Hummus, Helmets and Humanity
A Two Year Retrospective on living in Israel
I came to explore and discover… But mostly, I wanted to live here because I like living in this strange, perplexing little country.
This month marks my two year aliyahversary, or, for any one blessed enough to have never stepped through the doors of the Jewish Agency, it’s been two years since I “ascended” to Israeli citizenship. Yep, two years ago at the age of 24 I decided to acquire one of the most controversial citizenships in the world, and see how I could cut it in the land of milk and honey.
Since then I’ve found out what it’s like to be a middle class immigrant. I take odd jobs to make ends meet, tediously wade through foreign language bureaucracy, and every once in a while, break down when I realize just how far I still have to go to belong and thrive in this place. But, I didn’t flee war or abuse or even economic depression. I just fled my mundane American life. I remind myself, on the bad days, that if I wanted to I could be back on Oregon soil after 20–30 hours, and probably some quality time in the Moscow airport.
For the past two years I’ve gotten by milking cows on a kibbutz, taking care of strangers’ children, organizing volunteer projects in Palestine, waitressing in an Irish pub, and, most recently, serving hummus to the masses. And throughout this all, I’ve dedicated hundreds of hours to learning the intricacies and exceptions of Modern Hebrew. While my friends are progressing in careers, going to grad school, or buying houses, I’ve been doing 5th grade level work-sheets and filling baskets of pita.
People ask me why I’m doing this. I’m not very religious, I didn’t come to build the third temple or anything. I’m critical of Israeli policy and at best a tentative zionist. I have zero family members here, I don’t particularly love spending all my time learning a semitic language that’s only spoken in one country.
“I came to explore and discover,” I say, “and to fill in the gaps of my Jewish identity left blank by a rural Oregon upbringing.” But mostly, I wanted to live here because I like living in this strange, perplexing little country. My daily life, however difficult, fulfills me. I’ve found here a sense of humanity and connectedness that I don’t feel in the United States. Stateside I often feel that we are plagued by our ideas of politeness. Our love for private property has extended to ourselves, so that we move throughout the world as single, private individuals instead of as parts of a larger whole. We maintain our personal sovereignty and respect others.
This concept hasn’t really caught on here.
It’s not always positive. On the packed, chaotic streets of J-town I’ve seen people honk incessantly at a grandmother struggling to cross a street, right after that same granny yelled at me for not wearing a helmet on my bike (“whaaat, you wanna die today?!”). I’ve seen fights break out over parking spaces and haggling for halva in the shuk turn into chair throwing. I was here two years ago when tit-for-tat violence devolved into operation Protective Edge in Gaza, and I was at the Jerusalem Pride Parade last year when a teenage girl was stabbed to death for her participation. Palestinians from East Jerusalem (and beyond) undergo systematic and personal discrimination on a daily basis. Three weeks ago a West Bank resident tried to board the Jerusalem light rail with a backpack of explosives. We are no strangers to the dark, hopeless side of humanity. (And I’m mostly going to gloss over that for the sake of this article and talk about my own experience in relatively safe, normalized West Jerusalem.)
What makes me stick around is that despite, or because of, all this darkness, I’ve also witnessed intense instances of genuine love and affection, or at least a sense of duty towards other humans. After the granny yelled at me for my inadequate bike riding, she climbed onto a bus, and the nearest three people automatically helped load her cart of groceries. Above the parking dispute an old man took it upon himself to direct traffic from his balcony. Our mashgiach at the pub (an orthodox man whose job is the check on the kosher-ness of a restaurant) always started his visit by going back to the kitchen to give a hug to the two Palestinian 18 year olds working the grill. The halva thing didn’t have a happy resolution, turned out to be an ongoing halva feud, but hey you can’t win ’em all..
“Shaya, dude, really it’s okay. We’ll take it down and back to your place and find a different one.” “No… Go get me a rug.”
My favorite story that illustrates the extreme lengths I’ve seen people go to to help each other out in this country centers around a giant refrigerator.
My first apartment in Jerusalem was a duplex perched atop two flights of stairs, shared with two other girls and a guy. When we needed a fridge, I decided to try my luck on a local website for free appliances. Sure enough, I found a fridge, and it even happened to be located two houses down. Giddy with the prospect of fresh food in our future, the four of us strapped on the flip flops and headed down the block.
