The Beginnings

By Alisa Itskova, WUJS participant

So it’s been a little over a month that I find myself in this beautiful country called Israel. Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m here, that I made it. And it wasn’t an easy decision to make. I knew that I wasn’t going to stay in Moscow, but at first I was considering doing an internship in the USA or going back to England where I had lived for 5 years before. But ever since Israel presented itself to me through Taglit program in January 2013, the idea of coming here would pop in my mind every now and then. However, it wasn’t until May 2014 that I really made up my mind about it. Later on in Tel-Aviv I would meet a man in the synagogue after an evening service on Yom Kippur who would explain to me that my “neshama”, my soul was striving to lead me here.

Why do people choose to do a MASA program? I really think we all have our own reasons and perhaps we don’t even admit some of them to ourselves. For certain people it is a way to test the waters before making aliyah, for some it is a chance to have an amazing time living abroad and doing an internship in the area that they love or always wanted to try. Others want to establish a closer spiritual connection with the land of their ancestors, discover a new side of their identity, and some might desire to deepen their understanding of judaism in a judgement-free supporting environment.

What did I hope to get out of it? Being really frank with you…. I didn’t really know. What I did know was that I needed a drastic change in my life, in my way of thinking and seeing things. I needed to feel that long-forgotten sense of freedom. I wanted to take some control over my life but at the same time to let it all flow naturally in the right direction. I also wanted to get in touch with my artistic side. A few friends of mine who had already completed a MASA program in Israel have all commented on how liberated and inspired the very air here in the Holy Land made them feel.

But there also was a big spiritual and religious search on my ‘agenda’. You see I come from a very culturally diverse family. My mother’s father was Tatar, Muslim. My mother’s mother was Russian, Christian Orthodox. My father’s parents are both Jewish. And so were all their ancestors as far as I could trace. That’s the only self-identity my grandparents ever had, despite the fact that they lacked this giant cultural and religious layer which I thought was a necessary component of a Jewish identity. They were born and raised in the USSR and as it’s known that means without much of any religious background. And yet, as I mentioned already, they always saw themselves as Jewish. I didn’t quite understand it as a kid, but I felt how important this identity was for them.

As far as I remember I was the only one in my family who, from quite a young age, was spiritually curious and I’d even say hungry. I was always searching. I wasn’t brought up as a Jewish or a Christian girl. In fact religion was never a part of my education either at home or at school. But as I was getting older I was feeling the ever growing need to define to myself who I was and what I believed in. It never came easy for me. No one in my family or among my friends seemed to be puzzled with the same questions. I grew to believe that one’s formal religious confession was not of a significant importance, that a person’s inner morals and beliefs accounted for a ton more. And yet some part of me wanted some more clarity in terms of religion for myself. When I travelled around Asia I visited a number of beautiful Buddhist temples. And I tried to pray. In the best way I could, in my own way. I wasn’t addressing my prayers to Buddha, but to the one God that I believe is common for all people, no matter what we call him in different parts of the planet. Back in Moscow I came across many Christian Orthodox people, who were very passionate about their faith and their religion and tried to share with me that “light”. It really seemed like some force out there wanted me to experience all that. And I continued my spiritual and religious quest. I went to a few Christian churches and cathedrals when such an opportunity presented. As a curious person by nature I wanted to see and feel what other people saw and felt when they prayed in their holly places, whatever country I went to visit.

I don’t remember the exact moment when I realized that I wanted to know more about the Jewish part of my family and understand what it meant to me, being half Jewish. Being the daughter of my Jewish farther. Purely technically I was more Jewish than anything else, no matter how absurd this phrase might sound. And every time that I experienced some anti-semitism, be it a stupid comment in a blog or an offensive reference from some person, I felt angry. Sometimes even furious. Not only I’ve always been strongly against any kind of intolerance or racism, but I also felt that it concerned me and my family, my roots. I had a similar strong reaction when I was learning and talking about Holocaust with people. I felt that this tragedy was somehow personal to me. After I had gone on my Birthright trip around Israel, I felt like I had ever more questions about myself. So I decided to put up the sails and go to find some answers.
First Impressions
My journey began on September the 7th, 2014. At first there was a number of strange signs if you believe in those kind of things. I won’t go over it in details, but let’s just say that I nearly missed my flight as I didn’t realize they had changed the gates of departure, then upon arrival I joined what happened to be the longest passport control line where I queued for about an hour compromising my promise to be on time for my first interview later on that day, and on top of that I had to change my luggage trolley in the airport at least 4 times because all of them were stubbornly turning left despite my desperate efforts and kicks to straighten them up. After I finally got to HaHagana train station in the southern Tel-Aviv I discovered that the only available taxi driver was insisting on charging me more than twice the price that Florentine Backpackers’ Hostel staff kindly stated in their email to all guests. And he wouldn’t take credit cards either. It took all my negotiating skills, smiles, then frowns to try and bargain the price down but it wasn’t until I managed to find a couple of Danish tourists to share a taxi ride with that we stroke a reasonable deal. I paid 5 dollars and 15 shekels.

