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Israel through the eyes of a Jewish Studies scholar from Poland

I was answering the inner call of an academic to confront everything I read about

Hi, I am student of Jewish Studies in Poland. No, I am not Jewish.

Whenever I was asked which country I would like to visit, I'd answer, "Peru is my dream", "Oh, I'd like to see Norway". But the Middle East? Israel? It wasn't a destination that particularly attracted me.

However, I started studying about the history of the Jews in Poland (out of sheer curiosity and a desire to deepen my knowledge) and started learning Hebrew. I began to explore the meanderings of Jewish history, philosophy and Judaism. In classes on contemporary culture and politics, I read about the Diaspora, about the socio-cultural processes already taking place within the borders of the State of Israel itself, about the conflicts eating away at politicians and the grey citizens. I was looking into Israeli music and how Israeli art tells a story, how Israeli cinema portrays its history, and what place does such an important topic as the Holocaust have in all of this?

I was keen to travel to Israel, at least for a few months. Firstly to experience Hebrew in it's best form, but also for the inner call of an academic to confront everything I read about with reality.

So I put together everything I needed to take part in the Erasmus+ scholarship and, all in all, I went abroad. I will leave out the administrative and organizational experience at both universities in silence, which is not to say that it was not exciting, by no means. Rather, I will focus on another experience, quite unique in the scale of feelings we have the chance to experience - a visit to a place known-but-unknown.

I had not yet got off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport when I saw the first signs on containers and buildings in Hebrew. I don't know if you can understand the excitement – letters which I previously saw only in textbooks, now were in their natural environment. It was like seeing a lion on the savannah rather than in a zoo.

And then - and then it only got better.

Familiar and unfamiliar. Known-but-unknown.

I didn't know which roads I should take to get where I wanted to go. I didn't know how expensive or cheap the products were. How public transport and the university worked. But besides all of that, I didn't feel like a stranger. Because I associated the language (its sound, its individual words). Because seeing the different types of kippah on the heads of Jews didn't surprise me - I was learning about the differences between them. I knew the theoretical rules of the orthodox Bnei Barak district before anyone told me about their visits there.

I was able to cross-reference everything I read about with real life. I made an effort to get in touch with Israelis and did not hesitate to ask them questions about the experience of military service, about Palestine or the Orthodox community. And everything I found out I compared with my knowledge. And my joy was all the greater when the information from so many sources formed a coherent whole.

Additionally, Israel has experienced several waves of immigrants in its history. A huge proportion of the Jews who were building Israel at the beginning of the state came from Poland (including today's Ukraine). After the collapse of the Soviet Union, groups of Russian Jews also flocked to Israel. The grandmothers and grandfathers of many of my Israeli peers lived in Poland. Contrary to popular international opinion, Russian and Polish culture differ significantly. But, Jews coming from Eastern and Central Europe brought with them many small, everyday customs that I too know from my family home. Drinking strong tea with lemon, walking in slippers, certain foods or products in shops. How a country which is 4000 km away from mine home could be in the same time so close to my everyday life? On the other hand, the Israeli political arena with its conflicts and absurdities reminds me very much of our Polish backyard…

Of course, I was still an external observer there and understand that life in this country is not idyllic and is lined with many difficult experiences and relationships. However, it was so warm and welcoming that just after two months there I already knew that I will miss this country. And I wasn’t wrong – I have already booked plane tickets for another trip there. And I do wish you all also find a place like that. No matter how far it is from your actual house.

Martyna is completing MA in Jewish Studies studies at the University of Wrocław in Poland. Currently she's doing . Thanks to Erasmus+ exchange programme she moved to Israel for few months.

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