The flight into Israel, however one times it, features a few common elements. First, everybody is usually awake, as a half-hour before the flight lands the flight crew warns everybody over the sound system, repeatedly, that they are not allowed to get out of their seats due to Israeli regulations. Second, passengers feel the anticipation for glimpsing the shoreline, the first view of the Holy Land in all its glory, as it were. Israel is not unique for having its main airport situated a few miles from water. Israel stands unique in the fact that one flies over half the width of the country in about seven minutes from the first sight of the shore to Ben Gurion airport.
So there, all of a sudden, whether in bright sunlight or the eternal electrical illumination of Tel Aviv nightlife, appears the famed Mediterranean beaches, the ever multiplying Tel Aviv skyscrapers, the barren Kikar Ha Medina, and the White City. Two minutes after, the plane is descending over highways and plains, the flat, quiet middle ground between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Three minutes or so later, the plane touches down, and the speed of one's journey through Israel slows, at least.
Which leads to the next special moment of the flight into Israel: the inevitable applause. Most flights I have taken into Israel have, not surprisingly, been filled in the majority by Israelis. Politics, existential issues, complaints, and all the negativity aside, the generalization must be asserted that Israelis love their country. It is easy to be cynical or caustic about this, and I confess that too much patriotism, nationalism, or any ism makes me uneasy, but on the surface, the applause is charming, a throwback to the early excitement of intercontinental air travel and also a testament to the genuine excitement that people, both Israelis and those visitors who join in, eager for their visit, feel for this country. Too much excitement? Yes, but still.
The downside of that excitement is felt 15-20 minutes later or so, once off the plane, through the long lines in passport control, and face to face with the border control agent.
Before I proceed, let me make clear that I'm aware the U.S. is harder to get into than Israel. Many other countries surely are just as stringent on their border policies. Stringency is not the issue with Israel, especially since I've never actually been rejected or really threatened with rejection at the border.
Instead, there is the inevitable unpleasantness that greets a passport that is a little bent, features a ton of stamps, especially many stamps to and from Israel, and no active visa. I restrict the tale to my experiences, though I know others hit trouble either at this same point or at the airport trying to leave, and I've written about that before.
But I have tried speaking Hebrew and English at passport control. I have tried being cheerful and confrontational (though my sense of the impending confrontation always drags on my cheerful efforts). I have entered with and without an active visa. I have told my story unflinchingly, never with inconsistencies or things I would think constitute red flags. And considering Israel has tourist visas available for 3-months anyway, I get confused at the reason for the tough questioning.
The tough questioning comes nevertheless.
"Why don't you have a visa?
"Because our school gets us the visa after we enter the country. That's how we did it the last two years.
"So you're telling me how things are done in Israel?"
Hands up in self-abnegation.
"Tell me, do you think I could show up to the United States without a visa to work, and they'd let me in?"
"I don't know," thinking that I've gotten into Israel without a visa plenty of times, and that maybe she couldn't in the U.S., but at least they wouldn't be total assholes about the process, and yes, politeness does count for something.
"Well, the answer is no, they wouldn't." Stamp on the passport anyway.
Or the time I came back from Rwanda last fall, where I planned to fly out a couple days later from Israel, but didn't have a ticket yet and as such no clear plan. I had no visa that time around.
"Do you have a ticket to leave?"
"Not yet, but I can get one."
"Can you show it to me?"
"I could if you let me use a computer, do you want me to use your computer? Or pull out my laptop?"
"Why should we let you in without a visa?" with a harrumph.
"Why are you not polite? Why can't you be polite?"
In comes the supervising officer in the booth one over. "Polite? This isn't kindergarten, this is border control! We don't have to be polite, this is the border!"
Fitting that on that occasion, for the only time in my three years entering Israel, I got sent for a time-out in the back room. Where, ever so maddeningly, all they did was make me wait for ten minutes, then beckon me to follow an adviser to another room, where he had me wait outside, went in with my passport, stamped it, and handed it to me with nary a word. Nothing like a meaningless, no follow-through instance of intimidation to welcome one to a country.
Such are the highs and lows of Israel. The intense joy and pride couples with an aggressively defensive treatment of others from formal agents. There is no distance between private behavior and public-political action. There is little distinction between brother and stranger, for better or worse. All are part of a family, all are treated like family. Family welcomes and opens arms; it also criticizes and smacks harder than anybody else.
