The farther I’ve stepped from what I’ve considered to be my comfort zone, the more I’ve started to look for familiarity. With all the spontaneity that corona now demands, and the unpredictability of the army, stability is hard to come by. As someone who spent most of her life moving (six cities, two countries, eight schools), I’ve noticed that we find ways to create consistency even when it seems less obvious. I may not have had any single “childhood home”, or even one place I lived growing up that I feel particularly nostalgic about, but I do have this sentimental connection to my grandparents’ houses, even though I’d only visit once or twice per year, and to shops and restaurants that I remember. I’m not the best at keeping in touch with people over the phone, but my friends from previous years are usually the people I feel most comfortable with no matter how much time has elapsed since I last spoke to them.
Giving up control over the bigger things makes us more defensive of the smaller things, sometimes irrationally so. For me, this manifests in public transportation: I refuse to go through a new city, even if it saves me a few minutes, and instead I insist on only switching buses in Jerusalem, where I already know the layout of the area and the route of the bus home. Jerusalem is by far my favorite place in the world; despite having gone to school there for around four years, during one of which I lived there, I’ve never quite gotten used to it. Whenever I stop there to switch buses I detour for a while just to walk around the city. So on Monday morning last week when I opened my phone to news reports of rioting throughout Jerusalem led by fringe political groups like Peleg Yerushalmi the night before, I was a bit apprehensive, but later that day I got on the bus to Jerusalem’s central station anyway.
Attention from strangers is uncomfortable for me, but it’s something I’ve had to learn to ignore with a long uniform skirt, which causes a lot of stares from people regardless of their religious background. I admittedly always anticipated the possibility of aggressive comments from Chareidi passerby– not the average Chareidi person, but maybe a Peleg type or a little kid– as a girl in the IDF uniform, and it had never come. I knew that tensions were high that day, but I went to buy food and some fresh fruit from the shuk before heading back to wait for the bus, avoiding the light rail because of corona. When I reached the street of the bus stop, which is right near a Chareidi neighborhood, I relaxed a bit, relieved that all had passed uneventfully.
As I continued up the road, I heard a couple of people waiting by a red light loudly saying something about my uniform. I turned to see two Chareidi boys around my age on a motorcycle, and as soon as they saw I noticed them they started yelling.
I was completely frozen for a second; I wasn’t sure how to respond. But then I heard what they were shouting to me in Hebrew: “wow, your skirt, kol hakavod…”. They couldn’t hear me say thank you over the traffic, or see how much I was smiling under my mask. And it was more than just relief that set me embarrassingly on the verge of tears as they drove off, continuing to shout until they disappeared, and it also wasn’t guilt, as I think it’s reasonable to be mentally prepared that there is an ideological minority of minorities that might take issue with me if I cross paths with them. It was the rare positive acknowledgement of my Torah-observant lifestyle in the army when I least expected it– and from a sector of society I least expected it from in that moment. Negativity is often louder than positivity, because people usually have a stronger inclination to voice when they disagree with something than to voice encouragement when they agree with something.
The visibility of my choices through the way I dress is, in some ways, more difficult than what it stands for. It invites assumptions, generalizations, confusion. I’ve encountered more than a couple of anti-religious people by now, and the first thing they tend to focus on is my skirt. At the end of the day, I know that this is exactly what I signed up for. I’ve left what I thought was my comfort zone far behind (that comfort zone wasn’t always the most comfortable, either), and I’ve gotten to know many different aspects of Israeli society. But it can be hard to navigate so many different worlds at once, and though these two guys don’t know the specifics, it just felt, for a second, like someone understood.
It used to be people’s notice of my American accent and my limited vocabulary that bothered me, but the girls I was in training with helped me realize that I didn’t care if I sounded like an Olah because it’s something that I’m proud of. I stopped worrying that it defined me and started accepting that it’s a part of me, and then I could control what it meant about me: not that I’m culturally American, or what people might imagine Americans to be, but what made me decide not to go back to America, and my corresponding struggle to be Israeli without trying to erase myself. I’ve come to apply the same way of thinking to my skirts, which, although seemingly superficial, inevitably announce my loyalty to Torah observance as well as my commitment to the IDF: not that I’m anywhere near a paradigm of avodas Hashem, and not that I’m a stereotype people have constructed of either religious people or of Torah-observant women who draft, but that I’m trying my best to make sense of a complicated world and stand by my values and heritage, and everything that pointed me to the direction I eventually chose.
The truth is, I’m not so sure where my comfort zone is anymore. Is it with Americans or Israelis? Chareidim or Datiim? Am I more nostalgic about the secular girls who were in training with me, or the religious girls who were in midrasha with me? Maybe the idea that there’s only one place we can feel at home is a myth; maybe there’s a little bit of familiarity everywhere. Sometimes it’s just hard to find until it yells to you from traffic.