I worked on a kibbutz

They were screaming at each other in Hebrew. My head swung back and forth between them, my eyes wide. Two minutes on the job and I was already questioning my judgment committing to working on a kibbutz in Israel. 

Yosie, the man I'm standing with in the photo ran the "meat" side of the kitchen. My boss Tzila ran the "dairy" side of the kosher kitchen. I was living on a religious kibbutz in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the 1990s. My job six days a week was preparing the breakfast and evening meals for around 800 kibbutz members.

I was very nervous on the first day as I watched the two head chefs hollering at each other with such intensity. I couldn't help but whisper to Tzila later, "what were you two fighting about?" She laughed and said "we were deciding how much sugar to buy."

Awwww Israel. It's heartbreaking for me that it's currently "cool/trendy" to hate Israel right now. If people understood the culture, the politics and Middle Eastern history...well, that's a whole lot of other posts.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with kibbutzim: they are collective communities that were originally based on agriculture. Many of them were started in the early 20th century by Europeans that fled to Palestine to create a new life, well before Israel became a state.

I cooked meals for hundreds of people from 7am-3ish Sunday through Friday. Other kibbutz members, meanwhile, washed and folded my laundry. Cleaned our dorms. Sorted olives. Picked avocados. Everyone pitches in.

I lived with about thirty young people from all over the world. One roommate was from South African and spoke French, she was from a small island called Mauritius. My other roommate was an older Dutch woman who sucked her thumb at night. We spent time each day learning Hebrew together in a classroom which is called Ulpan.

The previous few years were really rough on me. The cross-country move back to Seattle, the heartbreak, the inflammatory bowel disease recurrence, the challenging science classes for grad school.... By the time I was accepted into Bastyr University to get my master's in nutrition, I was burned out and needed to escape.

I deferred grad school and took off to Israel with no idea what to expect. This was before the Internet so I literally read about the kibbutz program from one little brochure and that was all I knew!

Thankfully, my cousin Tony lived in Jerusalem. We grew up across the street from each other so he is more like a close brother. Also, my sister's best friend was attending Hebrew University up the street from his apartment. 

Even with them nearby, it was still frightening to commit to living in a strange place for so long, especially since my health wasn't great. The Ulcerative Colitis had been flaring up on and off for many years at this point. In order to travel, I had to take the steroid, prednisone, which I hated.

Despite what an unusual decision it was to live and work on kibbutz in my mid-20s (most of my friends in the program were younger) while sick and about to head into grad school, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Travel is - and always will be - my favorite kind of therapy.

I noticed that extracting myself from home and plopping myself into an entirely new world allowed me to discover aspects about myself that I didn't even know existed. 

I remember feeling like everyone at home held up mirrors of what they thought I was or who they thought I should be.

But when I traveled alone, there were no mirrors at all. I was able to find a quiet spot in the avocado fields where I'd write in my journal. I could test out new languages and express myself using unfamiliar words. I could learn about different cultures and integrate something totally foreign into my way of living.

I loved it. 

The reason I went on so many trips by myself over the years was because of the mind-expanding experiences I had while traveling within and outside of Israel that adventurous year.

It was a crazy experiment that fortunately paid off. 

I'd been through more than most people my age at that point in my life. I'd been hospitalized, sick, medicated, divorced, dumped by my best guy friend right after that - even though it was his idea to try and date*. I wondered if my heart would ever heal again.

But it did. Somewhere between peeling a thousand eggs, stuttering through Hebrew, hitchhiking to Tel Aviv, swimming in the dead sea, watching the sunrise  at 4am, smoking a joint with friends from all over the world to the point that all we could do was laugh since we couldn't figure out how to communicate while we were high.

Somewhere between that first day in the kitchen where I was thinking "JULIE, WHAT DID YOU GET YOURSELF INTO??" and the day I packed up my duffel bag and moved in with Tony in Jerusalem, something healed inside of me.

It wasn't just my belly. Nor my heart. There was a light - and a deep source of strength - that I found in myself that I didn't know existed until I spent all those months chopping cucumbers. And making yogurt from scratch. And cleaning the kitchen with Israeli squeegees - which are the coolest invention ever.

Those simple but powerful everyday tasks and the company of some of the most interesting people I've ever met helped prepare me for the next chapter of my life.

It was around this time that I took my last dose of oral prednisone for the UC. 

By the time I traveled around Europe by myself at the end of this year abroad, I felt like I was finally getting to know ME. The REAL ME. I knew I was a long way from significant self-actualization but felt comforted  that at least I was finally on the road to it.

The road to ME, uncensored, unrefined, unLEASHED.

It's been 20 years since that trip and I still just smile from the inside out when I think about it.

Do you know what I'm talking about? The kind of smile that starts inside your chest and spreads up to your eyes, and eventually reaches your mouth - since a true smile has nothing to do with the mouth. It's always in the eyes, the mirror to our souls.

That's what Israel did for me. It healed something much deeper than the tissue in my tummy. It TAUGHT me how to heal. It taught me that healing was possible.

Just writing about it is reminding me that I can still heal from what's happened to me this time - tears dripping down my cheeks as this occurs to me - It's reminding me of that deep source of strength that I often forget is there.

Conjuring up these memories reminds me that I can do it again.

That I can heal myself inside and out again....

That I have to at least try.

I do hope I'm well enough to travel to Israel again one day.

I promised Tzila I would visit. And you guys know how much I like to keep my promises. :)

Much love,

*I feel bad wording this experience in this way because he and I are are good now and healed our friendship years ago but I want to honor the words that came forth first draft for this project so...they remain (if you're reading this D, hope you're well xo).

PHOTO #7. This post is part of a series celebrating my life before I lost four organs to three cancers in 2014. It is an “online memorial” honoring the person I was, in the hopes that I can make peace with the disabled person I’ve become. Every day for 30 days until my birthday, I will challenge myself to write a post inspired by the photo I’m sharing. I will not plan the topic or write ahead of time. I will merely look at the photo and write whatever it inspires. Thanks for reading! #julesfor30 #happyrebirth 

F'ING Squarespace won't let me shrink this photo and I'm Tired so it stays like this.  And yes, Yosie is smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. Old-school chef world!

F'ING Squarespace won't let me shrink this photo and I'm Tired so it stays like this.

And yes, Yosie is smoking a cigarette in the kitchen. Old-school chef world!