It’s Not Just an Airline. It’s Israel.

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Recognizing the Recanati winery name on the bottles in the El Al business lounge and the Barkan label on the bottle of crappy complimentary wine served in-flight just made me realize two things: I have worsened my wine addiction in Israel, and I weirdly feel more like an Israeli on this flight than I do an American. I have flown on several El Al flights throughout my life, and each time in the past I have been surprised by the amount of action. Usually domestic flights in America are pretty uneventful — people politely fall asleep in their seats or entertain themselves on their iPads and whenever someone from the window or middle seat has to disturb their aisle neighbor to get up to use the restroom, you get the sense that they feel bad for being a nuisance. This is NOT the case on an El Al flight. As I have written this one paragraph, I have counted 24 people walk past me. The two elderly orthodox men in front of me are are conversing in Hebrew and standing in their row leaning on their reclined seats so that their fingers are in my face while I am scrunched up with my arms like a T-Rex just so that I can continue typing on my very small tablet. I actually need to type this with one hand and hold my paper cup of crappy free wine in the other, they are shaking the chair that violently. And while this type of utter disrespect for personal space would have appalled me in the past, I expect it now.

In fact, I was more weirded out by how polite people were on my Jetblue connecting flight this morning from Tampa to New York City. Wow, just now, the woman across the aisle from me stood up and started leaning ON MY SHOULDER. You cannot make this stuff up (*orders another glass of the complementary wine, anxiously anticipating for when the bottle will be up for grabs in the flight crew’s quarters*). And now she is actually reading over my shoulder in such an intrusive and obvious way that I suspect she is reading this very sentence right now — Shalom Mrs. 28D, how do you find the content of my blog, interesting? As I write this, 5 orthodox men walk past me (and shove past her) with their tallit grazing against my face.

So I find myself in seat 27C trying to understand why I am so relieved to be on this characteristically horrible flight. I think it boils down to this — these people, including Mrs. 28D and my orthodox buddies reclining literally on top of me, are my family. And even though you can’t pick your family, you love them because they are yours. These are my people — yes they might be rude and obnoxious and just downright absurd sometimes, but they are mine. And I am theirs. And I know this because I expect them to act this way, I know them. I know this because I smiled when I saw the assortment of wafers available for dessert in the business lounge. I know this because I understood snippets of words as the El Al check in crew spoke to each other in Hebrew. I know this because while waiting in line to board I could overhear complete strangers play Jewish geography and share about when their grandchildren did Birthright. And I could hear the same phrases and same conversations my grandparents have had in the past.

We are a collective. In fact, I recognized a young couple with a very young child from my flight from Tampa similarly trying to figure out why El Al agents weren’t at the check in desk at JFK when we arrived. Without hesitation I asked them if they thought we were there too early and what they were planning to do while we waited. Of course we exchanged information regarding where we are from, why we are going to Israel, the typical back and forth you have with a stranger who is a part of your tribe.

And no, we are not perfect. In fact we are far from it — and we are shameless about it. The man behind me is now tapping intensely on his tray as if he wants to make sure I know he is back there. I asked him to stop and he was sorry — he had no idea. A woman across the plane is using flash photography. With an expensive professional camera. Why on God’s Earth would you want to document this unbearable trek? Mrs. 28D actually asked to SEE each of the meal options for dinner before deciding on meatballs or chicken. These are all things I am noticing while listening to music and writing, trying my absolute best to be unaware of my surroundings. I think that’s one of the things I love most about this plane full of crazy people. We all know we are crazy and pushy and rude and we are unapologetic about it. I say “we” because pre-Israeli residence Arielle would have torn her hair out in response to these behaviors. Now I expect them and can not only bear them, but find them annoyingly comforting.

The best part of this is that I know the majority of my family members on this 11 hour plane ride from hell feel the same way. We are all annoyed. We are all annoying. And we are all willing to put up with it and each other because we love our destination that much. And one of the best parts about living in our destination is that we will continue annoying each other on the bus, at the shuk, and everywhere else because that’s just what we do and who we are. And I love absolutely every single one of them for it.

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Balancing Ambition and Vulnerability

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Juggling ambition and vulnerability is something that I have been struggling with over the past couple of years. Holed up in my office at Bellevue Hospital during the week and spending my weekends in coffee shops essentially defined the majority of my last year living in arguably the greatest city in the world, New York. In hindsight, I still can’t believe the number of times I flaked on plans or just didn’t even bother trying to make them, getting into the habit of valuing my work over my relationships. However, I don’t in any way regret how I spent my time there — the energy and pace of NYC is conducive to becoming a complete workaholic. And the hard work paid off: now I am able to live in arguably the greatest city in the world, Tel Aviv. But unlike my time spent in New York, which never had a tangible expiration date and lasted a solid 8 years, I am coming to terms with the fact that my time in Tel Aviv is terribly limited. I am already 1/5 of the way through my experience here and I am still learning how to balance several competing interests (lab, the start-up, friends, exploring Israel, alone time).

