In-your-face Israel

In Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, he writes that the real reason his grandmother died was not a heart attack, but rather an “excess of hygiene.”  Having arrived in Jerusalem from Vilna, she “took one startled look at the sweaty markets, the colorful stalls, the swarming side streets full of the cries of hawkers” and spent the rest of life constructing defenses against her new country’s “pervasive sensuality. “

100 years later, Israel’s in-your-face quality is the country’s magic touch.  It’s one of the reasons why Americans Jews, so used to their personal space and alone time, travel to Israel and fall in love with the country.  At first jarring, Israel’s intensity forces individuals to wake up and live.

“Israelis live a life of rawness and no-nonsense,” said Michele Hathaway, a Seattle-native who interned at the Israeli Opera House through Masa Israel’s WUJS Internship program after graduating from USC.  She recalls walking down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard late at night, and watching people laugh, cry and fall in love right before her eyes.

Daniel Rothman, a graduate of York University in Canada, had similarly powerful experiences in Israel while interning at a photography studio through Masa Israel’s Career Israel.  On Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday, his celebration included donating blood for injured soldiers at a mobile clinic.  “I was completely unprepared for the intensity of life in Israel,” Daniel told me. “Every Israeli celebration seemed to involve complex combinations of emotion and history.”

Speaking to Daniel and Michele brought back my own memories of extended trips to Israel.  Back in college, I made sure to visit Israel at least twice a year—during the summer, to intern at various organizations, and during the winter, just to “get my fix.”  But it had been several years since my endless Israel summers, and I’d forgotten what it felt like to need to buy my next ticket.  At JFNA’s General Assembly, Israel Way President Avraham Infeld reminded me.  In one of his famous speeches about Israel and Jewish identity, he shouted, “Let out your passion.”

In life, nothing is certain, but in Israel, people function with that mindset on a daily basis.  They might have to leave work for the reserves.  There might be a war tomorrow.  Or a new government.  This means that everyone in Israel has deeply-held opinions and beliefs about what’s best for the country and its people, and with stakes like that, they never hold back from letting others know.

I always knew I was back in New York when I could walk down a busy street, completely anonymous and invisible to the other pedestrians.  That experience doesn’t exist in Israel.  During my “kibbutz summer,” a friend and I set out to catch a ride to Kiryat Shemona, and ended up hailing a van of young people, who invited us on a trip to a natural spring up north.

So, too, only in Israel would it be possible for American intern Michele to fill in for the Queen of the Night with a two hour notice.  But, a few months into her internship at the Israeli Opera House, she was already well aware of the way Israel works.  And, in glitter and gold, she belted out her part before a live Tel Aviv audience.

About the Author
Rachel Sales is co-founder of Pink Pangea (, the magazine for women who love to travel. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She currently lives in Israel.