Whew. It’s been quite a ride already and it’s only been 2 weeks. My head has been swirling with thoughts, images, feelings and foreign phrases, and I haven’t had a free moment to make sense of them or connect the dots. Days have been flying by, and it seems that time has sped up such that I’ve lost track of the date. Until now.
There are grounding moments in life that often appear when you expect them least but need them most. Today, we visited a community center in Neve Tzedek, possibly the most adorable neighborhood in the world (I stayed there on and off with a friend for several weeks last time I was in Israel and fell in love with the narrow cobblestone streets and artistic-colony architecture). The community center wasn’t quite as compelling as some of the other organizations we’ve visited, but our visit there was the start of something beautiful.
I wandered around with some friends from the program who preferred to straggle behind and explore the neighborhood. We sat for a coffee at the Suzannne Dallal dance center, then split ways to head back to our respective “homes.” Melissa and I decided to walk along the tayelet (boardwalk) along the beach toward Jaffa, as it was getting close to sunset and the beach breeze was irresistible.
Since coming to Israel, I’ve felt less inspired and holy than I hoped. Maybe it’s that the fever of Birthright-induced Zionism has subsided in me, (or maybe it’s that I’m in my quarter-life crisis where life feels eerily meaningless even as the beauty and intrigue of it is constantly nudging me in new directions), but I haven’t been feeling very rooted in reality. It’s as if I’m wandering through a dream, turning left and right, accelerating and decelerating at the different crossroads that keep appearing, but not really getting anywhere or comprehending what it all means.
It was with such ennui that I found myself floating in the Mediterranean at sunset, feeling the warm water lap at all edges of my body and staring at the dual-city skyline of Tel Aviv/Jaffa. I kept wondering how I could feel such a lack of passion while surrounded by such incredible beauty. The thought that has plagued me for the past several years post-college arose yet again… “Who am I? What am I doing here?” And I began to feel anxious at the enormity of it all, and the terrifying feeling of, literally, free-floating.
I made my way out of the water, and climbed back onto solid land to join Melissa on the sand. I felt a bit disappointed at my failure to appreciate the incredible natural beauty around me and wishing I could once again feel the healing of ecstatic joy that the ocean often brings. But I also felt relaxed and pleased to be in a place of such diversity and calm for a moment. It was then that I noticed some guys playing soccer on the beach behind us, and with nothing to lose, mustered up courage to ask them if we could play.
They said yes and we introduced ourselves. They spoke only Arabic, but there is very little language needed to play soccer together. After a few minutes, I knew “wahhad-wahhad“… “one to one,” and they told me I was “very excellent.” I’ve always love how effusive the Arabic language is 😉
Through playing soccer with Arabs on the beach of Jaffa at sunset, I began to reconnect with myself. But it wasn’t just my existential stress that was relieved. It was also the recent memory of a couple of small Arab children throwing sticks at us as we passed a traditional wedding on Rehov Yerushalayim en route to a club the other night, and the subsequent (and understandable) emotional explosion on the part of one of our Israeli roommates.
Though we are on a unique “coexistence” fellowship, I have been feeling uncomfortable and awkward about the lack of Arab participants in our cohort. With nobody to serve as a liaison to the community, even the best of intentions of living amongst those we serve seem to fall short. How can we understand sentiments of our neighbors without the help of a translator, someone who is versed in the history and culture of the place.
Playing together will not solve a half century of conflict, nor will it unravel my confusion about what the purpose of my life is meant to be. But in that moment, it centered me and helped me put my feet on the ground. I’m now sitting back at my apartment with the fan (to ward off the unrelenting humidity of this Mediterranean climate), hearing the Muslim call to prayer emanating from a nearby mosque, contemplating my new life in the ancient city of Jaffa, and feeling the gurgling of a stomach that is unused to the strange Middle Eastern diet of Hummus and Goldstar. Things are happening around me, and I am just a sponge.