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Connection is the Essence of Home, and Food is the Facilitator

This blog post is written by Abigail Geller, a Yahel Social Change fellow living and working in the Kiryat Chaim neighborhood of Haifa

I’m not a linguistics expert, but while I’ve been in this country and am attempting to learn the languages people here speak, I’m spotting patterns. For example, I’ve noticed that, in Hebrew, the word “house” is commonly used in the spaces’ names. A school is a “beit sefer” which directly translates into ‘book house.’ Similarly, a coffee shop is a “beit cafe” or a ‘coffee house.’ Community and youth centers have names like “Beit Nagler,” “Beit Heine,” “Beit Rassler,” and “Beit Charna.” A synagogue is called a “beit knesset” or a ‘house of gathering.’ And there are others as well. When the word “house” refers to spaces, does the space become more domestic? I wonder if the language and social culture soften the boundaries between public and domestic spaces. Or maybe the words “bayit” and “beit” carry a more nuanced meaning because of their everyday use for spaces other than literal homes. Where I’m from, communal spaces aren’t referred to as houses of ~…~ so this concept is unfamiliar to me. I wonder if people feel at home when at their beit seferim (schools), cafés, community centers, and synagogues. It’s a nice idea to manifest the homeyness of a place by naming it as such.

Being this far away from “habayit sheli” (my house) is challenging. I’ve visited Israel many times before, so my culture shock this time has been less like a feeling of strangeness or an idealized wonder and is hitting more like homesickness. In the past, simply arriving in Israel felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders and like a comforting hug. But also, my past trips here lasted only two months maximum. Since I don’t have family here and have traveled here with programs, I have been able to visit without considering the depths and complications of life here for myself. I traveled around with the aloofness of a tourist, admiring the landscapes and learning about peoples’ culture and history, and then went back home only needing to acclimate to the time change, but nothing more. But stepping into a new routine with new friends and housemates requires adjustment. We came here without knowing each other or our neighborhood. But we’re living together while encountering exciting and challenging experiences, so we’ve quickly grown close. Since the first week, we’ve called our apartment in Kiryat Haim “home,” even though it still feels like a temporary home, but what else would we call it? Luckily, things are settling in, and I’m feeling more comfortable. Hopefully, later this year, Kiryat Haim will feel more like a home where I belong.

From left to right: Abigail, Stav, and Talia. Three fellows are smiling in a selfie on a sunny day with the sea behind them.
Talia, Stav, and me at Bat Galim Beach

Since food is one of my favorite go-to’s for comfort and soothing, I’ve been seeking out familiar flavors that remind me of home for the past two months. I do this to experience the comfort of home while amid the discomfort of being in a new space. One of my most outstanding achievements from this feat is noticing that the 7 shekel piroshkis (a popular Russian street food) at Talpiot market in Haifa taste like White Castle sliders. And I found Funyuns in a corner store that’s a 10-minute walk from our apartment in Kiryat Haim. Interestingly, I’ve been buying more Funyuns here than I ever have in the United States. But they’re the one chip I know will always taste the same as they do at home, since they’re imported. I’m thankful that over time, I’ve been craving more foods that I’ve had here, like hummus from Abu Shaker in Haifa, injera, Iriet’s goat cheese and beet risotto, and boureka’s from the bakery in Rishon Lezion that we go to on joint learning days. I think these cravings are a sign that I’ve been here long enough to have developed some new things that feel familiar… and homey?

I used to think that two months was a short amount of time. In the past two months, though, I’ve been adapting to a new chapter that will continue for the next seven months. The first month of the program contained many introductions. The fellows met each other, our madrichot (city coordinators) and other Yahel staff members. We got a better sense of the culture of our cities and the people we will be spending the year with as we met with the staff at the schools, community centers, and non-profits. But first introductions can be very superficial. Until we started our placements, I felt like a stranger in Kiryat Haim. For the first month, our only community was with each other as fellows. We spent all our time together and did not have connections in our city. But as we’ve spent more time at our placements, the places we frequent now contain familiarity. I’m not at a point where I feel part of the communities in my placements, but now when I go to the grocery store or walk around the neighborhood, I’m bound to hear a little voice shout across the street, “Hello, Avigayil!” I’m considering shared recognition when out and about as a barometer for feeling more connected in this place.

Abigail, Iriet, and Stav are cooking for their first Shabbat together in Israel.
Me, Iriet, and Stav cooking for our first Shabbat together

At first, I was worried that my language capabilities, limited to English, would restrict me from speaking or connecting with the kids at school or the women at Ofek Nashi. When I expressed this to my supervisor at Ofek Nashi, she told me that the connections will form over time through “the language of the heart.” And she’s right. These spaces feel more comfortable since we have become more familiar, and I’ve attempted to bring my compassionate self along to lessen my uneasiness. I look forward to my placements each day. I love the excitement of the 5th and 6th graders when they come out to the hallway for our English group. And when they come to find us during breaks between classes to try to make conversation in English with the other fellows and me. In addition, I anticipate the time I get to organize materials and work on projects in the art room at Ofek Nashi. I spend less time there each week than I do at the school, so I’m learning the flow of things at a slower pace, but I’m finding my place. Once a week, I eat lunch with the women at Ofek Nashi, and it’s a time I don’t take for granted. Food is a form of love that nourishes the body and soul. When I cannot form connections by communicating with words, I feel lucky to be able to be among people while we eat together.

On a similar note, this year was the first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family. Other Americans in our Haifa group were feeling equally mellow about being away from our treasured traditions and peeps for this day. So we put together a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. We had plans to make many of our favorite dishes from home, but we had to keep pivoting because we couldn’t find many things we needed for our recipes here. Thankfully, we didn’t consider dealing with a turkey because three of the five people in my house are vegetarians, so we’ve decided no one will cook meat at home. That would have been a doozie! So the only foods we could make were mashed potatoes, apple pie, boxed Wacky Mac mac & cheese- which was just almost close enough to my favored Velveeta shells mac and cheese- and grape salad. Since the grape salad is my grandma’s recipe, I FaceTimed her while making it, and she made her own at the same time to bring over to my family for dinner! In the end, though our Thanksgiving dinner was an elaborate version of our apartment’s daily dinner, we did our best to make it memorable. We still did all go around and share what we’re thankful for. The most popular tribute of gratitude around the table was to each other. I’m most grateful for the people I’m meeting that are making this place feel more like home.

All of Abigail's apartment together during their Thanksgiving dinner (From left to right: Iriet, Abigail, Stav, Talia, Charly). Everyone is sitting around the table smiling and making heart shapes with their hands.
All of our apartment together during our Thanksgiving dinner (Iriet, me, Stav, Talia, Charly)


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