As we were driving around the Florentine neighborhood arguing with the driver whether or not there was a hostel at the address I was given, I was trying to choke the emerging panic inside me. Is that where I was going to live for 5 months?! At the first glance the area looked like ehm… an old neglected industrial site in a third-world country. I could see why the driver refused to believe that there was a youth hostel there. If you are reading this and getting frightened I rush to assure you that Florentine is actually a charming neighborhood with plenty of interesting and charismatic sides to it that I came to love. If you let it, it will keep pleasantly surprising you. Closer to HaHagana station there are indeed some agreeably rather sketchy streets, but that’s quite far from where we are all living now. Little did I know of it all back then on my first day in Tel-Aviv. But as I finally arrived to my destination and stepped over the threshold of the Florentine Backpacker’s Hostel my fears and doubts were swept away in a fraction of a second. Now you should know that I’ve travelled a fair bit in my life already (if I remember it correctly I’ve been to more than 20 countries) and therefore I’ve seen all sorts of hostels before. But Florentine happened to be beyond all my expectations. Before I could even say a word somebody took my more than bulky 32kg suitcase and dragged it energetically to the 3rd floor. The staff at the reception turned out to be the sweetest girls too. They helped me bring the rest of my bags to my room, made me a cup of tea, answered patiently all my questions about how to find this and that in town, promised to wait ’till I get back from my interview to have an individual introduction session with me about Tel-Aviv and didn’t even bother taking the payment from me right away. No rush, explained they. Later on that night another guy working in the hostel took everyone who wanted to a small bar with very affordable prices. This friendliness from everyone in the hostel really amazed me. What more could you want on your first day in a new country?

In the streets of Tel-Aviv
I’m not trying to oversell it, but people in Israel are really generally helpful and friendly. And it’s not just my experience as a girl. If you are ever lost, forgot how to use google maps or just happen to have an amnesia walking around in a familiar place, all you need is to ask. Pretty much anyone. English should be enough 99% of the time. I’m lucky enough to also speak French and Russian but I hardly ever use them. The only times when I struggled a bit was probably with bus drivers. But even if they themselves don’t speak English there’s always gonna be someone among the passengers or even people in the street who will come along and help you. And if you are shy and think that you will bother people asking for directions all the time, you should learn to overcome these feelings based on a wrong assumption. The Israelis love talking and if someone around needs help they feel it’s their duty to give you a hand. Knowing this is something very comforting to me. I never feel like I’m all alone surrounded by strangers in the street even though technically I am.
But it’s not only helping with directions that the Israelis like when it comes to social interaction in the street. As a girl (sorry, have to make this remark here, not quite sure if it’s similar for the boys) I found myself chatted up by random strangers from a very diverse age range all the time. And no, I believe I didn’t display any signs that would encourage it, unless you count an occasional smile at the crazy non-stop car honking around me (also a big hobby in Israel apparently). Once one man just started showing me pictures on his phone from his journeys around the world, after which he grabbed my hand and proceeded to a hand massage explaining that apart from working in a large tourism company he was also employed by a SPA centre somewhere in the north of the country. And we are talking about daytime, in the middle of a busy central street in Tel-Aviv. Being a very open-minded person I was more amused by this experience than anything else.

