Searing beauty, searing pain

Outing yourself as an olah chadashah always prompts intense curiosity. First, of course, is the obligatory investigation of your reasons for coming here; rarely do I take the time to unpack everything required to adequately explain to the enquirer what it is that brought me to Israel. How do you represent a shape-shifting, boundless, kaleidoscopic weave of family history, political outlook, personal ambition and unceasing restlessness to someone you’ve only just met? After navigating that set of social rapids (which I fear can leave me coming across as inarticulate, stand-offish, arrogant, or a mixture of the three), comes the second question, which is how I’m finding Israel so far. There, the answer is less woven into the fabric of myself, and therefore easier to extract; indeed, it’s one which is often influenced by what I’ve been doing that day. Sometimes I home in on something that’s happened in my volunteer work in south Tel Aviv, and my response revolves around the knocks one’s faith in humanity takes on an almost daily basis here. Other times, I focus on the intense sensation of expansion one feels from being in a country where conflicting thoughts, ideas, feelings, dreams and desperations dance around and frequently smash into one another. At other times still, I might eulogise about the freedom I feel from being so close to the sea and its endless horizon. But whatever the answer I give on any particular day, the underlying sensation is always the same; that being here is like walking on broken glass in a cave of wonders.

And the feeling that is stoked by this is awe. I have never been as consistently awe-struck as I am in Israel, and awe, of course, is a response which transcends good and bad. It is simply an impression of being overwhelmed, whether by beauty, shock, disbelief or gratitude. I stood in awe on Yom HaZikaron, where on a busy motorway during the siren, the only things that moved for two minutes were leaves and flags in the wind. I walked alone under multiple fireworks displays on Yom HaAtzmaut, also in awe, this time at the meteoric, versicolour celebrations of Israel’s independence, 36 hours and a universe away from the monochromatic grief of the previous day. And as I reflected that the extravagant merrymaking was there to act as a valve to release the pressure of the day before, I found myself once again in awe, this time at the methods of thermoregulation this society has developed.

I often find myself drifting through the streets of south Tel Aviv, in awe at the stories I’ve heard from asylum seekers, and the defiant, challenging stare of their scars. I reflect in awe on the conflicting textures of their lives; on the one hand, the blank, muffled, flat reality of a life lived in stasis, all of those without status, or at best temporary status, existing from one day to the next, meted out by turns rejections and pebbles of fraudulent hope, all of them waiting for Godot; and on the other hand, the jagged, volatile, runaway developments of anti-immigrant protests.

All of this has enveloped my experience in Israel so far in a melange of surpassed expectations. When you think about, dream of, long for something so much for so long, it is easy for the expected reality to fall short. But when simply stepping out your front door is enough to provoke a tornado of concepts and images which streak through you, smudging and bleeding into one another before separating and resolidifying, it is difficult not to be grateful for the richness of the experience, no matter how hard it is. The truth is that I am disturbed by this country as much as I am enchanted by it, but as long as it keeps me in awe, it will be near-impossible to be pushed away.

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