In a way, knowing that my time in this beautiful country with all of the fascinating people I have met is precious is forcing me to resist my habit of completely committing all of myself to work. For example, choosing to spend the afternoon in the park basking in the sun, hours that could have been spent in lab or working on my biosketch for an upcoming grant, is a decision that I would have never made while living in NYC. But knowing that my time here is limited reminds me of how crucial it is that I take the time to be wholly present, to be in tune with my surroundings and to feel everything in the moment. Finding the right balance between committing yourself to your work and enjoying your life is all the more difficult when your work is something that you are intensely passionate about. I have chosen a career path that necessitates a blurring of work and personal spheres, and I really couldn’t see my life in any other way. But when the mental and emotional energy you dedicate to work impedes your ability to be vulnerable to others, so much so that you view relationships (platonic and romantic) as a threat to your professional success, I know I have tipped the scales in an unhealthy way.

Living in Israel has provided me with the opportunity to challenge myself to be better balanced: to refine the skill of seeking both professional and personal development. I can recognize now that I used my work in New York as an excuse to not engage in social opportunities, to not be vulnerable to people, and to ultimately not be vulnerable to myself. Excelling in my work did provide me with a newfound sense of self-worth, autonomy and confidence. But I think learning how to share myself with others and viewing those shared experiences as advantageous to my work is the next step. So I have decided to challenge myself to be vulnerable over the next remaining 4 months in a way that I have never been: I want to maintain my independence and dedication to work, while also being vulnerable to others and to my own feelings, and find the synergy between the two.

The picture of the hodgepodge graffiti above was taken while on my way with a friend to Casbah, the cafe I have been spending most of my time reading and writing in over the last couple of weeks. I find it represents one of the small ways that I am trying to find balance: instead of disappearing for hours into a coffee shop, I am inviting my housemates and friends to work with me at the cafe. It also reminds me of all of my competing interests, which on the surface appear to be unrelated, but somehow can coexist in a fashion that ultimately makes each individual piece that much more valuable.

So the vulnerable truth is this: I am allowing myself to truly connect to a place and people for the first time in ages, and I can’t stop smiling.

 

Protocols and Purim

Since I last posted, I have experienced two more wonderful things about living in Israel:

  1. For the most part, the entire country celebrates Jewish holidays.
  2. For the most part, scientific research is a universal language.

Learning a new wet lab protocol and celebrating Purim (Jewish Halloween) by dressing up in costumes and drinking way too much because that is what the Megillah tells us to do probably don’t seem at all related… but I think there is more to the connection than just alliteration. Stay with me here.

Purim fell on a Sunday this year (which is the first day of the week in Israel) so the university was closed that day. Of course the festivities started as early as Thursday night, which left room for at least 4 days and 4 nights of parties, costume changes, and back-to-back hangovers. Coming from New York City, I thought that I had a pretty good handle on partying… but Israelis take it to a whole new level. My housemates and I entered the holiday weekend quite strong, with group costumes and dancing until the morning hours. But I only lasted 2 of the 4 nights. Even so, I was pretty proud of my stamina given my pathetically long hiatus from fun as a result of applying and interviewing for graduate school.

Because the university would be closed on Sunday, I decided to work remotely from my favorite cafe and catch up on reading since I am essentially teaching myself the immunology component of psychoneuroimmunology. As I was reading a dissertation from a former lab member, my PI sent me a text on Whatsapp (how most Israeli’s text) to let me know that if I wanted to come to the lab to do work he would be there and could let me in. I messaged him to let him know that I would be spending the day working remotely at home, to which he replied with a string of emojis (including various alcoholic drinks) and pictures from his Purim weekend. I think it’s pretty obvious to say that this type of casual and friendly exchange is not typical in the States. But in Israel, professionalism takes on a casual style that is pretty foreign and difficult to get used to. Luckily, the project manager that I work with for the healthcare startup company happens to live in my neighborhood and he was working next to me at the cafe so I was able to ask for his help in responding. He was like obviously just send him a picture from your Purim party…

I have always said that I don’t have a professional version of myself. In most situations I am the same person when talking to my friends, family, coworkers, study subjects, and bosses. My casual and authentic tendencies are translating very well in Israel and I am finding that this is having an impact on my work (here is where the protocol comes in!). I have wound up working mostly with a current PhD student in the lab who, like me, began her academic career in psychology and is now doing her doctoral work in physiological psychology. This is a huge perk because when she is explaining experiments and methods to me, she understands my background and is able to translate biochemistry-heavy concepts into explanations that make sense. Not only is she a great teacher, she is also letting me tag along with her to audit her classes (which happen to be in English!) in genomics and bioinformatics. And on top of all of that, she’s really fun to hang out with all day and lets me pick her brain about growing up in Israel.

Because the work culture in Israel is more casual than in America, I feel more comfortable asking questions and giving my opinion. This has allowed me to say yes to opportunities that otherwise would be extremely intimidating. Auditing courses in genomics and bioinformatics is one thing, but saying yes to running a wet lab experiment by myself without any prior formal bench-work training is an entirely different level of confidence. Admittedly I am a pretty confident person (otherwise I wouldn’t have moved to Israel), but I know when I don’t know something and running an ELISA is something I definitely do NOT know how to do. Sure, following a protocol is like following a recipe. You just go step by step, adding and removing various ingredients to a plate. But what if the recipe is in Hebrew…?

