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Growing Up in Israel, Part 6

Ilana Masad
May 14, 2015

Junior High in Tel Aviv

by Ilana Masad

Read other installments in this series here.

23GIVATAYIM, where I grew up, has elementary schools that go from 1st to 8th grade. High school is 9th through 12th. No junior high. But when I was in 6th grade, I’d had enough: I’d been bullied both physically and emotionally throughout most of my time at Yigal Alon, my elementary school, and I wanted OUT. It took many phone calls and lots of red tape, but I was permitted to attend a junior high in Tel Aviv, because I specifically wanted to study theater at Ironi Alef (which translates to something like “Local A”), a performing arts high school with an attached junior high.

My brother was in high school by then, a famous math-and science-oriented school connected to Tel Aviv University. My mom drove both him and me to school every day and picked us up, because we were still immersed in the Second Intifada. She took valuable time away from her work every day to keep us safe from risky buses. As I’ve mentioned before, my dad rode buses davka (just because, or in spite of).

Ironi Alef was amazing, at first. It was the first place I saw The Caucasian Chalk Circle performed. But although I was in the theater program and tried to be outgoing, I was either invisible to, emotionally bullied by, or spitefully ignored by other people. I asked out a boy for the first time. He said no. I was nicknamed Ilana Massage because I gave massages to a different cute boy who I thought was into me, but was probably more amused by me than anything else. I didn’t do my theater assignments because I was daunted by everyone else’s talent, their coolness factor, their skinny quirkiness. I was chubby, bookish, imaginative, and shy.

ON THE PLUS SIDE, I got to really experience Tel Aviv. Prior to my attending junior high there, I would only go into TA on Saturdays with my family; we went to the Hilton Beach throughout the spring, summer, and autumn, when the water was warm. The Mediterranean is hotter than the air during the height of summer. My father and I liked to swim far out and find the random cold spots where we could cool down. We all lay on the beach and read or fell asleep under our umbrella until it was time to go.

The beach is not exotic or special in Israel. It’s a given. It’s normal. We love it, but we don’t appreciate it like the tourists do. Now there are rules against smoking and littering on the beach, but those weren’t yet established when I was a kid. We would walk among broken glass, cigarette butts, and tin cans of beer, carefully avoiding sharp edges, until reaching the cleaner sand closer to the ocean.

Going to school in Tel Aviv at 12 and 13, I discovered the city and truly appreciated it for the first time. I went to shops with my friends (the first two I’d lumped myself together with in order to avoid loneliness). We went to get ice cream. I went to Dizengoff Center, the mall that my parents had earlier declared off-limits. I went to movies near Zeitlin, my father’s old high school. I realized just how close our apartment was — a thousand steps from what was technically Tel Aviv territory.

When I was very young, my family and I would walk on Yom Kippur all the way from that apartment to the Reform synagogue my parents liked. My brother and I would sometimes ride bikes, because that’s what kids do in Israel on Yom Kippur. There is a ban on driving during the day — it is, at least, highly discouraged — and only emergency vehicles and the rare, urgent car on the freeway can be seen. Otherwise, the streets are the domain of irreverent children, teenagers, and adults on bikes, scooters, and rollerblades. It’s a holiday more than a day for forgiveness in most of Israel. When I was small and didn’t yet ride a bike, the walk to the synagogue seemed interminable. The walk back was even worse. But as a budding adolescent, I found everything to seem smaller, closer, and I created an intimacy with this city, which I’d been near for so many years and yet knew almost nothing about.

IT WAS during my time at Ironi Alef that I came the closest I ever came to the site of a major suicide bombing. It was a sunny day, and we were in T-shirts and shorts. The PA system came on. We were told to go down to the miklatim, the bomb shelters. A school of almost 1,500 students, we rushed down the stairs in an orderly fashion, following our teachers. There were many connected underground shelters running the length and breadth of the main building. We’d been through drills before and knew which class went where.

We didn’t know what was going on exactly, but we had a pretty good idea. It was obvious that terrorist activity had happened near the school. Once we were down in the shelters, the tears began for some, the anxious rambunctiousness for others, until we were finally told that a suicide bomber had exploded a bus on Rothschild Boulevard, which was not far, but also not so close that we were threatened by the fire or debris of the bus. We weren’t in any immediate danger. That was when the cellphones came out.

I had been given a small, silver, no-color screen cellphone when I started going to junior high, and was always jealous of others’ cooler, bigger, bright, and colored-screen cellphones, but at that moment I didn’t care. I called my father’s cell. He didn’t pick up. I began to freak out. There was no reason for him to be on that bus in the early afternoon on a weekday, but he was a bus-taker, so there was always a chance. I called my mom. She told me he was fine, everything was fine, she’d talked to him at his office and he was fine. No one we knew had died — though I have a vague, half-formed memory of someone leaving school early that day with a pale and tight face, so perhaps there were some who were affected, but I knew none of them.

After hours in the shelters, we climbed out through the portholes that led right into the yard. I don’t know why we didn’t go up the stairs inside the building. Maybe it would have been too chaotic, kids and teenagers pushing and shoving their way up and back to class. Maybe they wanted us to see some sunshine after the paint and mildew smell of the miklatim.

THIS MEMORY stands out in my mind as the only time I was truly scared for several moments. A stronger memory is of the day I got rejected from Ironi Aleph’s high school theater program. My dreams of being an actress were crushed that day, and I knew it wasn’t only because I wasn’t a good enough actress (I’ve been told since that I am decent, even good, and performed a bunch of times when I was in college), but also because I wasn’t good-looking enough, I wasn’t cool enough, my teachers didn’t like me, and possibly for good reason. Mousy people don’t attract attention, and mousy people are often disliked by outgoing, impatient teachers. No one in Israel wants to be a teacher. The pay sucks. There’s a reason the teachers aren’t very good.

But my time at Ironi Alef also produced my first “novel,” a 30-page book, typed and illustrated, an assignment for the only good teacher I had throughout my K-12 years. She wore black and orange striped tights on occasion. She left the year after she taught my class to pursue a PhD.

I never dwell on that bombing because it felt so unimportant, so normal. There is always something reassuring in normality, especially when you’re a kid who sticks out and has always been seen as weird and abnormal. But when the death of a dozen or two dozen people seems normal, you know that there’s something very screwed up in your brain. Which never really goes away.

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.