A New Jerusalem

By Candace Mittel, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
I may have mistaken a container of soft cheese for a yogurt and eaten every last bit of it with a spoon and sugar (which, in fact, did not make it more bearable), and I may have sprinted down the shuk, dodging tomatoes and rugelach, as I was chased by an aggressive olive vender squirting his water bottle at me, but besides a few bus rides in the wrong direction, my time in Israel thus far has been superb.
Living in Israel, as opposed to being shuffled from location to location with a backpack, sneakers, and a hat, provides an alternative and unique perspective of the country.
Similarly, studying in Jerusalem, I have discovered the city with fresh eyes, surpassing my complementary, but underrated, past understanding of the city. In just one month, I have seen a new Jerusalem emerge: an unparalleled hubbub of nationalities, a carnival of sweeping diversity, and a sphere of eclectic energy.
I understand the words Jewish, Judaism, or religious were not included in my description of what is, ultimately, the “Holy City.” Perhaps it is due to my status as a student that I refrain from emphasizing the Judaic aspect of my experiences thus far. This time in Israel, I am not here with an American Jewish Youth Group for a two week tour, nor am I here on a Jewish volunteer trip in the Negev.
Rather, I am here for six months to invigorate and enrich my intellectual and academic capabilities alongside an array of students who have also decided to learn at Hebrew University - students from Australia, Canada, Germany, England, Italy, Russia, Scotland, Japan, France, Poland, China, Israel, and the United States - some Jewish, but many not.
I was randomly assigned four roommates, and upon arrival at the student dorms, I realized that only one was from the U.S. and only one was Jewish. The irony lies in the highly stereotyped conception of “Study Abroad Israel,” which almost always translates into: “Oh, a bunch of Jewish kids in Israel. Like an extended Birthright.” As I have seen thus far, this is an illusion far from the reality I’m living.
Of course, I am also in Israel to learn about Judaism at what I believe is its closest and most meaningful and spiritual source, but what I have inadvertently discovered in Jerusalem is much broader than what I had intended. Every day, as I walk the hallways of the University or observe my fellow passengers on the bus through the city, I am overwhelmed with fascination and mystique. How does Jerusalem have this magical ability to allure such utterly contrasting people from starkly different countries, cultures, religions, and backgrounds?
I was asking a classmate of mine this very question the other evening at the shuk, as we were strolling the streets and sampling whatever food we could get our hands on. She was telling me how she grew up Christian but didn’t consider herself religious now.
Why did you choose Israel? I asked her. Why not? It looked awesome! And I get to learn Hebrew! She replied. I was about to question her further when the olive vender lunged at us with his open water bottle, and I realized then that we had been mindlessly sampling too many olives without purchasing any. In a frenzy to run away from the Olive Man, we never finished the conversation, but it has been lingering in my mind ever since, not only with her, but with everyone I come across.
From the Columbian painter I met in Ulpan to my Moroccan roommate here to study Middle East History from a perspective unconventional to her schooling at home, everyone has their reason to be in Jerusalem, and if you open your eyes, the enlightenment can only begin.
Thanks to the shuk’s many side streets and alleyways, we successfully fled from the Olive Man and found refuge in a small convenient store, where the owner, an old Israeli man, provided us with free drinks for our panting breaths and warm company on a cool Jerusalem night.
Realizing we were foreigners, he decided to share with us his love for the city: The people are what make Jerusalem, Jerusalem, he told us. Little did he know that I don’t need any more convincing - I already love this city.
So go ahead, steal an olive or make a wrong turn, and remember that blunders are always accompanied by rich experiences which, if you can whisk by the cucumbers and pita unharmed, are waiting just around the corner.

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