The soldier in the seat in front of me is FaceTiming his girlfriend, I realize, as I peer around the headrest. I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to covertly watch the people around me during these long bus rides, of which there have been a lot lately. The soldiers are always the most interesting to me, but right now I feel acutely aware of the fact that I’m most likely visible somewhere in the background of the video frame on his iPhone, intruding on their private conversation. Not for the first time in my two-month stay in this country, I feel vaguely out of place.
Being in Israel as an 18-year-old foreigner is disconcerting at times, both for me and for those around me. With my slight tan, wavy dark hair, and ambiguously Mediterranean-looking features, people who see me assume I’m either much younger or much older than I am, because at my age I should be in olive green fatigues on a base in the middle of nowhere in the Negev instead of doing things like visiting historic sites on weekday afternoons. And then I open my mouth, and Ani lo m’daber ivrit? I don’t speak Hebrew? comes out like a question, apologetic, meek in a way that I rarely am in my own language. I may be able to order falafel with all the correct accouterments just like an Israeli can, but I’m not one of them.
In a nation that often seems defined by its palpable divisions — between religious factions, ethnic groups, political parties, and neighborhoods — I’m the other type of Other here; I’m the almost-but-not-quite. It hits me as I talk to Israelis and hike with them and party with them and make friends with them. My great-grandparents could’ve easily boarded a boat in the other direction, could’ve arrived at the port in Yafo sunshine instead of New York cold, could’ve become kibbutzniks before it was cool instead of Brooklynites long before that was cool. Obvious as it sounds, the only true difference between me and the kids my age on this bus is that I was born one place and they were born another.
I don’t remember much from high-school math classes, but I do remember that an asymptote will curve infinitesimally close to an axis, will eventually run parallel to it, but will never touch it. I feel more at ease and less like an expat here in Israel than I’ve felt in most other places I’ve traveled, but I still have no intention ever of making aliyah — taking up the Israeli government on its offer of citizenship and moving here — and so I can already feel my curved trajectory straightening out into a line, homologous to this foreign yet familiar axis, and flirting so close to it I can even feel the shade from the banana trees along the highway by the shore of Haifa beach, taste the amba-colored sunrise over Rothschild Boulevard at 6am.
The driver pulls into the parking lot of a rest stop. I’ve been here before; all the Egged buses that go between Galilee and Tel Aviv stop here, and god knows I’ve been on the road a lot. There’s a convenience mart, restrooms, an outpost of the ubiquitous Aroma Espresso Bar. The outdoor picnic tables are packed with a sea of IDF uniforms sipping iced coffee; it’s a Sunday morning, and all the soldiers are heading back to their bases for the week, taking advantage of the free bus ride if they’re in uniform and carrying their military ID. The girl waiting in line in front of me for the bathroom unexpectedly runs into a friend at the sinks. They hug excitedly and catch up in rapid Hebrew. Their guns clink against each other, chatting in the language of metal on metal.
I’ve never even held a gun before, but if I’d grown up here — perhaps on a leafy suburban street outside Tel Aviv in Herzliya, instead of on a leafy suburban street outside Washington, DC — there’d be an assault rifle hanging from my shoulder five days out of seven. It’s a tough balance to strike, mentally, knowing that my Israeli peers have seen things I’ve never seen, done things I’ll hopefully never have to do, but also trying not to categorize them as being so vastly different from myself. Because the truth is they’re not.
When they’re home for the weekends, they’re just as preoccupied with friends, music, bad TV, and cheap alcohol as everyone I know in the States is. They’re teenagers, after all. Teenagers who’ve worked checkpoints and flown fighter jets and shot semiautomatics. Teenagers who, if given the choice, perhaps would’ve preferred to go directly to university or start a business or soul-search in Southeast Asia instead of serve in the military — or perhaps wouldn’t. Patriotic pride is not to be underestimated, and in a country like Israel, it’s a sustaining life force.
Back on the bus after the break, it’s now midday, and it’s sunny. The soldier next to me shakes out her ponytail, yawns, and closes her eyes against the glare. She stretches her legs out, combat boots sticking into the aisle. To me at 18, combat boots are merely a fashion statement, not a rite of passage. It’s strange to think about. I’m a people-watcher by nature, but I do worry that by making these comparisons and contrasts, I widen the chasm in my head. I’m too similar to be a disconnected fly on the wall here, but I also doubt I’ll ever fully be able to understand what it’s like to exist within the Israeli condition.
And what is the Israeli condition, anyway? I’m still not entirely sure. Is it, as Israeli journalist Ari Shavit writes, the fact that the nation has found itself in the unique conundrum of playing both the role of intimidator and intimidated on the global stage? The fact that in the space of a year, kids go from being issued textbooks to being issued military uniforms, and a few years later, issued textbooks again? The fact that the notorious resilience, stubbornness, and prickly exterior aren’t just an affectation but rather a means of survival? Or is it the fact that all of this isn’t even food for thought here because it’s just the reality of life?
I hear a crinkling noise and glance over to my right. The guy across the aisle from me, with too much hair gel and a brown Golani Brigade beret pinned to his shoulder, has attempted a three-point shot with his empty Doritos bag but missed the trash bin. He takes off his headphones, gets up, and retrieves the trash from the floor of the bus, setting it gently in the bin.
Then he heads back to his seat, places his gun serenely and carefully in his lap for safekeeping like it’s a kitten, and puts his headphones on again. Outside the window, the Galilee hills roll by.