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First Person As First Impressions Wear Thin, Oleh Seeks Magic Below Israel’s Surface

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There came a time, not long ago, when being an Israeli immigrant stopped feeling romantic and started feeling like a burden. It started when two clerks at the Education Ministry wasted a half hour of my time arguing over whose job it was to locate a document — which took 30 seconds to find and print.

My disillusionment continued as every day I followed the reports of rockets and injuries in the Gaza Strip and the nearby Israeli town of Sderot, and the seemingly inevitable evacuation of Jews from their homes by Jews, a heartbreaking image from either side of the fence.

I knew my honeymoon with Israel was in jeopardy as I sat on the bus that goes past the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City and I didn’t even feel the urge to step off and head to the Western Wall.

Familiarity breeds contempt, we are told. In other words, the more you get to know someone — or something or someplace — the more it starts to annoy you.

Suddenly, a year and a half after fulfilling my dream of aliyah, my bubble seemed to have burst. Not so long ago, every step through the city felt like a dance in a spiritual wonderland. Now, the daily grind of bills and shopping and impatient store clerks has made my life in Israel seem as if it’s only in this world.

In an attempt to fight against my own personal post-Zionist period, I have decided to fine-tune my eyes to refocus on some of the small, unique details that add fulfillment to my daily routine.

For one thing, there’s hitchhiking.

At the risk of incriminating myself in front of my fiancee and family, I have to admit that not only do I hitchhike from time to time — a practice known here as “tramping” — but I actually prefer it to taking the bus.

When you go down to Efrat or other settlements in the Etzion block south of Jerusalem, you can take a bus that winds dizzily through each settlement and get there an hour later. Or you can pick up a tramp at the trampiada in Gilo, a stand designated for trampers, and catch a ride south. You won’t wait there for more than five minutes — 10 at the most — before a car or van will pull up and a driver will roll down his window and tell you where he’s going and how much room there is in the car.

About 20 minutes later, you’ll be dropped off, exactly where you want to be.

If you’re not familiar with the way tramping works, you might think this sounds dangerous. But though I’d never dare to hitchhike in the United States, here it feels as if you’re getting a ride with your own family. Sometimes you can have a interesting chat with the other people in the car, and other times they completely ignore you.

The ability to feel safe jumping in a car with a complete stranger, especially in these worrisome times, helps makes Israel feel like home.

For another thing, there are simchas

There’s a strange simcha domino effect in Israel. Once the first domino falls, my social calendar starts to fill up at a tremendous pace.

There’s a wedding one day, and I find myself dancing in a hall with hundreds of other young olim.

Usually the bride or groom’s parents and the rest of the family hardly have visited Israel, or maybe none of them ever have been here. Then, all at once, they all find themselves thrown into what can only be described as a holy mosh pit of ecstatic celebrants.

That night a friend tells me that another friend and his wife have just had a baby boy, and there will be a bris the next morning.

As I’m eating a bagel with cream cheese at the bris that next morning, another friend tells me that a mutual friend just got engaged, and there is a party for them the next night.

Sometimes this domino effect can continue for weeks, and I find myself feeling tired and heavily overfed. But the pure joy at these celebrations makes those difficult morning jogs to work off all the extra food worth it.

Then there are trailer parks.

Even the most liberal and socially aware American can’t sidestep the stereotypes that come with those parks. Though I’m sure that many wonderful people live in such facilities, I can’t say I ever pictured myself living in one.

What would my friends say? And how would we protect ourselves from those nasty twisters that always seem to head directly for them?

But Israeli caravans are a completely different story. What could be more romantic then living on a hilltop with a group of other caravaners, everyone pioneering the land for future generations? And even for those who aren’t so Zionistically inclined, what could be better for a young struggling couple than low-rent housing in a beautiful Jerusalem or Tel Aviv suburb?

Many young couples I know have started their new Israeli families in such portable living quarters, even though all of them were raised in upper-middle-class American homes. Friends who are now expecting their third child are living in a caravan so that he can finish his medical residency at Tel Aviv University and she can continue working on her writing career.

Caravan residents give up space and comfort, especially during the winter, to live so inexpensively. But in this country, where wealth is not as flaunted and consumerism not as rabid as in the United States, these simple living quarters seem inviting, especially when you think about the tensions that result from having to pay high Jerusalem rents and city taxes. How wonderful it is not to be looked down on for wanting to save money during the early years of your marriage.

Next, it’s Shabbat afternoon in the rainy winter streets of Jerusalem. The stone balconies in the compact community of Nachlaot provide little shelter from the cold downpour, and all I want to do is find a warm place to pray the afternoon mincha service and get back home to my heater and leftover cholent.

Suddenly, I hear an Arabic accent calling out to me through the falling rain, “Min-cha, min-cha.” I follow the voice to a door that I’d certainly walked past many times without ever realizing that it was shul.

As I step in, the deep browns of the carved wood that cover the synagogue instantly warm me as I throw my jacket off onto one of the benches that line the walls. I spot a friend, who tells me that the shul is not Sephardic, as I had assumed, but Syrian. Many of the congregants came from families that could trace their roots back to the Second Temple period, he said. They’d never left the Middle East for Spain or Europe, as most Jews had.

The simple, strange tunes the congregation chanted as the Torah was removed from the ark and then returned to it haunted me as I walked home through the rain. The melodies reminded me of how much history is alive in every nook and cranny of this city, and in every pair of eyes that I meet.

There is an aliveness here that flows from the city’s unique people and their traditions. It cannot be ignored, despite how inured to it we can become.

I’m trying to grasp that feeling. I realize that lately my life may be filled with less wonder and more annoyance, but it is also filled with a deeper appreciation and connection to an amazing people and our unique details, which I’m getting to know on a much deeper level.

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