It has been almost two months since I last posted. I can’t believe it myself. I have been doing more living that writing which for me is weird. I have so much to say that I don’t know where to even begin.
I underestimated how long it would take me to adjust to this new life, that’s for sure. I had no idea what it would be like to not only move abroad but to move to a place and a culture which is so different. You think you know what it will be like – you try to imagine, but you just can’t. I couldn’t, anyway. I came here with three suitcases. No furniture, no books, no pots or pans. Only some clothes and my computer ,which promptly malfunctioned ten days after arriving.
Most people move to Israel either with their family or to rejoin some family. I came alone. So I didn’t have any built in support. But I have met some amazing people and I am just floored by the generosity and kindness of Israelis.
I think all sorts of things about being an American and about America, now that I’ve been away for only a few short months. Sometimes I wonder to myself whether having been gone three months is enough perspective to even make any observations but I think it’s a slow process, gaining perspective. Different things occur to you at different times.
One of the biggest differences I notice is that time seems to move much more slowly here. That is to say that I notice that as an American, I am impatient. I like to get things DONE and get them done NOW. Israelis like to talk about things. Just going to pick up the laundry means that one must stop and speak to everyone you meet along the way that you know – and then talk to the laundry guy as well. It’s more than polite, it’s the lifestyle here. You can hear Israelis arguing and talking in a most lively fashion at cafes. One thing I see a lot here which I don’t recall seeing in the states is large groups of old men who gather at cafes, drink tea (or arak) and laugh and talk for hours. Sometimes they play chess. I think about all the lonely seniors in the US, living in nursing homes versus the elders here who live with their families, maintain their independence and have a strong support system of friends.
I don’t miss home. I don’t miss LA. I miss Mexican food, that I would love to have. I love my friends but I am making new ones and because I am who I am – a lover of people – I am loving getting to know new people. One of the many, incremental stages of being an expat is that when you first arrive at your new destination, you talk about it a lot – you share pictures, you share adventures, you miss your friends so much, you are a fountain of enthusiasm and fears and observations. But then, something begins to happen. You get more absorbed by your new surroundings than you are absorbed with telling people about your new surroundings. And the emails back and forth with your friends begin to dwindle.
You wonder if your friends are tired of exchanges like this:
Friend: Everything is pretty normal and good. I had pizza in Santa Monica last night and I think I have a crush on my yoga teacher.
You: Wow, that’s great! I went to the West Bank, toured and illegal settlement and got stopped by the Palestinian Authority.
I want to hear about the yoga teacher, I want to stay connected. But I do find, as I look back, that life in America is, on the whole, so much safer and untroubled, that we have the luxury of having crushes on yoga teachers and complaining about bad traffic or long lines. Here, everything feels very charged. It is a strange thing; on the one hand, life moves much, much more slowly, but on the other hand, Israel lives with existential threats that are very real. Life here is no joke. People have crushes, go to the beach and do all those normal things too – don’t get me wrong – but there is an underlying tension all the time.
Before I lived here, I knew about the problems and tensions – of course. I had visited many times and my American sensibilities were always a bit jarred by the security, weaponry, fences and news of IDF attacks on Gaza or this missile or that hitting Ashdod. Now that I live here, my day-to-day awareness has shifted, somewhat. I hand the security guy my purse for a search before I go into the Super Sal (supermarket) or bank, or mall, without thinking. You just do it. You stand in line and get searched. I ride the bus past plaques memorializing suicide bomb attacks on busses or cafes and no longer get a chill in my stomach. Well – not this bus. Not today. But evidence is all around you here that it has happened, and it will happen again. You just can’t think about it because it does you no good. You have to compartmentalize and just focus on what you are doing that day.
Many of my friends in the US saw the 60 Minutes segment on Tel Aviv, which was broadcast a few weeks ago. It showed such beautiful sights and sounds of Tel Aviv but then also showed what is going on maybe one hour to the east and 90 minutes to the south. Gaza and the West Bank. One day I visited an illegal settlement near Bethlehem and the next, I was sitting at the Dizengoff Center (a huge and I mean huge mall) with a friend doing some copy writing work. Muzak was playing softly and people were shopping and eating lunch. And I thought wow, just yesterday I was in a place where there is seething anger, poverty and injustice. And one hour away, here we are sitting in comfortable, air-conditioned mall. And between these two points on the map, there is a line of gun powder and it is sizzling hot. You just can’t take it in. You go numb a bit. You have to compartmentalize.
