After finishing my last library book at the end of the long chag, I was faced with a crisis of sorts. There were no other books waiting for me on my coffee table.
What to do?
I began poking around in desperation, looking for a good book to reread. Without a doubt, there are books I adore, that resonate deeply with me; rereading them is like visiting an old friend or wearing a favorite sweater. On the route to that book I found my old, dusty red-leather folder of letters from years ago peeking out from under a bunch of papers.
When I say years ago, I mean many years ago. They were aerograms from America to Israel, where I studied for my junior year abroad at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Now, for those who have never seen one, an aerogram is a letter through which we kept in touch with our family and friends. In those pre-cell-phone days, aerograms were our primary connection with home. Letters were often newsy and poignant, filled with juicy details of life back in the States. One fun aerogram I found was from a good friend who devoted most of the page relaying particulars of our favorite soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.” She felt it was important to keep me up to date on the new romances and breakups.
Of course, there was the option to telephone home, but it usually involved a bus ride to the Jerusalem post office from the campus on Mount Scopus. After standing in line for our turn at the public telephones with those pesky asimonim — tokens — in hand, we were connected via an international telephone operator. Most of us only called home around chagim or when we desperately needed money. (Some of us called more than others.)
At that time, studying abroad was a real privilege, not an expectation. Most of my friends stayed in their colleges for their junior year. My father, of blessed memory, who was fluent in Hebrew and an ardent Zionist, believed it would be “the best year of my life,” however; he encouraged me to spend junior year there. I can still recall as a child looking up at the spooky black and white portrait of an austere Theodore Herzl that hung on the wall in his study. Invariably, my father’s letters began with a paragraph in formal and impeccable Hebrew, with words that required deciphering from my Israeli roommate.
Being so far away often was challenging, but it also promoted real independence. My friends and I had to grow up, and fast. That meant making decisions, which often couldn’t wait until the next aerogram popped into our mailbox directing us from home. I remember feeling overwhelmed with excitement, fear, homesickness, curiosity, and a budding sense of new self-identity.
When moments of homesickness crept in, especially at the beginning of the year, most of us sucked it up, cried in our pillows or to our friends. That year, however, our friends became surrogate family. We also learned how to navigate our relationships with Israelis, who were our roommates and friends in the dormitory.
Like many students who were on the one-year program, I requested to share a room with an Israeli in order to really immerse myself in the experience. To this day, I’m not sure whose idea that was, probably my father’s. As it turned out, Carmela was my very reluctant Israeli roommate, and she wasn’t in the least bit thrilled at the prospect of sharing a room with an “Amerikait.” Especially, with someone so different from her. Someone who was five years younger, “datiya” — Orthodox — and had never been a “chayelet” — a soldier.
From the start, Carmela projected a tough and prickly persona. When I moved my American self into the room, she immediately warned me that if I wanted to speak with her, it would have to be in Hebrew, or no dice. American girls, according to Carmela, were spoiled and soft like “margarina” — margarine. In the next few days, she proceeded to move all my belongings around. Then in the following weeks, it only got worse.
She was on a mission.
Finally, things began to shift. One day I returned to the room and found my bed in a different corner of the room, closer to the door. Subtlety was out the window, and clearly something had to give. With my back and bed against the wall, I needed to prove that this Amerikait wasn’t margarina, that I could stand up to Carmela. Even though she unnerved me, there also was something pulling me to stay and dig in my heels. Mustering my courage, I finally confronted Carmela, in Hebrew, and told her I wasn’t going to be forced out of the room. On a roll, I concluded with a final sentence, “I paid for this room too.”
She was shocked. I also was shocked when those words spilled out of my mouth. Immediately, however, there was a softening in her eyes and attitude towards me, as if to say, “hmmm, maybe this girl isn’t so margarina.”
Gradually, we began to communicate and trust one another. Peeling away the layers of stereotypes, we found common ground. Although we were superficially different, we seemed to understand one another and connected on a deeper level. True to her word, we spoke only in Hebrew which really was a gift to me. The day I left to return home, we cried. Over the next several years we communicated via aerograms. Carmela even recorded some of my favorite Hebrew songs and sent them to me.
Reading those letters brought me right back to that wonderful and formative year of growth. Time has a way of eroding some important memories, but the letters reminded me of that special time and the feelings of love that came across the continents in the form of aerograms.
Like most people nowadays, unfortunately, I rarely write letters anymore and resort to short texts and emails. I miss the thrill of receiving and reading and rereading letters. Maybe it’s about time to buy some beautiful stationary and invest in some more written memories that last a lifetime.
Esther Kook of Teaneck is a reading specialist and freelance writer.