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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A unique experience abroad in Israel

Published: March 30, 2012
Section: Features

As a Jewish girl who goes to Brandeis and hails from New Jersey, I hesitated before applying to study abroad in Israel. I worried the trip would not be unique. Throughout my experience, however, I discovered my study abroad experience is in fact one of a kind.

I am studying at the University of Haifa; here I find myself in the most interesting living situation of my life. The location lends itself perfectly to my interest in Arab culture. While in class and walking down the street I am one of many Jews, but in my apartment I am the only one.

I live with four caring Muslim Arab girls, and every day they make me feel welcome in a country that is far from home. Reem is boisterous and gutsy. Every morning she hugs and kisses me without fail, asking if I’ve eaten yet. She is studying to become an English teacher, so I help her with her English assignments, and she giggles when I try to speak Arabic. Yasmin is a soft-spoken beauty and an eternal optimist who speaks English gracefully, carefully thinking about each word before saying it. Hanaa is a girl who shows her affection quietly. After cautiously asking for more kitchen cabinet space, I opened the cabinet door the next day to find Hanaa had cleared her food from my new shelf quickly and without a word. As I turned surprised to thank her, she gave me a smile and looked pleased at my reaction.

My favorite roommate—the one most different from me—is Razan. She is studying to be an occupational therapist and is already engaged. Razan is my age and also a junior in college. Her fiance was chosen for her through an intricate network of family and friends, and I am fascinated by the casual nature in which she speaks of her husband-to-be. Razan struggles while speaking English and I have a difficult time speaking Arabic, so we meet halfway and chat in simple Hebrew. I have never experienced such a unique friendship.

It is important to me to be as social as possible with Reem, Yasmin, Hanaa and Razan. It would be easy to retreat to my room. Yet, by sitting in our sparse common room each night, I meet more of their friends, am encouraged to improve my Arabic and am fed a variety of home-cooked meals. Initially, the girls were surprised to learn I was Jewish. My dark coloring gives me the advantage of blending in among many different people in Israel. It sometimes even lends me some credibility when I try to bargain in the market. I usually avoid topics of religion and politics. Since I am a native English speaker, Reem and Yasmin ask me for help on their English homework. Razan asks me questions about American culture and is shocked to learn that American couples live together before marriage. Hanaa listens quietly.

Sometimes I walk out of my room to see the girls dancing to Arabic music, clapping, whooping and twirling around the room. I like knowing that they are comfortable with me as their roommate, enough to invite me to eat with them each night and to laugh and dance while I’m around.

During my time in Israel, I’ve learned that my family is extraordinarily small compared to most Arab families. While I have one sister, each of my roommates has between six and nine siblings. I’ve learned to think of my meals differently, too. When I think of salad, I think of big chunks of green lettuce, tomato, carrot, pepper and other vegetables covered in Caesar dressing. My suitemates have taught me to shred my lettuce finely, mince tomatoes and cucumbers, and to dress the mix with fresh-squeezed lemon juice and a dash of salt.

When I think of mealtime at school, I think of a quick bite in Usdan with friends or a to-go box that I fill up and bring home to eat over homework. My suitemates have taught me always to make mealtime a social time. Even if I don’t speak Arabic well, I appreciate the effort they make to include me in their meals each night.

Outside my apartment, I am greeted by an entirely different environment. I admire the proud Israeli flag fluttering above my dorm and feel as if I could play Jewish geography with anybody. When I first arrived in Israel I found myself smiling at the snippets of Yiddish I heard on the street, the matzah available in every store in preparation for Passover and the challah sold en masse in every bakery. I have quickly recalled my Hebrew language skills and enjoy living in a country where I am the religious majority.

Some days I feel the vast distance between Israel and New Jersey more strongly than other days. I’ve happily discovered some reminders of home that ease the occasional homesickness. I like to plug in my headphones and recharge with a little classic rock. The music makes me think of my father singing softly and a little off-key as he thumps the steering wheel to the beat on a long car ride. If I’m not in a Tom Petty mood, I’ll write in my journal, and I feel refreshed afterward. It also feels good to read a book in my room, to take some time for myself.

I feel lucky that my study abroad experience has introduced me to four wonderful roommates as well as to Israeli culture. As spring break approaches, I am eager to travel to Italy and then to different Israeli cities. I know that when I open my apartment door in a few weeks, tired and maybe a little tanned, I’ll be welcomed by Reem, Yasmin, Hanaa and Razan, and I will think: “I’m home.”