Lessons Learned

Twenty months. 579 days. 13,896 hours. In the grand scheme of a life span, it’s not that much. Just under two years, what really is that? But 20 months ago today, I woke up on what was my first morning after moving to Israel. I didn’t know it then, but these 20 months would change me, and teach me, more than any other 20 months I’ve had to this point. There really is nothing like moving alone to a new country. There’s the lack of family, new language, new customs, the comfort you miss. But what do you get in return? You learn more than you could ever imagine.

In 20 months, I’ve learned the importance of language. When I moved here I had a group of Israeli friends. They’re the nicest people in the world. I love them for easing my transition. But you know what I missed out on? Being able to fully communicate. I learned that English only gets you so far, and that Hebrew is damn hard. I learned what it’s like to feel helpless, or like a baby before he can talk. I learned how nerve-racking it is to walk into a bank knowing you can barely tell them your name. I also learned how absolutely satisfying it was the first time I could order from a Hebrew menu. I learned how amazing it was to walk back into that bank and be able to communicate what I needed.

I learned that being the soldier on a bus, carrying a rifle is a responsibility you can’t imagine. I learned that commanders, not old enough to drink in the States, are tasked with molding 18 year old kids into soldiers. I learned what it’s like to see those 18 year olds grow into men before your eyes. I learned that working as a team, you will accomplish things you didn’t think you could. And I learned that when you’re dead tired, and feel like you can’t go on, to just keep putting one boot in front of the other.  I learned what it’s like to wake up to my parents in America texting me freaking out about incoming rockets, and having friends’ bases targeted by Hamas.  I learned that anyone who assumes Israel is hot all year has never spent a December night in the shetach (field) being rained on. And I learned that you can in fact fit three soldiers, their guns, helmets, and vests into a tent made for one.

I learned that in a day I can be in cold mountains and then be on the beach in Eilat. I learned that until you’ve seen the sunrise over Jordan and set into the Med, you don’t really know what a red sky is. I learned that hiking in Mitzpe Ramon will make you feel connected to this little piece of land.  I learned what “hot” truly meant by spending even five minutes outside in the Israeli summer. And I learned that there is no better way to cool down than an Israeli ice coffee.

I learned that if you are outside on a Friday morning, the entire area is going to smell of the bakeries finishing their challah. I learned that every restaurant has “the best hummus” and “the best shawarma,” and they’re all right. I learned that there is literally no shortage of amazing restaurants, from the five-star steak houses in Tel Aviv to the roadside jachnoun and falafel place on the road to Eilat. I learned that a Friday night at Lillian’s table or Orit’s table, noshing on Moroccan eggplant, or couscous, is the only way to end a week. I learned table manners be damned when you’re wiping hummus clean from the plate with your hand and fresh, warm pita. And I learned that everything, absolutely everything goes better with a little hummus or tahini.

I learned that everyone has a story. The guy you buy your Bali Shag from was a lieutenant in the special forces. Your shawarma guy was a tank commander in the Yom Kippur War. Your friend’s mom came here in 1948 from Morocco at 2 years old, shared a shack with her parents and seven brothers/sisters in the Negev desert. Your friend’s family? They waited with bags packed in the Soviet Union for the day the Wall came down and moved here the next day. And I learned that Israelis are, at heart, the warmest people in the world. I learned that your electrician will fix the problem and then spend an hour trying to get you to marry his sister, or cousin, or neighbor’s daughter. I also learned that Israeli warmth stops when you walk inside a bank where a simple lost debit card will take three hours of yelling.

I learned that in Jerusalem, you just feel higher, closer to God. And I learned that in Tel Aviv you feel as if you’re going to live forever. I learned that a cold Goldstar will make your day better, and I learned that a mud coffee is necessary every morning.  I learned that Israel, for all its problems, is special.  I learned that struggle is normal, so why not embrace it, shrug it off and meet your neighbor for a falafel?

About the Author
Saul Mangel is a political consultant for top officials in the United States and Israel. He specializes in international relations and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Originally from Philadelphia, Mr. Mangel holds a bachelor's degree in political science and is a former IDF combat soldier.