Anything that I could say about culture and adolescence in Israel wouldn’t be nearly enough. There aren’t enough words in English, Hebrew or any other language to describe what it was like.
The high school was religious, and catered towards girls with learning disabilities as well as those whose first language was not Hebrew. To my mother that seemed like the perfect school, especially since it was the only religious school in Jerusalem with those specialties.
Years later my mother said that had she known how much I was suffering she would have pulled me out of the school, but that wasn’t true. She knew. She knew about the discrimination, ridicule, guilt, forced religion. She knew that I was depressed all the time and acting out severely towards myself, yet I wasn’t allowed to go to another school. She was so concerned with me being religious that she didn’t consider what was truly important.
The principal was an older American woman who looked like a witch. She even had the nose of a witch, and the evil grin.
All of the students needed to sign a form that they would abide by the rules of the school inside and outside. Outside the rules were to dress modestly; no pants, no short sleeves. Pants were tough to give up, but I had to; otherwise I would have been kicked out of school. We had to follow all religious laws, and talking to boys was looked down upon. Most importantly: They were watching. Always.
While doing well in school was important, fitting into the mold was more so. I didn’t fit in. I was American. Americans in Israel, at least in my experience, are thought of as stuck-up, rich and stupid. The other girls would talk about me, sometimes not even bothering going behind my back. They mocked my accent, my limited knowledge of Hebrew, the books I read, my shoes, my pens, my backpack, and the fact that I rarely spoke to anyone. Wonder why. Later they mocked me for being depressed; "only babies cry".
Many of them fit in and even liked school. Whether it was because they accepted that there was no other place for them, or that they were brought up in such an environment and school wasn’t a change for them I don’t know. Fitting in was a big part of it.
At some point I began to talk to the other girls to an extent. I learned Hebrew, worked on my accent, did well in my private classes and in almost everything except for math, but I was still me, and couldn’t change that, even at the times that I wanted to. The majority of the class still didn’t like me, and I wasn’t allowed to read aloud in class, due to the fact that I had an American accent, and a speech problem that I still have and have had from a young age. I also was banned from Literature and History until eleventh grade because I “didn’t know enough Hebrew”.
Every morning the principal would give a lecture after prayers. She would go on and on about what effect the sins of the girls of Neve Ruchama had on the environment, as well as what a horrible example we are for the whole of orthodox Jews.
In 1999 there was a very serious earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, that killed around 17,000 people. Each morning, the principle would write the current death count on the whiteboard, then explain how it was our fault. Our sleeves and skirts weren’t long enough. We talked to boys, we didn’t do enough mitzvot (good deeds), we weren’t respectful enough. She said that each of us should feel like a murderer, and we’d better repent fast because Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are approaching.
She drilled and kept drilling. “If you aren’t how I want you to be you are worthless.”
Worthless. She, among other staff members and students called me worthless to my face on countless occasions.
It’s imaginable how any confused, angry and more rebellious by the day 16 year old would feel. It’s also imaginable that I am no longer Orthodox. What isn’t imaginable, however, is that I was one of only three or four girls in my graduating class who did not remain Orthodox.
The girls continued to pick on me about everything. I learned to justify, and when I wasn’t justifying, to shut up. All of my anger was directed on myself. It took years and years to recover from the effects of my acting out, but I can’t say that I ever fully recovered from even half of the trauma I went through as a student at Neve Ruchama.