From Sukkut to Shab­bat: My first days in Is­rael

Living in the Middle East has been a dream of mine for a long time. As I arrived for my exchange semester in Tel Aviv, I found a lively and welcoming campus, cultural differences and new gratitude for translation software - all in a city that never sleeps.

Dafne with a beach in the background.
Me at Hilton Beach. Photo: private

A dream coming true…

Living in the Middle East, experiencing its rare cultural richness and diversity, is a dream I had for a very long time. In Israel alone, people of more than six ethnicities, speaking different languages and practicing diverse religions coexist; and I wanted to explore this intriguing reality, so different from Europe. Therefore, when I saw Tel Aviv University (TAU) among HU’s exchange partners, I didn’t hesitate one second to apply. Besides, spending the winter far from my beloved but very cold Berlin didn’t seem a bad idea at all!

Similar thoughts were buzzing through my mind as I arrived at the airport in Rome, ready to embark on my adventure. Three hours later, I was landing on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, full of excitement. Looking out the window of the taxi which was darting towards Tel Aviv, I could see big, purple bougainvillea bushes arise from the desertic, dusty landscape. It was incredible how their color was intensified by the bright light of the Middle East. This sight made me realise that I was now on a different continent. Slowly, the desert turned into a city district under construction, marked by modern skyscrapers: I understood that I had finally arrived in this other ‘city which never sleeps’.

Tel Aviv's Skyscrapers, seen from Jaffa.
Tel Aviv's Skyscrapers, seen from Jaffa. Photo: private

Discovering a new country

Cultural differences struck me right from the beginning. I arrived on a Sunday: however, as Saturday (Shabbat) is the last day of the Israeli week, supermarkets and shops were open. Unthinkable in Germany! I immediately thought it was funny - the main monotheist religions of the world celebrate God on three different days of the week: Muslims on Fridays, Jewish people on Saturdays, and Christians on Sundays. I also realised that I would have to keep these differences in mind when planning my trips across the country.

The day of my arrival happened to be the first day of Sukkot, one of the most important religious Israeli holidays: this festivity commemorates the 40-year desert pilgrimage of the Jewish people on their way to the Promised Land. For this occasion, believers build huts in which they eat and sleep for one week, just like their ancestors did. I had to hurry to buy some food, as grocery stores were going to stay closed for the next two days. And in the supermarket, I faced another big issue: I couldn’t read the labels of the products I was buying. Having dedicated my efforts, so far, to learning European languages, I never studied any alphabet but the Latin one… And suddenly, I found myself illiterate! I won’t lie: it is a strange, destabilizing experience. But don’t worry too much: you can definitely get your way out of trouble!

Tel Aviv University offers both Hebrew intensive courses and Arabic classes. Moreover, most of the Israelis ‘chew’ a little English – a language also used to notify the stops on public transportation. And lastly, a little hack: the Google Translator’s app can be a true lifesaver. All you need to do is open the camera and scan, let’s say, the labels of the products you need to buy: like magic, text in your own language will appear! Honestly, I have rarely been as grateful to technology as during the first days after my arrival.

The Campus of Tel Aviv University.
The Tel Aviv University campus. Photo: private

A warm welcome on an amazing campus

Before classes started, the host university organised two days of welcome events for us exchange students. The staff prepared buffets, games and even an on-campus party to make us connect with one another. Moreover, it also introduced its many organisations and clubs. If you have an interest, here you will surely find people with whom to share it! Among its many social initiatives, TAU has sports clubs, a Model UN association, an environmental club as well as an LGBT+ group and one of Arab feminists.

Furthermore, while providing top-level education, the university is also doing its best to ensure that students enjoy their time on campus. To that end, it often invites local artists to perform in its gardens (around two weeks ago, for example, I saw a concert by the famous Israeli rapper Tuna) and organises exhibitions and film screenings. On campus, you will find not only the different faculties’ buildings and libraries, but also fast food, sports infrastructure, museums and the famous Cymbalista Synagogue. Between all these buildings, there are lawns where you can lay down in the sun - which here in November is still very bright.

What else to add? I am really loving my experience here. Living in such a different reality is teaching me a lot. Of course, sometimes I feel homesick, but this is a normal part of the process. And you know what? In the end, when I look at the beautiful Mediterranean Sea, I don’t feel so far from home after all.

Sunset, Hilton Beach.
Sunset, Hilton Beach. Photo: private

(Published 14 November 2022)