Israel in Review: Oh Great, She’s Talking About Religion Again

My laptop broke a few weeks ago, in what my computer scienc-y boyfriend diagnosed as a ‘kernel panic' from 1,000 miles away:


(If you use your imagination, you can hear me panicking in the background, too.)

I'm letting him fix it when I get back to the lowlands next week, and as a result I haven't blogged in a while. I'm currently typing this on my phone, which is a pain in the butt, because unlike my 16-year-old self, I'm terrible at texting. Also, my spell-checker is in Dutch, so it's underlining the whole post in red dots.

This is the middle of my fifth week in Israel. I knew it would go quickly, and in the beginning, a part of me wanted it to. As much as I like travel and adventure, I also like feeling safe, and I didn't love the idea of leaving my boyfriend and my family for five weeks to live by myself in the most contentious country in the world – and in East Jerusalem, at that. (Funny story: during orientation, the staff told us ‘which areas of Jerusalem to avoid, especially if you are blonde and female, or alone.' The red circles, marking areas of racial and religious tension, outlined our whole campus.) I am, in many ways, a homebody. I like my patterns and routines, my crafts and my books, and most of all, my family. They are what comforts me when things go wrong, which is why the thought of leaving them behind is enough to send me into a ‘kernel panic' sometimes (sorry, I had to).

But Jerusalem defied almost all my expectations. First of all, I have never felt safer. Contrary to what I had expected,  the military presence here is subtle and almost reassuring. The guards on the way to class start to recognize you, until you no longer need to show your ID to get into your dorm. Enough people are in all levels of the army that seeing a soldier sleeping on a bus is normal, and not a startling symbol of violence, or reminder that someone somewhere is fighting a war in your name.

The people have also been much kinder than I ever expected. I was told by many sensitive Americans (and self-deprecating Israelis) that the culture in Israel is brisk and unsympathetic, and so not to have my feelings hurt when people… What? Bump into me? When chassidic men don't look me in the face? Now that I've been here for several weeks, I'm not sure what everyone warned me of. Every Israeli I've encountered has been kind and generous with me. Someone invited me to shabbat with his friends the day after I met him (one of my absolute best experiences here, and my first orthodox shabbat), and when my teacher at the ulpan learned I had sprained my ankle, she gave me her crutches and picked me up every morning for class until I could walk. If people see you on the street, looking confused and speaking English, they will come up to try to help you (and one of the benefits of a society in which so many people are religiously observant is that, for the most part, men don't smush and crowd you on the bus). There have only been two exceptions to this rule of kindness: the barista at my usual coffee spot, whom I suspect resents me for looking too American (read: round and smiley), and an aggressive group of cab drivers my friends and I encountered when we accidentally wandered into Palestinian territory, who loudly offered us rides that did not involve their taxis. Blegh.

My stay here has been surprising in other ways, too. I think, in some ways, that I expected my faith to transform or strengthen in Jerusalem, the birthplace of both the religion I study and the one that I try to follow. My religious journey had been a winding and sometimes frail one. I think I hoped that I would come back a full believer, having seen the location of the Last Supper or Jesus' birth. For a long time when I was a child, I hoped that I would have some kind of vision to confirm to me that God is real and I could stop worrying about it. But nothing ever came, and I suspect that if there was any such vision in store for me, the God of great displays (see: Red Sea, Jericho, pretty much all of Genesis) would not have wanted to miss this excellent dramatic window.

I'm kidding, of course. But I do think I expected to come back a changed woman, either from experiencing the tangibleness of the Biblical backdrop, or from living in a society in which so many people wear their faith so visibly on their sleeve. But neither sharing a bus with 30 chassidic men, nor standing in the room above where the Last Supper maybe-probably-kinda happened, made my faith feel more real to me. Instead, I have noticed my conviction in and love for God creep up on me slowly for the last two years. It turns out there is no magic, one-time cure for doubt: my convictions have been hard-fought and won, far away from the land of my namesake and nations she issued.


This is not to say that my stay in Jerusalem hasn't been a spiritual experience. It has been, just not in the ways I expected (as it almost invariably goes with these things). I am filled with a wonderful joy each night as I hear the songs and fireworks of Muslims breaking their daily fast for Ramadan.

Every Friday evening, I hear voices below welcoming the Sabbath Queen as I make dinner to be shared with my friends in a secular ‘hobo's banquet.'

(The meal itself is rarely faith-inspiring.)

And on the night of my first orthodox shabbat, as I was walked home by four kind-hearted men in kippas whom I had only met a few hours before, their tassels swaying in the wind as we walked up Mount Scopus, I thought to myself, this is the life I want to be living. I am filled with so much happiness to be surrounded by people who celebrate the rhythms and cycles of their religions with so much conviction and joy. It reminds me that faith is not a matter of doubt and belief, but one of commitment; that prayers and holy days and rituals are not in place for God, to let us prove our devotion, but also for us, to carry us through love and joy, and also the times in which we doubt and question and fear.

I sometimes worry about alienating my secular readers and friends with the special kind of joy I find here, in being surrounded by so many people of strong, different faiths. But my joy is not in that the love and devotion of the people around me is directed at what they call God, but in that it is used to celebrate and appreciate the gift that we have all been given in life. In the words of Daphne Rose Kingma, “Life itself is a gift. It is a compliment just to be born: to feel, breathe, think, play, dance, sing, and make love for this particular lifetime.”


Author: Sara Laughed

I'm Sara, a writer, recent grad, and American abroad. I graduated from college in December and promptly moved to the Netherlands, where I live with my boyfriend and our 11 plants. Follow along as I figure out my roaring twenties: I don't quite know what I'm doing, but that's not stopping me from writing about it!

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  • As always your ability to describe what you see & how you feel makes me feel I’m ur shadow on this trip. You have received such precious gifts with your stay in Israel and have stretched yourself just by going. Sara your writing only improves & I’m so proud you’re on this journey. You, my dear with a wonderful soul, keep writing, exploring while on the adventure & one day, people will know how talented you are. Many hugs!

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. Your generosity and mentorship was a true blessing in my first few years of high school, and I hope you will continue to ‘come with me’ in all my journeys!