I came here feeling much, much more hopeful about peace than I do now. I think that’s a typical American thing. Americans are optimistic people. I know I am. We are friendly, optimistic and energized people. Here everybody just seems so worn out. The problems here are so complex, and so deeply entrenched. You can talk to ten people and get ten different opinions – that is a truism of Israelis in general. But if you talk about ha matsav – the situation – you get everything from anger to resignation to acceptance. I have not met one Israeli (yet) who really, truly believes peace is going to happen here – ever.
I have read articles that say that Israelis used to be more politically active and involved. Now, I see protests in Tel Aviv, against animal testing, and against the high cost of food. There was the Sudanese thing – that’s still happening. 70,000 illegal immigrants are in Israel, primarily from Sudan and Ethiopia. They are the underclass, that is clear to see. Recently, a number of personal crimes, heretofore a rarity in Israel, have happened and everybody blames the Sudanese. I don’t know what it’s like to be them – to be scared and inarticulate in a new country and in a country that most definitely does not want you here. Israel is a Jewish state. But how is that possible? How can a state mandate it’s religion? For an American, this is hard to grasp. The government here is much more hardline and forceful than in America. They aren’t politically correct. That does not exist here. So what is to become of the Sudanese? Many are being deported right now. Is this right? Is this fair? Is this a Jewish value?
Most everybody I talk to thinks a war is definitely coming. Everybody says a war will happen in about two to three months. They don’t seem to be particularly scared – just bracing themselves. Because Israel’s army is small, everybody who has ever been in the army (within a certain age limit) in the past will have to go again. For them, war is very real and very personal. In the US, how many of us even KNOW a soldier who went to Iraq or Afghanistan? As a percentage – very few. Here, everybody knows someone who has been in the army because everybody was in the army. And they’ll go again and they go gladly. They say to me, if I don’t fight, my country may not exist. It’s not noble or brave or anything else – that’s a fact. So they go.
Israel fights for its very existence on a daily basis. It seems so many in this world hate Israel. They say that other countries hate America. I have never personally experienced that, but then I am a pretty friendly person. I have always been greeted and treated quite nicely. But everybody really does hate Israel and people have some pretty negative views, by extension, of Israelis. Rude and pushy seems to be the consensus. I haven’t had that experience. Israelis just don’t have time to mess around. They live under constant threat and always have. Also, don’t forget, that everybody in the Middle East is pretty, um, let’s say forceful. If you listen to two Arabs having a normal conversation, it sounds so heated. They’re not upset, it’s how people talk here. Loudly. Emphatically.
I do think that Americans (and me included, until recently) live in a bubble. It’s not our fault – America is separated geographically from most of the rest of the world and so naturally our culture, our issues, our perspective comes to us from within, where TV, cars, clean water, movies, ice-cream cones and a pretty organized government is normal. We generate a huge amount of media and so we get our “news” from ourselves. We believe that what we see on the US news is in fact true and that no other reality really exists in a meaningful way. I do not think Americans are dumb or careless or anything else – we are just lucky. Americans are also, I might add, a bit hypnotized by our safety and our consumer culture. It is easy to become distracted by whether you want vanilla frozen yogurt or you’d rather go shop for the newest Apple product. Israelis are exhausted, but they are also very aware of their situation.
So when you live someplace else, where military jets fly overhead regularly, where lines are disorganized, where doing one thing takes two hours, where the heat is stifling and the government has an iron grip, where missiles land occasionally and where other governments proclaim regularly that they hate you and will annihilate you, your perspective changes quite a bit. Americans suddenly seem very spoiled. The next thing you think is what the HELL am I doing?? Who wouldn’t rather live in a country where resources are plentiful, existential threats do not exist and you can go to the store without being searched?
