People keep asking me what I've learned this year in Israel.
I've learned a lot. But one of the most important things I've learned from my Israeli friends is to be proud of my humanity.
Let's say you share something personal in class and then start crying. Oh-my-goodness-that-is-the-most-embarrassing-thing-ever-kill-me-now, right? If something like that happened in my class in America, everyone would look away from the emotional breakdown on display in front of them. The general reaction would be: Pretend you don't see, maybe you can spare him the shame.
Here, your Israeli classmates would reach over and put their arms around you, and after class they'd come up and talk to you about it. Thank you for sharing, they would say – they have said, I've seen it a million times. That was really meaningful. And you couldn't help but smile.
Why are we so afraid of acknowledging weakness and discomfort? Even with the small things. You're on a bus and the kids in the seat behind you are making too much noise. If you're American, you'll most likely roll your eyes and silently pray for them to stop. If you're Israeli, you'll turn around and tell them to be quiet, can't they see you're trying to take a nap? In America, confronting the emotional face to face is awkward. In Israel, it's being truthful.
I decided early on that I like the Israeli way. I want to show people that I care – yes, even at risk of embarrassing them and myself. It's hard, but I've been working on it it all year. And I've never once regretted it.
Take the day that Yarden came back to seminary after getting engaged, for example. I spotted her first out the classroom window and headed out to greet her. As soon as the rest of the girls got wind that she was back, they were going to surround her and dance and sing until they were blue in the face with happiness. I got there first, but barely. The crowd was coming.
"Hey Yarden," I said. "Watch out, here they come..."
And even though I wasn't her closest friend, even though I had to swallow back the American embarrassment rising within me, I grabbed her hands as the girls stampeded towards us.
It was really a terrifying sight – there were a lot of people making a lot of noise charging at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour – and for a moment Yarden squeezed my hand, hard, and tucked her head into my shoulder for protection. Then, as the girls started singing wedding songs and dancing around her, she relaxed and joined the fray. But for that moment, she'd needed me to hold her hand. I'd been there for her. And what's so embarrassing about that?
Tears are honest here. You don't have to turn your head and hide them. You cry them out in public, into a friend's arms, and they are understood.
We are human, Israelis say with all of their being. We do what we can. It's the same thing that makes the lady who dropped her money getting onto the bus tell the driver that she's on her way to her sister's baby shower, that's why she's so flustered. It's the same thing that makes the bus driver say, "Mazal Tov," the same thing that makes the people around her on the bus help her pick up the coins.
We're all humans here. Why not accept it? Why not share? Why not bring life into our lives?
So, as a much-wiser post-seminary girl, here's my advice for you: try it. The best time you see a friend or acquaintance looking a little red-eyed and wobbly-lipped, hug her and ask what's wrong. See an old lady sitting alone in a restaurant? Go start up a conversation. See someone with a disability who looks like he's having a hard time? Ask if he needs help. Don't be embarrassed for them. Do what you would want them to do for you.
You won't regret it.