I came to Israel in August 2015, exactly 996 days ago. For the first year and a half of my time in Israel, I spent every single Friday evening with my boyfriend, Dor, and his family. I could not have asked for a more welcoming, friendly and comfortable environment to be in. Shabbat dinners were always filled with interesting discussions and laughter and were rounded off by the delicious spicy fish Dor’s mother prepared with passion every week. I remember that at my first Shabbat meal, the most interesting part for me was the Kiddush, the blessing to sanctify the Shabbat, which is recited before dinner over a glass of wine. Coming from a secular Christian family in Austria, where weekly family dinners with a religious touch were simply not part of my routine, this Jewish ritual fascinated me. Even though I could not understand one word, as the blessing was read out in Hebrew, it gave every Shabbat dinner a very special touch.
The months passed, and even after I had broken up with Dor, I was still regularly invited to Shabbat dinners at my friends’ houses and continued to enjoy the intimate time with loved ones as well as the abundance of delicious food. There was one Shabbat dinner, however, that had a lasting impact on me. It was a warm Friday evening in June 2017 and I was on my way to my friend Ruthi’s house for dinner, roasted vegetables in tow. I loved coming to her place, not only because she and the people at her dinners had become my best friends in Israel, but also because her cooking skills were simply unparalleled. Entering her cute little apartment in Katamon, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, my mind was peaceful, and I was looking forward to a nice evening spent with the people most dear to me. While waiting for everyone to arrive, I once again marveled at Ruthi’s sense for detail that resonated throughout the entire apartment: the walls were decorated with unique pictures she had taken during her travels, the dining room was decorated with turquoise pottery she had prepared herself and her balcony was full of colorful flowers she took care of so conscientiously.
Once everyone had arrived, we all gathered around the table to make Kiddush. With the smell of roasted chicken in the air and everyone’s stomachs rumbling, ready to be fed with Ruthi’s delicious cooking, my friend Donny started the blessing. I listened to the words that I had heard so many times before, but something was different. I suddenly realized that I understood what was being said. I had been oblivious to the actual words of the blessing before since I simply did not speak the language. Having studied Hebrew for almost two years at that point, the words started making sense. The final words of the Kiddush echoed in my ears: “For You chose us, and sanctified us, out of all nations, and with love and intent You invested us with Your Holy Sabbath.” Wait a second… You chose us? You sanctified us? What about me? How do I fit in here? As everyone was uttering the final “Amen” at the end of the blessing, I was left confused. I had been part of all these wonderful dinners that had made me feel so welcome and cozy, while the blessing seemed to exclude me from being part of celebrating Shabbat?
I left the dinner with a sense of unease. While I had enjoyed myself and the time spent with my friends, and while they had never even for a second made feel unwanted, I was left wondering how I fit into this society I had chosen to live in. I started becoming aware of the complexity I had created for myself over the past two years. I was a secular Christian who had chose to live in a Jewish state, study Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, learn Hebrew and Arabic and build friendships with people from all walks of life, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. In the following months, I felt my identity was increasingly challenged, as I was not able to place myself in any of the available categories. But with time, I learned to see the beauty in this complexity and find comfort in discomfort. I understood that I have the privilege of being in a unique position that gives me the opportunity to experience so many different realities and engage with so many different people because I’m not part of any traditional group. I can make all of these experiences my own and make myself feel at home in all of the diversity I have made part of my life.
This is just one example of the important work produced YaLa’s citizen journalists, a program funded by the European Union’s Peacebuilding Initiative in order to enable young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa to document and share their experiences of the region.