And since I touched upon the subject of my experience as a woman in TA, let me close that topic by saying that it is indeed quite overwhelming how guys approach the ladies here. Don’t be surprised if they ask for your phone number at the beach if you are chilling there on your own or when you buy a case for your phone in a big shopping centre or even as you are about to cross the road and pointed someone in the right direction. Anywhere, anytime. One gentleman in his seventies came up to chat to me in… the synagogue, as I was watching the service by the entrance. He turned out to be a cinematographer and a photo journalist and a few weeks later we bumped into each other at the Haifa International Film Festival where he introduced me to some influential figures in the Israeli movie industry. Not that it was any help to my career as I’m just an intern making my first humble steps in the moviemaking world, at it was still nice. At the end of the day it’s up to you what to do with these encounters that present themselves to you while you live in Israel. I take them as a great and enriching part of my experience here, but I do make sure that I establish clear boundaries from the beginning.

There was just one thing that puzzled me for a while though. How come they are so daring when it comes to speaking to a girl in the street? Do I appear overly friendly and… approachable? I once discussed it with my male friend here in Israel and he found a possible explanation to such a social phenomenon. He believes it all comes down to the political situation and the army. When you live in a country where a period of peace is always followed by the next military conflict, while the army service is compulsory for everyone, your life philosophy is fairly different from that of people brought up in different circumstances. Not that you take every day as your last, but you certainly hesitate less in relation to pretty much everything. You just go for it. And then it stays true that the Israeli girls are always playing hard to get (and they are hard to get) so foreign girls seem like a less daunting target.

However, I hope that I didn’t put you off trying to experience and explore Israel through the best way in my opinion – talking to its people, in case you happen to be a person who prefers to abstain from this kind of interaction. Believe it or not some people, even if they are a man trying to talk to a young woman, might be genuinely interested in a friendly chat. As I’m writing this a few recent situations pop up in my mind. Just yesterday as I was coming back home from my evening walk and dinner in Tel-Aviv port, I had an interesting encounter. After the sun had set down and marked the beginning of a lovely holiday Simhat Torah, we and my Mum, who was visiting me during Sukkot, caught one the passing minivan-taxis (the type of affordable means of transport available when other public transportation stops working, i.e on Shabbat and other holidays). The driver, a man in his sixties, sipping a big cup of what I assume was tea with milk, commented on how good my English accent was and enquired where I came from. Within a few minutes of our drive I knew that some of his family came originally from Yemen, that he had lived in the USA for a few years and that he was an absolute zionist in all possible meanings of this word, even though I think I am yet to discover some of them. I really embraced his openness and despite my worried mother’s attempts to shut me up (she thought that I was bothering the poor man with my “long tongue”) continued the chat up until it was our stop to get off. As I was saying “goodbye” he said that he wished that I would stay in Israel and have many children here… I found it sweet and even touching. That gentleman didn’t really know much about me other than that I was this girl form Moscow on a MASA program in Israel for the next four months. He also knew that my mother wasn’t Jewish. And yet he wanted me and my future kids to live in the same country as him. 

Under the wing of WUJS
I’d like to conclude this chapter by saying a couple of words about some guys that really do help me feel like home here. The WUJS crew.

Being in a new country in the first few months is without any doubt one of the best experiences you get to have in your life if you ever make this choice. But it can be also a very difficult and stressful time. You don’t know the area, your way around, and even the smallest everyday chores can suddenly become daunting tasks. Where do you buy your groceries (and believe me finding yourself in such an expensive country as Israel you will certainly have this question), what’s a nice place to eat out, what are the cultural norms and expected behaviors here, where do you find those great bars and clubs, how do you deal with possible issues in your apartment, what’s the best way to get from A to B and many many others. And of course you expect that your program organizers will help you out a little with all these questions.

Being here with WUJS made my first couple of weeks in Tel-Aviv literally as nice and relaxed as possible. They really go an extra mile. I can’t speak for everyone but I’ve already lived in two different countries away from home and being there on my own was sometimes very tough during the first few months, so I expected the transition period this time to be also a little difficult. Needless to say I’m very happy my assumptions were wrong. Here we have a great team of people making sure that everything goes smooth for us and that we make the most out of our time on the program. We had more cultural activities, amazing trips and walks with WUJS than any other of my friends did with other MASA organizers. But more importantly these guys really care. Whether it is trying to provide you with information on any topic you might have or hosting those “how was your day” sessions you feel the genuine non-stop support from people who helped you get here. And from what I saw on our activities calendar we will have enough to come to keep even the most restless and demanding souls like me busy and entertained.