Monday, September 28, 2015

My First Trip Back

My eyes are puffy, dry and reddened from excited tears as my plane descends into JFK airport. I haven't been this anxiously awaiting a landing since I moved to Israel, just over a year ago. I am eager to hug my father, stepmother, and sister Kate, who are all waiting for me at baggage claim. Will they think I've changed? What will it feel like to be in America again? What am I going to eat first? 

These thoughts raced through my mind at the start of my 30 day vacation in America. 

This 30-day break from the army  - called a meyuchedet - is a wonderful privilege granted only to lone soldiers. Once a year, the soldiers get one month to be with their families, and once per service, the flight home is paid for by incredibly generous donors at the organization Friends of the IDF

During this meyuchedet, I was lucky to have traveled around the country; I spent nearly two weeks in New York, 1.5 days in Boston, a few days in Chicago for my stepbrothers' wedding, and then the remainder of my time in Portland, Oregon, where my mother and stepfather live (as of this May).
It all began with a predictably emotional airport reunion with my family, followed by immediate sushi consumption (/ inhalation). Not to be deceived by my smiling face…I was in serious reverse culture shock. I had to re-program myself into America-mode. Ok, I thought to myself, what do we do in America? We wait in line (I was so shocked at how patiently people formed a line at the airport). We say “sorry” not “slicha.” We don’t stare at people all the time. We don’t engage in deep conversations about G-d with complete strangers. We don’t say “Shabbat Shalom” to everyone walking down the street on Friday and Saturday afternoon and then get invited to eat at their homes. We remember that some people drive on Yom Kippur, and that aside from a select group of people, the day is just like any other day.

It’s not that I “forgot” how to be American. In New York, I easily returned to my usual activities: daily coffee runs, Metro North train rides, drinks with friends in Manhattan, meals at my family’s Larchmont house, visits to my grandparents Upper East Side apartment…these things felt natural. My fingertips still moved at the speed of light while purchasing my Larchmont to Grand Central train ticket. I remembered exactly what subway to take in NY to get to where I needed to go.

What had changed the most was one fundamental understanding: I no longer belong here. Of course, this feeling has nothing to do with my friends and family. Reuniting with them was one of the most soul-enriching, wonderful experiences of the past year. In fact, on my flight to the U.S, I felt this existential sadness, feeling once again the cognitive dissonance around the question - why the heck must I live so far from my family.  It’s a question I’ll probably never come to terms with. It’s a question that, with a different mindset, can turn easily into guilt.

But on this trip, I chose not to "go there"--to that dark place of guilt, that is. 

Instead, I took the 30 days of my America visit to squeeze-in every ounce of quality time with my loved ones.

Some of the trip highlights...

Weekend Ashram Getaway: I basically went straight from an army base to a Yoga class at the tucked away Ananda Ashram in upstate NY—how typical. It was my first weekend back in the states, and it all felt so surreal. Over vegetarian food, on a kayak excursion on the lake, and during a sunset walk through nature, I caught up with my family and found the rest and relaxation I so needed.

Family Meals:  They’re the best. And I had a lot of them.

A Nostalgia whirlwind: I’m not sure if this was a highlight, but it certainly was a big part of the experience. I visited a lot of my old "spots," from my go-to taco place to the Rye Town 
Park, where I learned to walk. I spent time with elementary/middle school friends and was reminded what it is like to be in the company of someone who just gets me. It’s a sense of ease, comfort, and trust that takes years to grow. And after a year of constantly meeting new people in a new language, revisiting the old was a breath of fresh air. Or rather a sigh of relief. 

Chicago Wedding: It was a quick, 3-day trip, but nonetheless jam-packed with joy! My stepfather officiated as the Rabbi for his son's wedding, so the service exuded fatherly pride and love. On the glorious campus of University of Chicago, the happy couple exchanged rings & unconventional vows, giving speeches that didn’t leave a dry eye in the Chapel.

Exploring Portland: My experiences in this city can be best described through an alliteration of F’s: food trucks, friendly people, free-spirited, fancy Goodwills, foliage, fermented tea, falls (of water), and freakin’ beautiful nature. Gotta give a shoutout to my wonderful Mother and Stepfather for making it such a lovely visit!

Yom Ki-Portland: I was apprehensive about spending the High Holidays outside of Israel. Although no huge sense of Jewish Unity descended upon me in Portland (as it does in Israel during the holidays), Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were most certainly meaningful this year. I was welcomed with open arms into the Orthodox community that my mother and stepfather joined in Portland. The praying & reflecting was deep, the meals enormous, and the fasting pretty easy, thank G-d. The strange part was seeing cars speeding away on Yom Kippur, because at the same time in Israel, parents let their kids sit in the middle of streets that are clear of cars for miles. 

There is so much more I could share. And I know this all sounds so dreamy and lovely…in many ways it was. But for every great thing there is its shadow—a darker side that lingers throughout. One of my biggest challenges was trying to explain to my American loved ones about my year in Israel. I found that most of the time, I couldn’t. I just didn’t have the words. I quite literally and figuratively couldn’t translate my army and other "Israel Experiences" to people. Aside from the fact that I don’t know army words in English, there are just so many Israeli idiosyncrasies and cultural phenomena that have no American equivalent.

It was frustrating, and a little sad. There’s this enormous part of me that most of my American people just won’t understand, and I need to accept that.

Another issue I grappled with during my stay in the U.S. was the feeling of my “home base” in the U.S changing so rapidly before me, and frankly, without me. My stepbrother got married to a woman I met only once before. My mother and stepfather moved across the country, and when I arrived in NY, I got the news that my father and stepmother decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia. My friends are working grown-up jobs at banks in NYC and living with their serious boyfriends in West Village apartments. A few friends are engaged.

Where am I? Well, I’m blogging at 3:40 a.m in the Ra’anana Absorption Center, and I’m waking up in 3 hours to get on a bus to my army base.

I’m starting to actually believe all the Israelis who told me I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing.

I like to think of crazy, in this context, as colloquial for risk-taking. And since we know what big risks bring, I’m excited to see what awaits me at the end of this windy, bumpy, road.

  Gabriel Park, Oregon 

A Real NY Slice (Joes Pizza)

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Princess Kate and my old friend Margot (Since grade 1)
With my Mother at Multnomah Falls