I know, I know. I have been taking Hebrew lessons. But conversational Hebrew typically doesn’t cover words like “pipette” and “reagent diluent.” So I did the only thing I could think of, I made my own protocol. I watched the 2 day process once and spent this past weekend writing up my own English protocol, including schematics of the experiment (I can’t help myself, I love a good figure — see below) and concentration calculations of reagents from this particular ELISA kit in order to know exactly what I need to do and how much of each reagent I will need to run one plate.

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Sure, while it would have been easier to follow a protocol written in English, I am actually grateful for the experience of having to write my own. Writing a protocol from scratch tests your knowledge of an experiment and ensures that you actually know what you are doing and why you are doing it. One funny aspect of this though is that because I am learning these techniques for the first time in Israel, I am learning the names of equipment that I am unfamiliar with in Hebrew. So even though my protocol is mainly written in English, some terms are still written in the Hebrew language, for example, קלקר (“cal car”) is the word Israelis use to describe the Styrofoam egg-crate looking tube holder. Cal means “light” and car means “cold,” so I actually learned 3 new Hebrew words from writing an ELISA protocol!

I think the experience of celebrating Purim and learning a new experimental protocol within the same week is representative of Israeli culture. People here work extremely hard and efficiently, but also know how to live. They allow for a blending of personal and professional interaction, which I think ultimately enhances their work. I am looking forward to integrating this type of work culture, and my newfound scientific Hebrew vocabulary, into my doctoral training this Fall!

 

2 weeks in, already at home.

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I moved to Florentin, Tel Aviv on February 20th, 2017. It has been nearly two weeks since I left everything and everyone I knew back home in America and it only took 1 day for me to find a dog-friendly cafe across the street with superb free WiFi, great coffee, cheap beer, and chatty baristas who already have my coffee order (coffee eem chalav skedeem — espresso with almond milk!) ready for me in the morning and are offering me a bartending gig.

In the past 2 weeks I have done several sightseeing excursions, including an overnight trip down South to Eilat where I sat in the middle of desert sand dunes alone with my thoughts for 30 minutes, spent the night at a kibbutz, hiked in the Red Canyon, and snorkeled in the warm waters of the Red Sea. And while this trip along with the other programmed events included in my participation in a Masa-sponsored internship program have been awe-inspiring and informative, they are not the main reason why I am so happy to have done this crazy thing.

The best part about moving to Tel Aviv is the undeniable feeling of being at home in a country and city that could not be more unfamiliar and more familiar at the same exact time. Nothing about this place is anything like the small coastal town in Florida I grew up in, nor does it resemble New York City in any way, shape or form. But for some reason, the language, the people, the energy, the food, and the graffiti all come together in such a perfectly familiar way. So much so that I feel like I was always meant to live here. For example: I have been spending every day for the past week in intensive Ulpan (Hebrew immersion) and even though the Hebrew language sounds and looks nothing like English, hearing it and speaking it and writing it just feels right. When my teacher asked why I wanted to learn, I immediately responded that it was because I felt Hebrew was the language I was meant to know. Even being left-handed, as silly as it sounds, allows me to write in Hebrew better than I do in English.  While I had struggled to learn French for nearly 8 years, within 1 week of Ulpan I am already very comfortable speaking and reading Hebrew.

I also very much identify with the spirit of the Israeli people. Everyone here is so direct. People say what they mean, and do what they want. It’s that simple. You never need to wonder whether someone actually wants to see you, or if they really do like you. And while this way of interacting might come off harsh, I respect the directness and appreciate the clarity (coming from a place like New York City, I definitely do not miss people being fake or flaking out on plans). I wasn’t surprised to love the Israeli culture or the people who live here — I have been fortunate to visit Israel several times throughout my life and have always managed to make friends (some I have already managed to see!). What I was surprised by was just how much I love the people participating in my program with me. In Tel Aviv, we have 13 participants (8 women and 5 men) from around the world (South Africa, Canada, England, America, and Australia) all interning in different fields ranging from consulting to journalism to social justice to science. While we all come from different places and are pursuing different career paths, we relate on a level that I have yet to experience at home. I think it takes a specific type of person to uproot their life completely to move to the Middle East for 5 months with a bunch of strangers.

So while I sit here at my neighborhood cafe with a Great Dane to my left and a Pug to my right, I can’t help but feel immense gratitude for the opportunity to live in a country that, within 2 weeks, feels more like home than any other place I have ever been. I am so excited to begin my work at Tel Aviv University on Sunday (which is the first day of the week in Israel) and to see how research and academia differ in Israel compared to the states. Based on my initial meeting with my PI, I think I will feel just as at home in his lab as I do in my neighborhood of Florentin. And while I begin this journey knowing that it must come to an end so that I can begin my doctoral work stateside, I already know that making Aliyah (moving to Israel permanently) for postdoctoral work is on the table. I’m curious to see how my experiences over the next 5 months influence that initial feeling. Stay tuned!