I Won’t Write About the Conflict; Or, What I Think Of When I Think Of Israel

My hometown, Haifa

I won’t write about the conflict.

Yes, I know I’m from there. I know I must have Such Interesting Perspectives on that whole…situation.

I know I have friends in the IDF. I know I once strongly considered moving back, and thus getting drafted myself. I know I’ve seen rubble and remains of Qassam rockets and tanks and bomb shelters and graves. What do I think of all this?

Not much, anymore. I’ve gone numb.

I used to write about it, publicly. I had a newspaper column and everything. You can probably guess which perspective I took. My family was so proud, sending the articles to their friends, saying, See, here’s a young person who gets it.

And then I stopped, cold turkey.

I’m not ignorant. I read the news. But the news is so damn different depending on who reports it, and each side can easily counter the other with endless barrels of (factual? fake?) evidence.

I am a skeptic. When I don’t know the facts, I keep my mind unmade. Israeli politics, like Israeli cities and streets and social codes, are so much messier than their American counterparts. So on this issue, like so few others, I remain not apathetic, but agnostic.

Most of my friends don’t know that I prefer not to talk about it. Those who aren’t close enough to be friends will even ask me upon first learning about my nationality: “So, you’re from Israel, huh? What’s your take on what’s going on over there?” I usually mumble something about not really following that whole thing anymore.

Before I understood how to assert my conversational boundaries, I once let a friend lead me into a discussion about it. He didn’t know that it’s a sensitive issue, and that conversation ended with a moment that wasn’t one of my best: me snapping at him that maybe he’d feel differently if he didn’t have an aging grandmother over there, a widow, who has had to evacuate her city when the wars start.

But another time, a new friend did one of the kindest things possible: after I’d asked him a personal question, he reassured me that he’s open to discussing just about anything, except Middle Eastern politics. For a long time, I wondered what personal connection this decidedly not Middle Eastern person could possibly have to the conflict. Only later did I find out that he has no issues with discussing it at all; he’d said that only to free me from any obligation I might feel to discuss it with him. And, indeed, I’d been freed.

I disagree with those fellow Jews who think I have an obligation to defend Israel (some of whom say that my talent is being wasted on subjects like mental illness and assaults on women’s rights). I likewise disagree with those fellow progressives who think I have an obligation to denounce Israel. It is my home. I learned to breathe, walk, eat, talk, think, and exist here. My first memories are here. This hot breeze was the first to ever rustle through my hair. These salty waves were the first to ever knock me over and make me gasp for air. These narrow, winding streets are the ones on which I saw, for the first time, a world beyond myself and my family.

I can no more divest this place of its emotional significance and denounce it than I could my own mother and father.

To those who have never been to Israel–and that’s most Americans, even those who have plenty of opinions on the conflict–it must be hard to imagine thinking and writing about Israel without also thinking and writing about the conflict.

I can see why. When you think of Israel, you think of the nightly news. You think of fiery politicians and clashing religions. You think of security walls, blockades, and death counts.

I think of those things, too. I have to.

But I also think of the way the passengers burst into applause whenever an airplane lands in Israel.

I think of stepping into the Mediterranean for the first time in years. The water is clear and the sea is turquoise, and tiny fish swarm around my feet. The current pulls me in, and when the waves slam, it feels amazing.

Carmel Beach, Haifa

Carmel Beach, Haifa

I think of weathered blue-and-white flags hanging from windows, fences, car antennas.

I think of the obvious hummus, pita, and falafel, but also of schnitzel, shashlik, tabbouleh, schwarma, tahini, and beesli.

I think of eating figs and mangoes right off the tree.

I think of hearing a language I usually only hear at Friday night services–on the street, in the bus, at the supermarket. I think of how the little I know of that language tumbles out so naturally, with the pronunciation and intonation almost right.

I think of the Russian woman we talked to at the bus stop, who could remember and list all of the day’s product prices from the market.

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha'anan, Haifa

Flowers in a park in Neve Sha’anan, Haifa

I think of the strangers wishing me shana tova (happy new year).

I think of clinging to the pole as the bus careens down the mountain, around corners, and of laughing as the driver slams on the breaks, opens the door, and curses out another driver, as they do in Israel.

I think of the shuk (market) on Friday afternoon, before Shabbat.

I think of factory cooling towers, roundabouts, solar panels, and other staples of Israeli infrastructure.

I think of the white buildings designed like cascading steps, their balconies overflowing with flowers.

I think of how things are messy. The streets aren’t laid out in a grid like in American cities; they twist themselves into knots. People are impatient. Taxi drivers charge whatever they want. Rules and signs are ignored.

Produce at the market

Produce at a market stall

I think of palm, pine, olive, and eucalyptus trees, and of the smell of the pines in the park where we used to go before the forest burned down.

I think of laundry drying on clotheslines hung beneath windows.

I think of the huge families camping on the beach with tents, mattresses, grills, stereos, portable generators, pets, and, in one case, an actual refrigerator.

I think of Middle Eastern music and Russian talk shows blaring out of open windows.

I think of heat, dirt, sand, and blinding sunlight.

I think of how, somewhere in the thickets behind my grandmother’s apartment building, there is a single grave. It belongs to a 16-year-old boy who died defending Haifa decades ago. And despite its entirely unobvious location, the grave marker is always piled high with rocks.

View from Yad Lebanim Road

I think of vendors selling huge bouquets of flowers by the side of the road for the new year, which would begin that night.

I think of how slowly life moves here in some ways. Buses run late, eating at restaurants can take hours. Young adults take years off between the army and college. Our nation has been around in some way for thousands of years, so I suppose hurrying seems a bit silly.

I think of the cemetery by the sea, where my grandfather is buried, and where the silence and stillness is comforting.

I think of the history embedded in every stone, and of how the steps of Haifa’s endless staircases are worn smooth.

Stairs between streets

I think of how it must have felt to be despised, discriminated against, and even murdered for your peculiarities, and then coming to a country where everyone shares them with you.

I think of floating in the sea at night with friends I’ve known since before my memory begins. The water, completely still now, reflects the orange lights on the shore.

And here, in a place most know only for its violence, I have found a peace that eludes me in the safe and orderly country where I live.

So I won’t write about the conflict.

I will only write about my home.

Sunrise over Haifa

Sunrise over Haifa

Advertisements

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming