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Maia Zelkha

In The Shadow of War, I Finally Feel at Home

Photo by Maia Zelkha

When I landed in Ben Gurion Airport in Fall 2022 to finish my Bachelor’s at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I unexpectedly sighed a breath of relief. After a particularly difficult summer, I spiraled into panic at the thought of leaving my parents, my friends, and Los Angeles. During my layover at Heathrow airport, I called my parents, sobbing and shaking. It wasn’t just about leaving LA, or my family. It was about finishing university, and figuring out what the hell comes next in my life. I was terrified of growing up— how it was happening at that moment, and how it would happen in the future. 

But when I arrived in Israel, all my panic disappeared. A wave of calm washed over me as I sat in a shared taxi to Jerusalem, watching the sun rise over the land and cities that we passed. The next month was a blur— I met dozens of new people every day at Hebrew University’s student village, wandered around Jerusalem, went out dancing, got COVID, cried to God in my room, began to keep Shabbat, and fasted on Yom Kippur for the first time in years. By the end of the month, I was resolute that I belonged here. It was raw, deeply emotional. I couldn’t imagine my future anywhere else. 

When I made Aliyah ten months ago, I felt the same sense of calm and purpose. I was learning Hebrew in Ulpan; I had just met a cute Israeli guy who lived on a moshav and whose dream was to become a train driver. I didn’t have a plan for what would happen in the future, but I wasn’t worried. In June, I traveled in Europe for three weeks. When I returned to Israel, I was met with a feeling of deep dissonance— I was “back” from a long trip, but it didn’t feel like I was “back home.” My former home, Los Angeles, had become my parents’ home, not mine. At the same time, Israel suddenly didn’t feel familiar to me anymore. I didn’t know what I was doing here; in general, I didn’t know what I was doing at all.

A sense of exhaustion began to creep up on me, one I had never experienced before. I wanted peace, simplicity. I felt over-saturated with experience— literally, that I had seen, felt, said, and done too many different things in my 23 years of life. I suddenly felt that I had only stayed in Israel because I was running away from the worries that I had in the United States. But now, they had caught up to me. I had just graduated, was unemployed, and was in the most serious relationship of my life. I felt it in my bones. I was growing up.  

I still could not imagine my future outside of Israel. And at the same time, I didn’t quite feel like I belonged here anymore. I was becoming increasingly frustrated at my lack of fluency in Hebrew— most of the time, linguistically speaking, I only understood 60% of what was happening around me. Jerusalem was the holiest place on earth; and yet, it was also expensive, suffocating, and tense. The light rail ticket officers made my blood pressure spike any time I saw them. My groceries were four hundred to five hundred shekels a week. My landlord refused to install air-conditioning. I woke up every morning to the sound of construction. People were pushy on buses and cut me in line. 

There were many pockets of novel goodness, of course; my boyfriend and I sitting on my balcony and drinking coffee, wise and chatty old people at bus stops, and finding out the parents of a random young woman— who I bought an electric fan from on Facebook Marketplace— were my little sister’s middle school teachers. I had heard and read so many stories about people moving to Israel, how everything fell into place for them; and still, a year later, the feeling of unbelonging haunted me. A nagging question: If I didn’t belong here, of all places, then where on earth did I belong? 

This question pervaded my consciousness non-stop. And on October 7th, after celebrating Simchat Torah with my older sister, the whole world was suddenly bombarded with scenes of terror, death, and suffering as Hamas terrorists infiltrated the Gaza envelope and slaughtered families in their homes and innocent party-goers at a music festival. For the next few days, we barely slept, running to the apartment’s bomb shelter at a moment’s notice. My sister, separated from her husband who had gone to Poland a week before the war, decided to meet him there and leave the country. She wanted me to come with her. I refused. I spoke to friends in the United States; each one asked if I would return to LA until the war finished. “No,” I would answer, certain but fearful. 

My sister left for Poland; my roommates returned to their families. I was alone in Israel, with no family or bomb shelter in my apartment. Jerusalem was a ghost town, and the few people who ventured outside walked scattered from each other, their faces cast down. The once loud, chaotic light rail became silent as we all collectively grieved our dead. Do I belong here? 

And yet, brilliant displays of camaraderie arose within the sadness, endless energy to volunteer, raise money, cook food, donate blood, and take care of each other. Everyone was so gentle with each other during those first few weeks. Our hearts were broken; we held onto each other. 

My situation began to deteriorate. I barely slept; my mental health declined. I couldn’t just live with my boyfriend and his family; nor could I continue crashing at my friends’ places for weeks at a time as I avoided my empty, bomb-shelterless apartment. “Please come visit us for two weeks,” my Dad said, “You can fundraise money here. We miss you.” I was afraid to leave, and I was afraid to stay. I went to the airport, I cried on the plane. It wasn’t just about leaving Israel, or my boyfriend. 

It was about how I found a place where people were there for each other in times of disaster; how I found a place which so many of my ancestors had lived and died on, and how the ones who didn’t had constantly yearned to; how the world had viciously turned against us before our dead had even been buried; how my children would be born in a country that experiences a major war every ten years; how I knew that even though not everything in my life had fallen into place yet, my soul was tied to this nation no matter how dark its days became. When I returned to Israel after counting down the days, I was met with a feeling of deep calmness— “back home” it felt like. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t sad. I just knew what I was doing here.

About the Author
Maia Zelkha is a writer living in Jerusalem. Her work has been featured in publications such as the Jewish Book Council, Parabola, and Vision Magazine. She can be contacted at mdzelkha@gmail.com.
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