By Aliza Gans ~
Sitting at the cluttered desk in my dorm at Brandeis University, my year in Israel with Masa Israel’s Bezalel Experience seems like another world away. My new campus is not inlayed with white Jerusalem stone, there is no Muslim call to prayer several times a day, and the supermarket down the street is frigid with tight aisles of cans and packages—nothing like the open markets of Machaneh Yehudah. I leaf through the pages of my journal from that year, festooned with ticket stubs from Israeli concerts, pressed, dried lavender from street corners in Jerusalem, and my nude sketches from life drawing classes at Bezalel Art Academy. I am instantly bombarded by the sights, scents, and sounds of this intoxicating country.
Prior to last year, I had visited Israel as a tourist many times. But when I landed last August with one year’s-worth of belongings, I understood that this was going to be my home for a while. It was a daunting prospect at first: I would be living in a foreign place for ten months, separated from family and friends by an ocean and many time zones. I was to see a full cycle of seasons, holidays, and celebrations. I was to drink the water, eat the produce, and sketch the scenery of an exotic, holy landscape.
For the first month of my Bezalel Experience, I lived on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, in the heart of the city and a 10-minute walk from the shimmering azure Mediterranean Sea. I bonded with 21 other artists on the program who, like me, were committed to a year-long creative journey. Three weeks of intensive Hebrew ulpan gave me confidence to study the following month at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem and to interact with Israelis. I remember beaming with pride after I communicated to a non-English-speaking repairman that the air conditioner was broken, and asked if he’d like a drink to cool down — all in Hebrew.
While ulpan allowed me to adapt to a new language, the various group trips and expeditions familiarized me with the land. I did most of my best sightseeing from coach bus windows on the way to our various destinations. Along our trip to the North, we visited Ein Hod, an artists’ village near Haifa that was ravaged by forest fires in January. As we exited the bus, we smelled the charred earth. Our group spoke with a music box-maker, whose livelihood had been singed by the flames, but he still remained hopeful. He wore a shirt that said, “Keep Your Shin Up.”
It did not take long for me to realize that despite its size, Israel’s community and Jewish life is more vibrant than anywhere else I have been. I spent Rosh Hashanah at the Heritage House, a small women’s hostel in the Old City. After watching the sun set in an unusual hue of gold, I, along with a bunch of girls I met, pulled our mattresses onto the terrace under the night sky. I had never seen stars that bright, and I fell asleep smiling.
Another holiday memory takes place at Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus, where I volunteered as a visiting art instructor. It was the fourth night of Chanukah, a particularly dreary, rainy December evening, and I had walked to the hospital. As my volunteer partner and I unloaded our cart of supplies, an old man handed me a bundle of candles and motioned me towards the chanukiah by the windowsill. I lit the candles, the faces of the patients illuminated by a flickering glow. We sang Chanukah songs, kissed, and hugged. I was struck by the sensation of belonging to a group of complete strangers. Here, extraordinary moments are embedded in the fabric of everyday life.
The real locus of my development as an artist was within the walls of Bezalel. Prior to last year, I had no formal art education. I was an eighteen-year-old, novice artist, sitting among ambitious, post-army, 25-year-olds, dripping with artistic talent. I struggled to use my remedial Hebrew to comprehend lectures on abstract expressionism, glazing techniques, and optics in drawing. However, as the year progressed, I became fluent in the language of art, a universal dialect. I spent late nights in the pottery studio, spinning clods of clay on the wheel to sculpt vases and mugs. My fingertips were constantly blackened from smudging charcoal to shade the silhouettes of nude sketches. My teachers praised my improvement and urged me to push even further. Eventually, every article of clothing I owned became stained, splattered, and smeared. Art had left its mark on me.
And in the same way, so has Israel. The smell of turpentine in the studio, streets infested with stray cats, the acerbic Israeli humor, warm potato burekas at the shuk, the olive green uniforms—all of these things are ingrained in my memory. Although I am unsure whether I can ever recreate the experience of living in Israel, it is a place I still call home.
Aliza Gans of Woodbridge is a freshman at Brandeis University. A coxswain for the Brandeis crew team, she is interested in majoring in writing and psychology
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