This post is written by Francine, a Yahel Social Change Fellow living and working in Lod.
Just as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities famously begins, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” so too will this blog post. Here is my rendition, keeping the original two sentences, but then putting in some of my own descriptive words –– almost like a game of MadLibs:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it is the age of independence, it is the age of homesickness, it is the epoch of confidence, it is the epoch of uncertainty, it is the season of Laughter, it is the season of Heartache, it is the spring of development, it is the winter of regression, we have everything before us, we have nothing before us.
Dickens’ introduction (along with my revised version) is full of contradictions: how can something be the best, but also the worst, bring so much confidence, yet also so much uncertainty? I find the conflicting mindset Dickens describes relatable; since arriving in Israel in September, I can experience similar swings from one extreme to another. While I end a day feeling proud of the work I have done – whether that is teaching English to teenage girls at the Wadi Nisnas Arab-Christian community center or composing a client database for ALEF, nonprofit assisting asylum seekers in Haifa – a wave of panic can easily overcome me. Could I be doing “more” while I am here? Or, even, what will I be doing six months from now? One moment of feeling fulfilled and satisfied can be displaced by nostalgia and loneliness, missing my family and loved ones back home.
Living in a new country (and in a pandemic) with new people and cultural norms brings uncertainty and invariability. I am not alone in this “new” – I find assurance and comfort in the friendships I have built within the fellowship. There are 22 of us spread out among three cities: Haifa, Lod, Rishon Letzion. We are a diverse bunch, with roots ranging from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, to the United Kingdom, Australia, and all over the United States. While my weekdays are dedicated to my placements in Haifa or “learning days” in Tel Aviv, my weekends are spent with fellows from the other two cities, traveling to them or hosting them in Haifa, exploring and unwinding from the highs and lows of the prior week.
I adore it when friends come to Haifa for the weekend. Haifa differs from Lod and Rishon a bit, as some stores, cafes, and buses remain open on Shabbat. Some Haifa weekend highlights (so far!) include: a Friday spent exploring vintage and second-hand stores throughout the city, Christmas day when we walked through the festive markets with giant inflatable Santas in Wadi Nisnas, and a rainy Saturday that we hopped on a bus to the cinema and saw the new West Side Story. It's exciting to host and share my favorite cafes, markets, or shops with other fellows.
Each city offers a unique weekend experience. Just as I love sharing Haifa with fellows from other cities, I love being “the newcomer” and exploring the two other home bases. My introductory visits to Rishon and Lod followed a similar pattern: first, a tour of their apartments, then, a tour of their neighborhood. During one weekend in Rishon, I was guided through the vast sand dunes near their apartment, drank hot chocolate while playing Rummikub (not to brag, but I did win a round), and spent a few hours sitting and painting on the Rishon beach. In Lod, I was shown the Old City, had the chance to experience the outdoor market that occurs each Friday and chatted with their infamous Schnitzel man (the man that operates the local Schnitzel restaurant).
I observed a strong sense of community in Rishon and Lod, from an elderly neighbor asking for our assistance bringing up her groceries, to children (who are taught by Yahel fellows) running across the street to say a quick hello. It feels more challenging to replicate this intimate community in Haifa, as the city is built into a mountain: neighborhoods are further apart and require buses to visit. I typically see more familiar faces and give out friendly waves while on public transportation or walking down Masada (a popular street lined with cafes), rather than in my corner store or walking into my apartment building. In contrast, Rishon and Lod feel easier to navigate, and paths seem more likely to converge.
Of course, while exploring and learning about the other two cities, I learn about the fellows that live there: their favorite placements, their family and friends back home, their desires and goals for the future. We share stories from our week – how we successfully (or, usually for me, embarrassingly unsuccessfully) used Hebrew or Arabic in a conversation at a store, a funny moment on the phone with our parents, how the bus skipped our stop even as we waved it down. I learn about England, such as what the “best” restaurant chain is (Nando’s), the characteristics of South London versus West London, and how the education system operates. I am taught phrases in Spanish and Portuguese and listen to stories with these phrases sprinkled in.
Although I face bouts of homesickness, or have moments where anxieties regarding my future creep in, I have a support system – in not one, not two, but three! cities – to share these highs and lows with. It may sound cliche, but I find it true: at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which city we find ourselves in, because we can enjoy each other's company anywhere. Whether we go to the cinema for a film or stream a movie from a laptop, snuggled on a couch in one of our apartments, these are moments to cherish – with people who are defining my Yahel experience.