Thinking about Israel, 1985


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February 14th 2009
Published: February 14th 2009
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I can't leave my room because I'm doing laundry. It was over 91 F today and the smell that emanated from my clothes by evening was not one I'd wish on anyone around me.

A combination of events is making me remember my 13 months in Israel from 1985-6. I was 22 and had a BA in linguistics and a masters in writing. I was living in New England and dating an Israeli who said, “I'm not the one for you. I'm going back to Israel.” I replied that maybe I'd go to Israel, too, and applied for a job at an American school. My parents had taught English at a Swiss school for a year when I was very young. As you might guess, applying for the job was the kiss of death for the relationship, but I decided to go through with it anyway. That's how I wound up in Israel in the mid-1980's. There was no Internet, no cable, no laptop, no cell phone. I had a few friends and friends-of-friends in Jerusalem, and shared an apartment with several of them (and the boyfriend or ex-boyfriend of one who earnestly explained that a gun was like a lover).

Prior to Israel, I had traveled on my own only once, to San Francisco (where I was also dumped. I'm afraid this has been something of a pattern in my travels). I had only lived with people I knew. I could say “Ani sholachat michtav” in Hebrew (which means “I send a letter”), and that was about how far my community class had gotten. I don't remember how, but I got hooked up with an ulpan (language class) at the Har ha-Tsofim (Mount Scopus) campus of the university and every morning took an hour bus ride to get there.

Through the summer the roommates came and went (though the ex-boyfriend with the submachine gun was pretty consistently present). On weekdays I'd make the round of markets—vegetables, meat, standing in line at the bank with women who moaned in Hebrew about how hot it was in The Land. On Saturdays, I'd fill up a couple of canteens (it was before the invention of “water bottles” or even “bottled water”) and walk from Talpiot, where the apartment was, to Jerusalem by way of Derech Beit-Lechem (the way of the house of bread—Bethlehem Road). This was always a very hot, dry, quiet walk. Since it was the Jewish sabbath, there weren't a lot of vehicles. I probably enjoyed it more than any other consistent walk I've taken. The Old City was a few kilometers north and I'd spend the day in the Arab and Armenian quarters, walking around. I'd drink coffee or juice before heading home.

I rented an apartment in Ramat Aviv, the university suburb north of Tel Aviv. My first roommate turned out to have schizophrenia and wouldn't vacate when she'd agreed to, then left but copied the key, so I had to have the locks changed. My second roommate was an Israeli university student who worked for the phone company, where the operators all listened in on international calls. She was busy working herself into an alcohol abuse problem in order to justify seeing a therapist, which at that time in Israel was something you only did for severe psychiatric problems (and the style would have been psychoanalytic).

I'd also walk to Tel Aviv on Saturday, the difference being that there wasn't much Arab presence, and a block or two of cafes would be open. I walked a lot in Israel, and ate little other than vegetables, yogurt, and rice cooked in instant chicken soup. As compared to the U.S. (and definitely to Southeast Asia), I didn't visibly sweat. the hotter it was, the better I felt. I lost about 30 pounds and had great skin. It felt like being in the environment my body had evolved for. (In Cambodia, which is quite humid as well as hot, people usually greet me by asking if I'm okay. I feel fine, but I sweat like a person who's having medical trouble.)

My job as an intern at the American school was interesting and not hard. A typical day went like this: Get up, shower, and eat some yogurt. Walk about half a kilometer and catch the school bus, for which I was the monitor. I broke up a couple of fights and stopped some bullying, but my claim to fame was this: The high school students would give the driver, who didn't speak English, cassettes to play on the bus PA system. We had K-12 kids on the bus. One morning, recognizing the dulcet punk strains of the Violent Femmes' “Add It Up,” I leapt forward and killed the volume right at “Why can't I get just one--.” The high schoolers looked on with mingled regret and admiration for my extensive knowledge of punk lyrics.

I'd get to the school and spend the morning working in the K-8 guidance office. I'd get a cheese sandwich for lunch, then teach creative writing. In the afternoon, i taught high school English. In the afternoon I'd ride the bus home. I'd come in from the backyard, by the bomb shelter. If I needed groceries I'd go get them, or I'd wash my clothes and hang them on the porch. A friend on a kibbutz had lent me a portable manual typewriter, so I'd sit on the bed and write my lesson and ditto masters for the next day, write a letter or two, and then usually read with the radio on. I rarely saw my roommate, who often worked nights. On Friday nights I'd go to different synagogues for services, which on Friday nights involve a fair amount of singing.

On weekends or holidays, I'd sometimes visit friends who were working in development towns or on a kibbutz. On the kibbutz I'd sort onions by size, or hack melons off the vine. I learned a great deal about ancient Nabataean stone works and water collection in the micro-climates of the wadis from my friends working in Beersheva. I'd visit the project where my friends worked with bad girls. Once I went to Egypt. Once I cut my hand badly with my Swiss Army Knife and got six stitches at the Israeli army field hospital where the Benedictines of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves sand Fishes took me for care.

It was an interesting year, and I was frequently lonely and depressed. I enjoyed it more in retrospect than at the time. I describe it in this depth here because I'm thinking about my student who's joining me in a couple of days. We've been trying to make a plan by e-mail for when she arrives; I'll be at the university lecturing, and she may or may not have e-mail at her hotel. Making those arrangements and eating alone in another country; washing my clothes in the sink and typing while sitting on the bed; writing a lesson plan and having random thoughts in another language—it all evokes that intern year. I sometimes still think of poems my students wrote half my life ago.

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