I love this crazy country, Israel. I know it’s messed up but there is something about this place that is extraordinary. I love Israelis, I love the heat and the food and I love how you just sort of have to break down your expectations and deal with what comes every day. Being here has made me much more appreciative of everything. Being in a place like this forces a new perspective. In America, we are achievers. We do so much in one day. We text, phone, Facebook, shop, work, get our coffee to go and stay on the move at all times. It’s exhausting. Here the bank opens at 9am and then closes from 2pm to 4pm for lunch. So do most government offices. You just have to deal with it. You know how back in the US we complain about the post office and the DMV? Here that is the way it is so when you go to a government office you just bring a book and shut up and be happy you EVER got to see ANYONE about your problem. And then you do not expect the problem will be solved. No – no, you’ll have to come back maybe 3 other times. To discover they could have helped you the first time. What are you going to do? You go buy yourself a sabich and meet friends for a drink later and revel in the heat and thank god you got anything done today. It just is the way it is.
And what of Stories Without Borders? Guys – I have been humbled and enlightened. It’s not that I don’t think peace and building communication bridges is worth pursuing – even in the face of such entrenched complexity. But I do think that running a non-profit is not what I am cut out to do. I was here for perhaps two or three weeks when I met the Middle East Director of Creativity for Peace, Nancy Clayman and Sylvi Margi. I began to work with CFP and am the media mentor for a group of about five girls – three Arab-Israeli, one Jewish, one Palestinian. We will be making a short film about CFP and about the girls’ experiences. I have humbly learned a lot about conflict resolution and dealing with the bubbling hurt and feelings of people with different perspectives and experiences vis a vis this conflict. I have learned to slow down and know that the film – the end result – is not as important for the girls, as working together on a project, cooperating, respecting each other and growing through the experience.
CFP has been going for ten years now. Dozens of girls have graduated from the program and gone on to become Young Leaders. They are active in their communities, they are well-versed and emotionally mature, and they are coming to know that they DO have opinions and actions that matter. And that is the most important thing. Will it bring peace to the Middle East? Not likely. But CFP does change individual lives and that, when you think about it, is about as good as it gets – and that’s pretty good.
CFP is established, funded and supported. It would take me months and months (if not longer) to be anywhere close to the efficacy of CFP. So I think to myself – wait – do I want to put that time in, creating a NEW non-profit, or do I want to work with girls NOW on creativity and expression in a group that is already established? To me, it is self-evident that the right answer is to work with CFP and other groups like it as a free agent, roaming around, offering my talents and passion in situations where I can be put to use immediately.
I came to this realization a few weeks ago but I didn’t know what to say. I don’t want to disappoint those cheering me on from afar. At the same time, those cheering me on were cheering on the idea of using film and creativity for positivity in the Middle East. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m not going to try to write a grant and make a “deck” for CFP, or get private investors and government assistance – that would all take months if not years. Why reinvent the wheel? I knew about CFP before I came here, but that was also before I was here, observing the day-to-day in Israel. Now I realize that the best way I can be of service is to avail myself to those already here, already working toward peace, and offer what I can.
So here’s what I am going to do. I am going to redirect this blog to my other blog, which has now been renamed simply Julie Gray – and combine my blogging about writing, creativity, entertainment and life in the Middle East. I will offer a lot of blogging as I used to do, about staying motivated as a writer, but also talk about my experiences here as a way of a) bringing to light some of the issues here, from an American perspective, and b) encourage my readers to also follow their dreams – to create, to be joyful as much as possible, and to be of service to others in any way you can.
I am consulting on scripts, manuscripts, blogs and even copy writing. I am here, I am available, and I will continue to share with you my observations not only on Israel but on the Middle East and on women’s rights here in the Middle East.
I went through several years of loss and grief while I was living in LA. So much heavy stuff happened to me that I grew a bit numb. I am here in Israel to be restored. And it’s happening. I am healing, I am reconnecting to who I am and what I want to do. It takes time, and that’s perfectly okay. So please continue following my adventures – you may find yourself inspired to do something in your community. You find your perspective expanding, just a little bit, by hearing what an American living in the Middle East has to say. You may be inspired to write, to create, to be of service and to give back. You might be inspired by my quest to restore my spirit and experience the life of my dreams. Anybody can do what I’ve done – throw off their shackles and completely change their lives.
Please support Creativity for Peace by sharing their link and bringing them into the spotlight. The redirect will take a few days but until then, you can go to the Julie Gray blog and get the same fun, inspired writing there.