My first Existential Crisis
The essay describes the writer's memory of an evening in 1971, a few months after she moved to Israel from New York
Maybe it’s the lights shimmering across the water that are making me feel slightly tense, uneasy, watchful. I know that they are in Aqaba, in Jordan, a place forbidden to me; they’re the only lights I can see. They seem very near, and the rest of the world feels very far away.
The night is perfectly calm. There is no breeze, but the air feels dry and clear and pleasant. We are sitting on a wide, pebbled beach, drinking orange Fanta and talking softly, exchanging facts about ourselves. Faint music comes from the restaurant near the road, behind us. It’s very dark; in this remote spot 20 kilometers south of the Israeli resort town of Eilat, there are no other signs of habitation. Only an occasional car passing by on its way to Sharm el-Sheikh disturbs the night.
It is 1971, and the War of Attrition has only recently ended. I have been in Israel for about eight months, on a one-year program intended to help recent university graduates to learn Hebrew, find good jobs, and eventually settle in Israel. I’ve finished the Ulpan, an intensive five-month language course, and my Hebrew is passable. A few weeks ago, I started a job in the children’s division of the welfare department in a suburb called Holon. But I often get frustrated, feeling that my ability to express myself is still limited, wondering whether I will be able to meet expectations.
Yesterday, I hitch-hiked the five hours from Tel Aviv to Eilat with Ilana, a colleague from work with whom I have recently become friends. I met Yigal, the handsome Israeli boy sitting next to me, just this afternoon on the beach in town. After a brief chat, he invited Ilana and me to accompany him and another boy to this simple beachfront tavern in the Sinai Peninsula, south of Eilat. Today is a religious fast day in Israel, Tisha b’Av, and most of the restaurants in the town are closed.
I have been struggling to explain something in Hebrew to Yigal about my life in New York, before I came here. I can’t find the exact words; he looks puzzled and doesn’t grasp my meaning. Feeling suddenly tired and exasperated with the effort, I jump to my feet, declaring abruptly in Hebrew, totally to my own surprise, “I want to go home!” But as the words fly out of my mouth, I am seized by panic. What do I mean by ‘home’? Do I mean the bare and rustic youth hostel in Eilat, where Ilana and I are staying for the weekend? Do I mean the three-room flat in Tel Aviv that I share with other recent Ulpan graduates in various stages of unemployment and indecision? Or do I mean my mother’s apartment in New York, which I left so boldly less than a year ago, knowing that, at age 24, the time had come for me to be on my own, and that even if I return to the States, I’ll never live there again?
I can’t seem to express any of this in a way that Yigal understands, which intensifies my agitation. I guess he files the experience under the heading of “Unstable American Girls.” I’ve heard many Israeli boys express the opinion that all of the American females they’ve ever met are crazy and unpredictable. Perhaps they’re right.
Suddenly, I find myself sobbing. Yigal is polite, concerned, but clearly baffled. I can imagine him later telling his friends, “But I never even laid a hand on her!” The mood having changed dramatically, we hastily head back to Eilat in the jeep. Perhaps this sort of existential crisis is more typically American than Israeli; maybe young Israelis have neither the time nor the patience to let such abstract questions worry them. In any case, I’m sure that Yigal is very glad to see the evening end.
Although the feelings dissipate quickly, and I collect myself sufficiently by the time we reach Eilat to apologize to Yigal for frightening him, the experience had nevertheless upset me. It has shaken my matter of fact, pragmatic approach to my new surroundings; the full implications of my decision to emigrate to Israel have suddenly caught up with me. For the past few months, I’ve been concerned with day-to-day matters: learning enough of the language to get around the city, buy stamps at the post office, find the grocery store. Looking for work had consumed much of my energy; now that I’m employed, I have a stable, if modest, income and am relatively settled. With these basic concerns under control, the realization is beginning to dawn on me: I guess this is home.
It's early Monday morning now, and I’m sitting by myself on the balcony of my apartment in Tel Aviv, remembering the anxiety, the disorientation of those moments on the beach in Sinai near Eilat. I awoke this morning thinking about my father, who died three years ago. Remembering what an ardent Zionist he was--does he somehow know and understand that my being here is in honor of his memory, that it’s a way of feeling closer to him for a while? I watch the cars passing below me on Rechov Ibn Gvirol, the wide boulevard on which I live. Exhaust fumes blot out the smell of the sea, and traffic noise drowns out other morning sounds. But they are part of me, are connected to me, like the rooftops and alleyways of Tel Aviv, in a way that I don’t feel connected anywhere else in the world.
Across the street is the phone booth from which, once a month, I call my mother. My apartment has no phone—no stove or refrigerator either, for that matter. But seeing how long it takes to cook an omelet on a single electric hotplate has become a challenge, something that my mother and I can laugh about together even though we are six thousand miles apart. I wonder what time it is in New York, what my mother is doing at this moment, where my brother is, what they are thinking.
It's time for me to get up from my comfortable perch, time to get dressed and catch the bus to work. Last night, I realized for the first time that my dreams were in Hebrew; perhaps my mind is working overtime to absorb and master the unfamiliar words. I look forward to seeing my colleague Dov at the office today, to tell him about this odd weekend that I’ve had, the sense of disorientation and panic on that isolated beach in the Sinai, so far from everything I’ve known. Maybe he’ll understand the struggle; maybe he can help me sort it out.
Author's Note: This essay describes my memory of an evening in 1971, a few months after I moved to Israel from New York. I was 24 years old, and it was my first experience in living outside of the U.S. as well as living by myself. I was struggling to learn Hebrew, to make new friends, and to adapt to life in this new country. Finding myself at a rustic roadside tavern on a dark beach in the Sinai Peninsula, surrounded by several people I barely knew, the implications of the 6,000-mile move suddenly caught up with me.
Judith Teich’s personal essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Moment Magazine, The Ravens Perch, JAMA, and the Washington Post, among others. A mental health services researcher, she worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for 27 years, and is the author/co-author of 40+ peer-reviewed publications.