I almost flaked on my Advanced Open Water diving course in Taganga at the last minute. I do that sometimes. I get scared of finishing things and run away. I had already done six breathtaking dives and to complete the course I had one requirement left: the 30-meter deep water dive. The night before the dreaded deed, I read the chapter on deep diving from the PADI booklet because I also do that. My homework, that is. PADI had elaborated on quite an extensive amount of possible things that could get me killed from this really unnecessary activity that is breathing under water with fish and other aquatic life. After all I had spent all my life not diving to 30 meters as a happy and thriving individual. I was scared. “Do I have to?” I asked my instructor in the morning. By looking at my face you would think that it’s not pretty coral but rotting fish that awaited me under 30 meters. Thankfully, Tomas glanced at the death page I was pointing at on the PADI book, took it from my hands, held it up, and said “Americans wrote this!”
Ever since I left America and moved to Israel in 2007, people always ask me why? The motivation behind the question depends on the person asking it. Some Israelis want to figure me out. Was it Zionism? Was it love? Was it some some strange desire to be closer to god by hanging out in the Holy Land? Others who know that I arrived to Zion from the land of opportunities rather than the land of Erdoğan, ask the question because they are honestly confused. Why would anyone who could live in New York or San Francisco chose to live in what they consider to be their shit-hole?
After all these years I still don’t have a good answer. I usually dismiss the question by saying “insanity! Acute insanity is why I moved to Israel!” Perhaps the reason I avoid the question is because the true answer reveals that Israel was less the destination than America was the point of departure: after 10 years in the United States I was scared to turn American. I cited American individualism, alienation, and the lack of a sense of community.
Yet things weren’t perfect in my new home either. In Israel, my “non-Israeli” friends and I lamented over the brute culture we now had to live under even if we loved it. We nicknamed the men of the country as a whole “Israeli shitheads” for their savage dating habits yet still could not help but fall in love and marry them. There were days I longed for American political correctness that would prevent some crazy lady on a bus call me a “Russian whore” and a governmental bureaucracy that would not have me visit countless offices to get a driver’s license. Mostly I missed the sense of discipline and goal-oriented living that Americans seemed possess even though these very characteristics made them distanced and alienating in my eyes. Despite my views of America as a soulless machine on automaton, I admired my college friends who had gone off to do great things, volunteering for the Peace Corps, teaching underprivileged kids in the Bronx, or making tons of money working for some consulting company. The US had a very strong pull in its vastness, ease, and to cite yet another cliche, its sea of opportunities. I knew that if I hadn’t left, living there would have become a habit I would need rehab to break. Yet with all the logical arrows pointing out of Israel, I had no intention of going back to States. I was so scared of America’s allure that I didn’t even visited my mother in San Diego, the home of my adolescence, since 2008.
When I arrived in California after a 7 year hiatus, armed with a PADI Advanced Open Water license in my bag, I was anxious. My mother and I landed at LAX on a Sunday afternoon and started driving south towards the home where I had spent five years of my youth. When I saw a sign for In & Out Burger on the way, I urged my mother to stop. My mouth watered remembering their delicious burgers and chocolate shakes. We went in and got in line. I looked up to the menu and read the calories listed with each item. I would have walked out but it was already my turn and the young guy at the counter was awaiting my order. I reluctantly ordered a burger and fries, no shake—you do not want to know how many calories are in one of those. Not as happy as I would have been if I had devoured the shake I was planning on ordering, I got back in the car and we drove home.
“Aren’t you scared to live in Israel,” my high school English teacher and only friend in San Diego asked me a few days later as she ate a 220-calorie spinach salad from the Corner Bakery at the UTC Mall. I had a lemon bar. If she had asked me the question while I was hiding under a bush to the sound of sirens during last summer’s war with Gaza I would have said that I was horrified like a kitten from its own image. Any other time, I lived my life free and happy. In America I was anxious all the time. I was scared to eat, I was scared to walk being constantly reminded to “watch my step.” Plastic bags carried the risk of choking and coffee cups urged for careful handling lest you may burn. Almost everything you buy carries some risk or other that is clearly stated with a warning sign. And the supposed “real” dangers are always omnipresent as well. The war on terror has Homeland Security Advisory Levels stuck on “heightened” perpetually.
Clearly people mostly ignore warnings, which some believe is actually dangerous in drowning out the real dangers. When people get accustomed to ignoring danger signs, they easily can ignore danger too. Yet when the risks of everyday living are exposed with all their nakedness, it causes anxiety in the subconscious levels of our psyche. Never mind that America might actually be a dangerous country if one takes statistics on gun deaths as reference. USA is the country with the highest number of gun deaths in the “West”.
Dangerous or not, all things considered was America or Americans so different than the rest of the world? Over two thousand years ago, the priests in Teotihuacan made sacrifices to their gods in ways too similar to the Israelites in the Temple Mount. Today a middle schooler in Mexico City approached me with a worksheet in hand, read a bunch of questions in English (half of which he could barely pronounce), and jotted down my answers. Pleased to have completed his homework, he asked for a “selfie.” If my recent explorations in Mexico showed me anything it’s that humans lived and died so similarly no matter which continent or century. On the other hand, if I remember one thing the Thais taught me, it’s that everything is “same same but different.” I was happier in Israel and it wasn’t the same.
Sometimes it’s important take a few steps back to make sense of the steps already taken. Returning home to San Diego and sleeping in my high-school bedroom reminded me that America is inspirational as well as it is dangerously addictive. I spent hours going through boxes of old letters and cassette tapes that had collected dust under my bed, went on beautiful sunset walks at the beach, and the best part of it all, had lots of fun hanging out with my mother.
I may have an allergy towards warning signs but while in San Diego I was filled with renewed rigor to write and once again hardwired to make to-do lists that I started crossing off with intense pleasure. I had coffee in giant cups at the Living Room Coffeeshop in La Jolla writing until late at night. As much as America gives me anxiety it also inspires me to work harder and I need it to. I look forward to visiting again soon as much as I look forward to returning to my other home in Israel, where my soul receives the passion it needs to dive deep.