I do not want to dwell on the negatives. For whatever it's worth, I do love Israel. One's life bristles here, charges with energy and excitement and intensity. Every day poses a fight, a struggle on the streets or the bus or at the market, but the more we fight for something, the more valuable victory feels. It's not for nothing that several different non-native Israelis told me, after a string of complaints about the various things they disliked or even hated about Israel, that they wouldn't want to live anywhere else, that Israel gave them a feeling of truly living, a feeling they thought was not replicable elsewhere.
I also do not want to dwell on politics, though that's one aspect of the fight that exhausts me here. Caring about the future and actively following the present in the papers leaves me in an inescapable state of frustration, confusion, and doubt, one that may trail me wherever I go but that is also specific to my life in Israel. I make no political comment here except to say that I find it a constant irritant that when I discuss the situation with somebody who holds a different political view, especially Russians whom I speak with about this, I hear the response, "But I worry about Israel, I really love Israel," as if my stance on the left means I have no love or worry for Israel. Though I guess my desire to leave is, perhaps, proof that I don't love or worry about Israel, somehow. In any case, I returned for this shorter stint refreshed and thinking I would be able to steer clear of the politics, only to thrust myself back into it after the series of speeches and rebuttals and standing ovations from a couple weeks ago. I suppose it's an early sign of madness to hear voices in your head, but one morning I biked to work and argued with myself in three languages. Such is the life and the madness that Israel can drive one to.
Again, it looks like I dwell on negatives, and I am trying to avoid that. Or in another sense, I'm trying to avoid the sort of reflection that my Hebrew class gave after my first year in Israel. The four of us sat in class with our teacher, a colleague at the school we all worked at, as she asked us what we would miss about Israel. The other three were all leaving after two years there, and I was to imagine what I would miss. The list sounded like this:
Hummus. And falafel.
Naomi, our teacher.
In other words, not the most positive collection of views about the people of Israel, about the country in its substance, just its dumb luck natural attributes.
But underlying the intensity I harp on is a warmth, a feeling of togetherness and acceptance that quickly veers to anger or harshness if things go wrong. The willingness of the Arab guys to accept my presence in their football game but to fall into confusion or anger when I play the game my way, physical and all elbows and knees (as with any game I play besides wrestling). (Last political aside: my main man in the group was no happier with President Obama than many Jewish Israelis, calling him better than Bush but still "an asshole.") The aid I received on the streets of Jerusalem last week near the government buildings when I asked for directions to Yad Vashem, ("It's a long walk," he said once he realized I was doing the extra kilometer to the Holocaust museum's campus) and the streets of Even Yehuda when going to a party yesterday. The kindness of the local bike shop guy, a religious Jew who knocked his price down 10 shekels for my most recent repair when he realized I didn't have the necessary small change and didn't want to break my big bill, or the local shoe store attendants, one a classic Israeli well-styled macho guy and the other a nice middle-aged woman from Argentina, as I blundered through a second and third attempt to buy a pair of woman's shoes. I bemoaned the lack of American-style politeness at Ben Gurion Airport, and I still don't understand often why Israel and Israelis don't make a tiny bit more of an effort to put on a good face despite things, in the day to day and in the larger picture, but the freshness of daily interactions, the frank quality that avoids idle superficiality, also cuts out some of the social fat from life and leaves a leaner, more power-packed routine. Even when Israelis fall to pleasantries, as when two men will start a conversation that involves three to four phrases each that are all iterations of "what's up"*, there's a sharpness or a humor to them which rescues the conversation from banality. Whatever Israel's problems, banality is not one of them.
*(For example, recently I heard a conversation on the street that went something like this:
"Ma itcha, ahi?"
"Klum, ma hadash?"
"Ma kore, gever?"
"Ani besder, toda, v attah?"
"Gam tov, toda. Y'allah, ani holech."
"Y'allah, tov, bye."
Translated: "What's up (literally, what will we hear)?" "What's up?" "What's up, my brother (literally, what's with you)?" "Nothing, what's new?" "What's going on?" (What are the issues, literally) "What's happening, man?" "I'm good, thanks, and you?" "Also good, thanks. Ok, I'm going." "Ok, good, bye.")
Israel exists sui generis, and with contradictory feelings about its unique qualities. On the one hand, many here would like nothing more than to be an ordinary, if warmer, European country, not isolated in the world, not expected to do anything more than any other country, free to establish their bonds with the west. On the other hand, there is the pride of place, the attachment to history and narrative, and the self belief that emerges from 63 years of existence that many feel has been achieved in spite of the world, not with its help. The frank nature of Israeli life, the aggressive defensiveness, and the intensity of the country can all be attributed, I think, in part to the belief imbued among regular Jewish Israelis that we have done what we have done with no help, and things have worked out; those things could all go to hell in a short time anyway, so why bother with the niceties?
