Shalom all! I have arrived in ארץ ישראל, the Land of Israel! Many things are exactly as I expected, but there have also been some surprises. For starters, I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful Haifa would be! All the pictures I looked at before I arrived don’t even come close to conveying how amazing it feels to look out over the city, the mountains, and the Mediterranean Sea on my walk to class. The University is situated on one of the highest points of the city, so you can see everything from here. Someone even told me on a clear day you can see all the way to Lebanon, but I have yet to hear that from an official source. We also haven’t had too many clear days yet, as it is the rainy season right now. We have a rain shower or thunderstorm almost every day, and it is usually overcast– although still beautiful!
The incredibly diverse mosaic of peoples and cultures blending together in this beautiful city are unlike anything I have ever experienced. The university is a microcosm of this. My intensive Hebrew class is made up of six Korean students, one Japanese student, a grandfather from Vermont, four Europeans (mostly PhD or graduate students), and six Americans. It has been fascinating to learn of the different cultural backgrounds and motivations that have brought us all together in a classroom in Israel. From the Japanese student of theology wanting to learn Hebrew in order to read Biblical texts in their original language, to the Political Science PhD student from Belgium interested in the political conflicts of the Middle East, our motivations for studying Hebrew are as widespread as the countries we come from. The fast pace of the class has been overwhelming at times, but today when I took the midterm, I realized how satisfying it was to take an exam that involved reading a story and answering questions entirely in a language that two weeks ago I knew almost nothing about. I’m really looking forward to having a working knowledge of Hebrew, and at the rate I am going, I am hopeful that it won’t be too long before I can navigate places like the grocery store with ease. Even simple things like buying laundry detergent have been difficult. I almost bought bleach…oops! That would have been a disaster. And I have to guess a lot when I am ordering food. Although, the other day, I ordered coffee in Hebrew — I was quite proud of myself!
Last week the Madrichim (the social activities coordinators for the international students at the University of Haifa) took us on a tour of Haifa. We explored the Arab Quarter, which included a large shouk, or outdoor market, with piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, bread, spices, dried fruits, nuts, and olives. We also went to the (reputedly) best falafel shop in Haifa, and a shop with delicious Arab sweets dripping in honey. On a street running through the Arab colony, we saw the remains of their celebration of the “Holiday of Holidays” during which they celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, and Eid al Adja, the holidays of the three monotheistic faiths, all in one. We also toured the central shrine of the Baha’i faith, and the German Colony, which was originally established by the Templars.
I am really excited about exploring the many layers of Haifa. On Tuesday, the Madrichim took us on a hike to Elijah’s cave, believed to be the site of Elijah’s stay on his way to confront and defeat the prophets of Ba’al on Mt. Carmel. During the hike, we passed a couple of bunkers built by the Israelis several decades ago, intended to be a last defense in case of attack. So, side-by-side, you have Elijah’s cave standing as a remnant of ancient Israel and the spiritual battles that took place in the land, and the bunkers, evidence of the modern State of Israel’s current reality.
The adjustment to living abroad has been harder than I expected. It is like the awkwardness of the first week of freshman year, but intensified by the new and foreign cultures and languages surrounding me. It really helped that I was warmly welcomed by my five Arabic-speaking apartment mates, who have been fixing me delicious food and are eager to practice their English with me.
I am so blessed to have this opportunity to study here, and I am eagerly looking forward to the friendships I will make and the many amazing experiences I will have over the next four months!