My Dad's friend, a professor at Tel Aviv University, always tells me the same joke. He says, "If you want to convince a young Jew to make Aliyah, send him to one of Israel's neighboring countries, he'll come back kissing the ground and thinking Israel is amongst the most advanced countries in the world," then the Professor pauses, chuckles and continues, "but don't ever send him to Switzerland, otherwise he's never coming back to Israel!" Okay, fine, I didn't go to Switzerland, but I was in Europe. While I did return home, to Jerusalem, it did leave me with some impressions. Not just about life in Europe, but about life in Israel and why it feels as crazy as it mostly always does.
So, where was I? I went to Thessaloniki, Karditsa and Athens, Greece and to London, England. Greece in a way is very similar to Israel. So, it is not so applicable to the Professor's joke. The country is simply amazing, I don't know what else to say about Greece. It has warm and friendly people, boasts some of the best tomatoes in the region, has food that actually makes you think you will never eat anything better in your life and is vibrant with energy, life and some sort of feeling you only really get here in the eastern Mediterranean, a combination of "it'll get done... tomorrow" and smiles. Not many places in the world do you see people out on the streets on a Tuesday night at 3 a.m., for no apparent reason. But I do see that in cities like Tel Aviv and Athens. In another blog post, I'll share my adventures in Greece.
For now, dear reader, let me concentrate on London. Walking around cold, grey and cosmopolitan London Towne made me nostalgic for where I lived before I started this adventure. Yup, you guessed it, New York City. Living in a country where I move in homogeneous circles, amongst people whose backgrounds are similar to mine, I tend to forget how wonderful a diverse environment is. I forgot what it was like to enter a subway car and see all sorts of people reading all sorts of books in different languages. I forgot that in one day, it was possible to have Japanese food, Mexican food and Indian food. I mean, does it get better than Avocado Spicy Tuna Brown Rice rolls, Tacos and Samosas? I also in a way forgot all about another former pastime of mine...consumerism! Going from Selfridges to Topman to Diesel, well, it felt almost like New York! Except, the prices were in Pounds and I had New Israeli Shekels in my pockets. So then, a sudden wave of frustration hit me. Why do I, of all people have to live in a country where there are no nice clothes to buy (most of the time), where I choose almost daily between the same middle eastern foods to eat, and most of all, where I end up having very little spending money because I live in a country where the cost of living is about as high as in any large U.S. city, yet the salaries are way lower than average U.S. salaries (at least it feels like this, I must get you the real numbers)? As Israelis put it, "Why do we live in a country where we just get by but never really make it (mistadrim)?"
It was way more difficult than I ever expected to come back to ol' Israel from London. But luckily, I was reminded why this London-induced happiness would have been short lived. I have a close friend here (let's call him Jason) that described what he thinks I felt. I think he almost hit the nail on the head. To lightly paraphrase him, it seems as if when you live in a place like New York, London or San Francisco, you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it, as long as you have the means (or credit) to acquire it. At some point, the happiness derived from buying something will wear (PUN intended?) off until you buy something new. (I suppose since I bought a lot of stuff in London, the happiness would have lasted about a few days/years.) In places like London, you can buy stuff often. Mostly because if you live there, a 20 Pound item may not seem like the end of the world (But, about 130 Shekels, or 20 Pounds, makes me think twice). But when you are in Israel, there is nothing you would want to buy for that price, and so I suppose, you end up deriving happiness from one big purchase (let's say shoes) that you end up buying once every few months. This happiness may last weeks. Now, neither I nor Jason (I think) would be saying that is what keeps us in Israel; the happiness derived from one purchase every now and then. But it helped me to explain to myself why eventually I would have been unhappy in London, just like in New York - because you always find yourself needing and wanting more than you have. You'll never have enough, either. In Israel, somehow I'm okay buying that one thing every now and then (maybe because there is nothing to buy?) but in other places, I need something almost on an excessive basis.
These sorts of conundrums always lead me to the same question, "WHY am I HERE?!" Other than the philosophical, "this is our homeland" answer, I don't have another more tangible answer. I'm told by Israelis, almost on a daily basis, that if they could live in the U.S., like I could, that they would run away in under 10 seconds. The next ElAl flight to JFK they say. But you know, I don't buy it. This country offers a state of mind no other place in the world could probably give me (or some of you). The feeling that although it may be hard to find your place here, you are somehow where you should be. I find that most Israelis who say they would leave this place in a heartbeat are those that have never lived out of this country and don't know what it's like to be a wandering Jew.
Who knows? Maybe one day I will live in New York or in London. But, for right now, I seem to be okay getting by here, enjoying the sun, eating tomatoes and having a government that makes a big deal about all my holidays.
(I should clarify that there are plenty of stores and retail outlets in Israel. There are even Israeli chains. And they are not so horrible, either. But sometimes, when comparing it to anything you would buy in Europe or in the U.S., well, it's best to just not think about what you could be buying for the same amount of money.)