufficiently. The independence was one of the toughest things to lose. I had gained this great sense of liberation, as there was nothing to prevent me from taking full advantage of all the unique opportunities that Israel has to offer. When I came back to the States, that independence felt suddenly seized.
I was at home (my current permanent residence) for approximately 19 days in total this summer. The 14 days that I stayed at home upon my return from Israel were a blur of doctors’ and social appointments and oil changes and much-needed mac-n-cheese eating. But I didn’t have enough time to adjust to being home in the North, because suddenly I was thrust back down South, come mid-August.
When I got to school, it was like I had never left. It was like my entire summer had never happened, and I was just beginning another semester. I didn’t have time to properly process all the quirks of American life that I temporarily pushed to the back of my mind, like the ease of never struggling to locate foreign words or how tax isn’t included on price tags. Suddenly, I was in America. I was in New Orleans. I was back at Tulane, with all the responsibilities and stresses that I didn’t have in Israel.
Israel seemed lighter. Perhaps that was because I didn’t have papers to write, orientations to attend, or fellowships to apply for. All I had in Israel was work, my social life, and survival. At Tulane I have all that, but with the added difficulties of juggling a schedule packed down to the minute and trying to remember that the food pyramid does not only consist of Easy Mac. Yet, there is a certain levity in living on campus that Israel didn’t possess, as there’s very little guesswork in my life. I know where I can eat, where I can sleep, and what I’m supposed to do. Having structure is freeing, yet it’s not the same as the independence I tasted this summer.
Aside from missing the freedom, something else I have been profoundly struggling with since coming back is the complexity of sharing my time in Israel with others. Prior to this summer, I was already vocal about my love and support for Israel, but it was more distant and less influenced by exact anecdotes and random observations. Now, when I think about Israel, I can think broadly about the geopolitical situation and Israel’s perception by American Jews, but I can also think about my own snapshots, like mistakenly drinking grapefruit juice all summer instead of lemonade because the picture on the bottle looked like a lemon, even though I knew that eshkoliot sounded and tasted nothing like limon. The ridiculousness I encountered this summer is always on the tip of my mind, yet I often hesitate to vocalize my Israel for fear of sounding like just another privileged kid who just got back from abroad. I physically cringe when I hear myself say the words, “When I was in Israel…” because I don’t want to flood my friends with tales of a place they’ve never been to and won’t regard with the same importance as I do. To them, I might as well have gone to New Zealand. I hesitate, because I don’t want the significance of my experiences to be reduced to mere privilege.
In the same vein, I’ve tried to limit myself in writing about Israel. As a writer, I want to push myself to a place of instability so that I can explore topics and techniques that will incite my growth and broaden my skillset. Writing about Israel would be too easy. But if I’m going to write about Israel, I want to write something amazing and challenging—I don’t want to waste Israel on something as banal as a character sketch or a nonfiction narrative. I will admit that I already used Israel once in my creative writing class, but I nearly regret the choice, because what I wrote wasn’t good enough to compensate for creatively exploiting Israel so soon in the semester. I should’ve saved it, because I could’ve written something better and because I don’t want my classmates or my professor to think that I’m reaching for the obvious, in that I just got back from Israel, so of course I’m going to write about it. With this mentality also comes the fear that what I write won’t amount to the gravity of all I’ve seen. I don’t want to let Israel down, especially in my written domain where I have the potential to wholly capture Israel the best way I can. But for now, I don’t think I’m ready to write about Israel, because I can’t yet find the words that will make my Israel transcend the stigmatized status of being just another abroad experience.
I wasn’t just abroad. In my mind, Israel doesn’t seem like a foreign country. While Israel is technically as foreign a country to me as Venezuela or Amsterdam, it doesn’t feel that way. I don’t feel lost or ungrounded in Israel, because I’m not quite a tourist. I’m not a native or an immigrant (…yet), but my tourist status was revoked the first time I lived in Israel, despite the primarily tourist-y nature of my ventures. Because of this, I feel similarly to how I do in New Orleans, in that I’m not a tourist, but rather a transitory inhabitant. Unlike New Orleans, though, Israel seems like a more practical (from a passion perspective) place to live and work and breathe. To me, Israel isn’t just a nice place to vacation. Israel is more than an exploration abroad or another exotic place to document my meals. Conveying this conception to an audience of dubious listeners has been my greatest struggle in trying to reintegrate into America. How do you tell someone about your Israel? I’ve tried, and it seems nearly impossible to accurately bring Tel Aviv to Tulane.