As much as many would like to think of Israel as just like Europe, that framing crops out too much. Israel's Middle East location isn't just a question of politics and weather; the influence of Arab neighbors and the minority percolate Israeli society (as a trivial example, the "y'allah" of the above conversation is an Arabic interjection that is used in both Arabic and Hebrew to mean something like "let's go" (though literally meaning "to Allah"). Ahi, "my brother", also may be derived from Arabic culture. Again, something like the influence black culture has on white America). Israel also treats religion differently than Western nations; this too is a fault line in Israeli life, between the secular and the religious, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between the modern and the traditional or, horrors, ultra-Orthodox. I don't mean to claim Israel is more religious than Western Europe, for example, but the deadness of Saturdays everywhere but Tel Aviv, the moratorium on work and commerce on most major holidays, and the actual and enforced solemnity of Yom Kippur is definitely a different approach to religion than what I grew up with in the U.S.A. Not that it's a bad thing, necessarily - I like the solemnity of Yom Kippur, and there's something wise about taking Saturday to pause and do less in and out of the house than on any other day - but it is a fact of life here, and another aspect of Israel's special status.
The world is either full of places that are sui generis, or else rapidly losing those unique spots on the map as globalization wraps us all up into its stultifying, intoxicating, all-encompassing, ultimately Westernizing bosom. Either way, I am still at the point where I want to move on to new places. Luxembourg, not necessarily my envisioned wildest frontier, represents a chance to savor Europe's fruits definitively, fully, to luxuriate for a few more years in the West before the possibility of renewed adventures and new discoveries, new at least for me. When we look back on our journeys, everything is given a linear logic, and I'm sure Luxembourg will fall into that. After all, learning French would open a few doors in Africa.
As pertains to Israel, I mean to say that I view this departure not as an abandonment of one place but as a chance to go somewhere else. Mired in the haze of my mid-20s, wondering if jack of all trades really is so admirable after all, I should maybe begin to settle a little bit more, develop more of a clear plan for where I'm going or, at least, what I'm doing. And if I had to settle somewhere, Israel would probably attract me as much or more than my home, for example, or most of the United States.
All of which is to say that my time in Israel, spanning at first 26 months and then another 2+ this time around, totaling about 2 full years of time on the ground here, was a success and a thrill and tiring and complete. The perfect introduction to life abroad, in many ways. Never boring. Full of friends from many walks in life, of interesting opportunities and learning experiences and jobs and fun nights on the beach and concerts and various senses of communities, or various communities with their own sense of belonging, of four apartments in three towns/cities, of three bikes (one stolen, one still for sale on craigslist!), of one p.o.s. car, of blessed health and love, of growing pains and mid-20s angst, of (too few) guests and hosts, of learning a great deal of one language (Hebrew) and a few nice morsels of another (Arabic), of speaking another language almost every day (Russian), of visiting Europe and the Caucasus and Jordan and Bethlehem (but sadly, never Egypt or other parts of the West Bank), of arguments and existential debates, of parties and lines on a resume and old acquaintances and new friends and Shabbat dinners and muezzin calls and quiet Saturdays and frazzled Fridays (though never late nights in Tel Aviv), of Tel Aviv the city that will spoil me forever on the convenience of a small city you can walk through, of late nights last summer where I biked home past midnight and Rotschild Boulevard was buzzing with people and warm air and the feeling that as hard as people try to compare Tel Aviv to New York or to Barcelona it doesn't work and doesn't have to, for Tel Aviv is its own beast, and Israel is its own beast, and my destroyed syntax lets me say nothing more except that I am glad for second chances in life: I meant to write this essay the first time I left for what I thought to be "good", for the near term, last fall, but never got around to it, and so when I received the offer to leave my cat-sitting and go work at my old school for the end of the school year, plenty of good came with it, not the least of which is the chance to write my good bye again, one more time, with feeling.
In Hebrew there's a saying, "anachnu lo omrim shalom, anachnu omrim lehitraot." "We don't say goodbye, we say see you." Sayings can be corny, as can eulogistic writing like this, but my second stint is proof of the ever revolving circles of life and the necessity of saying "see you," rather than "goodbye."
In less than a week, I will be at Ben Gurion again, going through a much easier process (I never have problem with security exiting Israel), and getting on a plane to leave Israel again for a while, though I don't know how long. There will be no applause when the plane touches down in NYC, from me or anybody else.
And I will say as I leave, not shalom, but lehitraot, yisrael.