Upon arrival Shaya, the fridge’s owner pegged us as the naive, unequipped Anglos we were and agreed to walk the fridge down the street to our house with his dolly. We got to our downstairs neighbor’s door and Shaya seemed satisfied with his good deed for the day. “Okay guys, enjoy!”
“Actually,” one of us stammered, testing the waters of Shaya’s good Samaritan-ness, “we live upstairs…”.
“Oh! No problem. I’ll help you carry it up.”
After about 20 minutes, a few slips of profanity and more than a few butt crack appearances, Shaya and our male roommate successfully plopped the cooling machine monstrosity on the first landing.
“Great, here you go! Let’s get it inside and we’ll hook it up.”
“Actually, we live up those stairs,” one of us said, wondering just how far his generosity would take us.
Turned out, pretty far.
The second flight of stairs was a post construction add-on, and about half the width of the code complying first flight. Incredibly, Shaya was determined to finish the job and get that fridge to its new home. He ran back to his place to get his tool kit, and promptly removed the refrigerator doors and turned the beast sideways. Still, it didn’t fit. At this point, we took this as a sign that this appliance did not belong in our family. “Shaya, dude, really it’s okay. We’ll take it down and back to your place and find a different one.”
“No. We’re going to get it into your kitchen. Go get me a rug.”
Responding to Shaya’s army-trained commander voice, one of us complied and returned a few seconds later with the dirty rug we usually kept just inside the front door. Shaya hung the rug over the metal stair railing. “We’re going to slide the fridge up the railing to your balcony.”
Um, no. Sure, we’ve already invested an hour into this mission, and we’re all pretty tired of eating take-out, but I can see a few problems with balancing a 150 pound fridge up a flight of stairs, one of which being the significant chance that our elderly, half blind first floor neighbor would pick the wrong moment to come outside to see what all the ruckus was about, and end up getting crushed by a flying refrigerator.
However, Shaya was confident in his refrigerator balancing skills, and persistent. It was clear that installing this fridge had become an “un-abortable” mission, worth changing the entire course of his Wednesday night. Still, we tried to make him take a break first. Drink some water, or beer. Smoke a cigarette, sit.
Miraculously, after another 40 minutes of grunts, gasps, and only one or two near disasters, the fridge landed safely outside our front door.
“Whew! Alright let’s get it inside and plug it in!”
No one had the heart to tell him about the second floor kitchen.
“Shaya, please take a break. We’ll get some friends to help us with it tomorrow. You’ve given us a free fridge and done enough. Don’t worry about it.
But he did. The third staircase, inside our apartment, was wooden and somehow, more narrow than the outside set. It didn’t fit. Again, Shaya ran back to get his tool kit, and immediately started taking apart the wooden siding on the stairs. With the pesky safety reinforcements gone, it fit. Barely. Next came a group effort of pushing, pulling, and climbing over each other’s heads with Leathermans and hammers. And then, it was up. The fridge that thought it could was finally in our kitchen, unscathed from its strenuous journey. Three hours and three flights of stairs later, Shaya had fulfilled his task, and after reattaching the doors, finally agreed to take a break.
We chatted and he told us he and his wife had just gotten married and were about to leave to honeymoon in Thailand. In broken Hebrew we told him about where we came from and what we were doing in Israel. We all drank a beer or two, and then he left.
We saw him around the neighborhood but didn’t usually stop to chat. He helped us simply because he saw we needed help, and at the drop of a hat was willing to invest his time and energy to do it.
That’s why I’m here. I love that most mornings I’m woken up by my neighbors’ loud early morning conversations about women or torah portions or the government, outside my bedroom window, with total disregard for those of us starting work a couple hours later. I love that those are the same neighbors who helped us move the couch in. I love that in the grocery line the woman behind me would just as soon as criticize my produce choices as hand me her baby while she runs to grab an extra pint of milk. I love that during Ramadan, we start our work shift at the bar by celebrating Eid in the breakroom and eating the food that Fadi’s mom packed him.
This city is insane. Perched atop a hill, and constantly teetering on the tensions between ancient and modern, east and west, enemies and friends, it’s passed through more hands than (I want to say ‘your momma’, but it might not be the time for that..), anyway, lots of places. None of us ever know when the balance will shift one way or another and turn our lives upside down. Maybe because of all the external flux we all get back to the basics. We’re all just a bunch of humans, stuck on this mountain top together, and that is enough to connect us. So connected, that I’ll publicly shame your parallel parking skills, but when you need help moving heavy appliances up narrow staircases, I’ve got your back.