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by Ilana Masad
This is the final installment in Ilana Masad’s memoir. Read other installments in the series here.
UNLIKE MANY American teens, I applied to colleges after I graduated from high school, because there are no guidance counselors in the Israeli education system to help students with that task; they’re not needed, since the vast majority of teens enter the IDF right after high school. So there was no one to help me write my college essays; there was no one to tell me which school would suit me; there was no one I could turn to for recommendation letters in English (I had to write them myself and have others sign them or have them officially translated, like my transcripts, and notarized).
My senior year was not filled with the jittery excitement of waiting to find out whether I’d gotten into Bard early decision or whether I was going to be wait-listed at Stanford. It was spent trying to get out of the Israeli army for good while studying hard for the Bagruyot, the Israeli baccalaureate exams. I was also redoing my SATs, as the first time I’d done them, I’d gotten scores lower than my brother’s, which I wasn’t willing to accept, never mind that I had studied and taken the tests a month or so before my father died. When I redid them and came out with over 700 in all three categories, I breathed a sigh of relief (and let loose a sisterly-competitive smirk).
I was also reading up on universities, using those huge blue books that list a large percentage, if not all, of the four-year colleges and universities in North America, and some across the pond too. I was taking a gap year between high school and college out of necessity, in order to complete the applications, and I began working at a credit-card company. I would make checklists at night and take vigorous walks in the morning and eat very, very, very little.
I don’t know what triggered my anorexia then, other than a comment a boyfriend made in which he compared me, once I’d begun losing weight, to two brands of cars: a VW (before) and a Ferrari (after). Maybe it was that, or a delayed reaction to the trauma of my father’s death, or perhaps it was the knowledge that I was planning on leaving one country I’d called home for so many years in order to return to another country I also considered home.
MANY ANOREXICS also happen to be perfectionists, and I believed with utter certainty that I had — had — to apply to many, many colleges. After all, I had no AP credit — five-point Bagruyot, the hardest classes and exams you can take in a subject, didn’t count. I hadn’t volunteered anywhere, unless one counts (and no one would) volunteering at the hospital your father is dying in, in your father’s room, helping your own father. I had given up drama almost entirely after having my dreams of being an actress rebuffed by a couple of drama teachers at my junior high. My high school extracurricular activities included: hanging out with friends, listening to music, wearing more and more black, dating a girl, dating a boy, getting very serious with another boy, refusing to decorate the ugly brown gas mask box I (and everyone else) had to carry for a while when the so-called Second Gulf War was happening, not dying on buses when I started taking them, working for a credit-card company where I spent my days apologizing to unhappy customers and/or listening to them talk about their personal problems because they were lonely and needed someone to talk to. Oh, and writing bad poetry. None of these activities convinced me that I would stand out to a college committee.
Additionally, I was in a grey area when it came to applications: I was an American citizen, but I’d spent my twelve years of schooling in Israel. So I was an international student who didn’t have to deal with visa issues, but an international student nonetheless. Which also meant I didn’t qualify for most government funding, despite being American.
Add to this incredibly low self-esteem, and you get the 18-year-old me, crying over how tired she was from not eating, while getting eleven big envelopes from the eighteen schools she’d applied to (another two were small wait-list envelopes and one more school claimed never to have gotten my application and then, months later, when it was utterly irrelevant, sent me a letter telling me I was on their wait-list too).
I WENT TO SARAH LAWRENCE and came back after one grimy, miserable (but 4.0 GPA) semester for a year’s stint on medical leave due to a serious backsliding from the alleged recovery I’d made before heading off to school. Whether consciously or not, some part of me was not yet ready to leave that home, Israel, quite yet.
I spent that year being as present as I could be. I spent a lot of time with my then-boyfriend. I spent little time with friends but tried to. I read 144 books (it was the first year I counted). I took a course on Classic Greece at the Open University in Tel Aviv and never transferred the credits. I lived and breathed home, the place I wasn’t born in but into which I was born again, though not in a religious or spiritual sense. I was born into Israel the same way any child who’s moved to a new place when they are very young is born into it. Like exiting the womb, entering a new country as a child isn’t really a matter of choice. And once you get used to the world you’re in, the air you breathe, the sounds you hear, and the language you speak, it becomes home for you.
Every time I board a plane to go back to Israel, I remember the long walk down Ben Gurion Airport’s hallway from baggage claim to the arrivals hall, walls lined with pathetically fake “Jerusalem stone” (which is basically just a type of limestone), and it makes me choke up. The smell of humid Israeli air in summer, and the cool but never cold air outside the airport, make me breathe in deeply.
Now that my mother has moved to the U.S., too, I have no biological family left there other than people who don’t talk to or know me. I have my friends, a passel of them, and I know their willingness to put me up when I next visit is not at all obligatory — they really want me there, want me to visit, even when the last shreds of what home means to me are now gone (the apartment I grew up in, my mother, my cats, the predictable sounds and smells of one 13 Histadrut Street, apartment #13). They don’t want me to have left them for good. I don’t want to have left for good.
I LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY NOW, a college graduate, a literary agent’s assistant, a writer, an editor, and a podcast founder and host. I have a roommate and a tiny bedroom. I hang out in cafés and go to literary readings. I am living the life I have wanted to live since realizing that I was and am a writer. And it’s enough.
Because no matter how screwed up Israel is, no matter how far away I get from its politics and obscenely stranger-than-fiction happenings, it will always remain a home for me. Not THE home, because I will never have one of those, not when my heart belongs in more than one place. But A home. And having a home in a country as fascinating, bizarre, frustrating, and beautiful as Israel is — with the plethora of complaints I have about it — is a lucky thing indeed. Unlike many of my friends here in the United States, I was never considered Other because of the culture and religion I was born into, whether I embraced it or not. Unlike many Americans my age, I have lived in what some war zones actually look like — vibrant cities that crumple and rise again with every attack made on them. Unlike many, I am bilingual and have the pleasure of reading Etgar Keret, Sayed Kashua, and David Grossman without translation.
And if there’s one thing that does define home to me, it is the ability to walk into a bookstore and find myself surrounded by books in one of my native tongues.
Ilana Masad, a fiction writer, is a columnist for McSweeney’s and has contributed to The Rumpus, The Toast, and the Chicago Tribune literary supplement. Masad is an Israeli-American who spent most of her childhood in Israel, with twice-a-year visits to the U.S., and now lives in New York.