February 24, 2015

The one that got away

After falling in love with an entirely different country, Viewpoints columnist questions the life of the mind.

There’s something sexy about the first time you open Plato; the big questions, the little details, the fact that you’re reading the guy to whom all philosophy is a “footnote.” But, eventually, the allure wears off, and Plato is just 50 more pages on top of that P-set and exam, 50 more pages on those bagged eyes. I’ll call this phenomenon PPSD (Post-Plato Stress Disorder): a sense of disillusionment with the vibrant life of the mind promised at the University of Chicago. What about the life of the heart? Or the soul?

By the time first year came to a close, I was suffering from a severe case of PPSD; I was dissatisfied not only intellectually, but also socially, romantically, and religiously. Before coming to Chicago, my boyfriend and I decided that my first year would be my trial year— if I loved the University, I would stay; if not, I would move to Israel and live happily ever after with him. After we broke up in fall of first year, the thought lingered—if I were still with him, would I still be here? I came to Chicago to study economics and philosophy, but due to some unfortunate class scheduling conflicts, econ could no longer be an option. By moving to Israel, I would have been able to study exactly what I wanted—PPE (philosophy, politics, economics) at the Hebrew University. While asking myself, “Should I stay or should I go?” I wondered whether a seemingly impractical philosophy degree from UChicago was really worth it. How far could the UChicago name really get me?

Yet perhaps I only like Israel because I associated the country with the first time I uttered, “I love you,” or because I was on a gap year program detached from the struggles of everyday life. So this past summer, I made sure to go back to the land of milk and honey and ended up falling in love again—this time not with a G.I. Jew or Start-Up Stud—but with Israel.

I was in a war zone, for God’s sake, a place where rocket sirens rang more often than cell phones—how could I enjoy it? Israel is a strange place where a Hamas anthem “Up, do terror” intended to demoralize Israelis was turned into a summer smash; a place where war brings people together to help, to pray, to protest, to question; where the newspaper is burgeoning with heated and significant debates everyone has an opinion on; where friends are family; where strangers will give you rides, invite you for a Shabbos meal; where my “crazy” curls aren't considered crazy; where Birkenstocks are worn at weddings; and where my private interests are public. All those Hebrew songs I discovered on YouTube play in cafés and on the radio and I finally had people to discuss how this line was “a brilliant play on chapter four of the Song of Solomon” with. I feel a strange connection to Hebrew, which simultaneously feels dearer than my mother tongue English, while maintaining the lure of the foreign.

Here I am, an American, feeling like a stranger in the Windy City. People understand me in Israel. My forwardness isn't strange or “rude”; it’s the norm. Israelis are known for being blunt. It may even be said that the country has more water than political correctness. People there understand my quotes and associations, my questions, my mentality.

I was 17 when I visited Israel for the first time, and I wasn’t too impressed. It’s not that I’ve grown up in a Zionist youth group and my parents only fed me falafel. In fact, I don’t think (at least not consciously) I would like to be there for any ideology—I’m just very happy in the Holy Land. And I’m not deeply miserable at this University either; I’m just considerably more contented in Israel.

There are two main compartments of life: the personal and the professional. In Israel, the former is prioritized, in America the latter. At UChicago your life is college; in Israel you have a life, and you also happen to go to college. In short, the difference can be summed up as follows: The Regenstein is open 24/7 and at Hebrew University the library is open from 9 through 21:45 from Sunday through Wednesday, and from 9 to 19:00 on Thursday.

Granted, I am writing this in the Regenstein Library (yes, at an hour that an Israeli library would be closed). I’m giving the life of the mind one last shot. Maybe I stay for the leg up in grad school applications, maybe because of UChicago’s material resources—or maybe I’m just an emotional masochist who finds pleasure in even the dullest passages of The Republic. Indeed, I was unsure about my decision until I visited China over winter break on a UChicago trek. There, I realized I could enjoy myself somewhere that was not Israel and that I could be attracted to someone who didn’t smell of hummus. I saw how halfway around the world there was a community I could be a part of that wasn’t Jewish—the community of UChicago alumni with shared experiences and values of their own.

Since then, I’ve come to terms with my decision and have even grown to thrive in the daunting yet rewarding role of advocating for Israel on campus. I am embracing both the secular and theological spring of opportunities—be they clubs, workshops, or services that only a world-class institution offers. I am now the master of my schedule, only taking courses I want to take—even ones in economics. I am getting a once-in-a-lifetime experience here in Hyde Park and if all else fails—well, I’ll always have Israel.

Eliora Katz is a second-year in the College studying philosophy.