Frontier Psychiatrist

Osnat’s Story – Nonfiction by Daniel F. Levin (Best of FP 2010)

Posted on: December 30, 2010

If you were a Jewish teen growing up in the DC area in the 90’s, chances are you may have gone on an Israeli summer teen tour.  And if you went on an Israeli summer teen tour, chances are you went on that behemoth of Israeli teen tour franchises, Masada.  I actually tried to avoid Masada by going with one of its smaller competitors, the slightly more religious United Synagogue Youth (USY) tour.  But it got swallowed up by Masada, and so I too was caught in its vortex.

Named for the mountain outpost where the Jews, trapped by the Romans in one of our usual terrible circumstances, made a suicide pact rather than be taken alive by their captors, there was somehow nothing defiant or spiritual about Masada.  Despite the beautiful video they showed our parents in the pitch meeting, by tour’s end, I would have given it the tagline, “Shop Israel.  And smoke a lot.”

Here are a few things which I quickly learned were deemed cool on the tour:

1) Smoking in the back of the bus. Bonus points for putting the correct end of the cigarette in your mouth.

2) Buying things you could get in the States.  When given the choice, you had to choose Ben Yehuda Street (think Times Square but less highbrow) over any religious site

3) Dissing Israelis. Though we were ostensibly in their country, they were considered smelly, naïve, and overenthusiastic — only good if they had cigarettes

4) Completing a sexy-sexy act in the bus without getting caught by a counselor

5)  Becoming teary eyed and broodingly silent during a sunrise hike to Masada, gone to a quiet, private place as you thought of the holy act committed there.

6) Being atheist—that is, being in Israel “ironically.”

The author, Merav, her boyfriend, "Brooke Shields," and unknown. (R to L)

The coolest kid on the trip was Ben.  He was considered a natural leader and was the subject of much cooing by the girls.  But no matter how flirtatious, he was always just out of reach because of his fierce loyalty to his girlfriend back home.  His friend Alex was deemed cool and attractive just for being Ben’s friend, though I once overheard some girls saying he would be so, SO hot, if he got a nose job.  My one real friend on the tour was Jason.  We played cards, listened to Elton John songs, and talked about why his family was voting for Ross Perot.  One time after a card game, as I eyed the cooler kids gathering to smoke pot and make fun of Israelis, I called Jason a nerd.  He told me that may well be so, and I might not be hanging out with him at home, but here, he was all I had.  I could take it or leave it.  Yes, he shamed me good.

Somewhere in the middle of this great voyage, we were brought to a small village on the outskirts of Haifa.  Here we were to stay with “host” families that had kids our age.  The first night we were there, we were gathered in the town social hall.  Years before The Bachelor, the Israeli teens were each given a rose and told to present it to the American they would like to host.  What genius thought this was a good idea for teens, I’ll never know.

The moment I saw her on one side of the town social hall, I knew she would be coming for me.  Like snow that’s dumped on either side of a snowplow, American teens were parting on either side before her, avoiding all eye contact.  It’s hard to describe Osnat exactly as she was.  If you imagine a troll, only tall and skinny, with heavy lids, freckles, a pug nose, a close-mouthed smile and socket-shock black hair, you might have an idea.  I desperately looked around for any hotties with a rose.  Damn, that one just went for Ben.  Anyone left within reach?  Any—any–.  And Osnat was before me, smiling shyly, holding out her rose.

Fate works in strange ways, however.  Freed of the pressure of a home-stay filled with sexual tension, I actually found a little bit of myself again.  One night Osnat and I played the Heart and Soul duet, with my taking the high part and improvising a bit.  As clichéd as this scene was (didn’t they see “Big?”), Osnat’s parents and her little brother stood to the side, glowing, as if Glenn Gould had arrived in their house. And soon this healthy, more confident me made friends with some of the other Israelis living in the village, including some dazzlers whom I would have slinked away from just days earlier, or at least conceded to Ben and Alex.

There was Merav, whom I fell for hard, a kind of Israeli Elizabeth Shue (from Karate Kid)–tan, a little plump, sporty, blossomed, with soft, beautiful eyes.  Sadly she had a boyfriend, Gil, who embraced me like a brother and I him.  He was perfect for her—dark, fit, strong, lanky, and destined to be a captain in the Israeli army.  Looking back on the way I was with the two of them, it might have been close to how Sal looks at Dean and Marylou in the beginning of “On the Road.”  They were both beautiful, absorbing creatures whose life force seemed barely contained by their skin.

Another Israeli who spoke flawless English looked like Brooke Shields, and, in my mind looking back, that was her actual name.  I have a picture of all of us, standing in a row, arms around shoulders, at the side of the little town swimming pool.  Merav and Gil are on one side of me, Brooke is on the other.  We are all tan, trim, muscular, cocky and happy.  For the first and possibly only time on my Masada tour, I didn’t worry about how cool or not-cool I was, whether or not I was a follower or a leader, whether or not I thrived or shriveled away from home, whether I, or Ben, or neither of us would ever be president.  I was the me I saw myself as on my best days—funny, warm, unjealous, and, at least in that one photo, as glowing as Dean Moriarty.

As for Osnat, she seemed content just to have me in the house at breakfast and around during dinner, playing piano with her a bit, kicking the soccer ball with her brother.  Her parents begrudged me nothing.  I think they were still eternally grateful I had accepted the rose.  When it was time to say goodbye, we exchanged addresses and I thanked them for being such warm hosts.  They each hugged me in turn.  The younger brother cried but they told him I was only going to be over in America.

I don’t remember my goodbye to Gil, Merav and Brooke.  I think we all assumed we’d see each other again.  How could we not?  We were teens who got on with each other.

The tour wound down.  We did our kibbutz stay where I shoveled chicken manure beneath avocado trees, the Jerky Boys tapes were listened to over and over again on our bus and considered high comedy, and our last two days in Jerusalem were spent, by group vote, on Ben Yehuda street.  During a closing ceremony, each Masada unit performed a song that encapsulated their summer.  Ben and Alex wrote ours, setting new lyrics to “Jack and Diane.”  Their song had every member of Masada MKP1, except for me and Jason, crying as we rehearsed it.  Another unit, I remember, reset the music from “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls.  The chorus began, “We come to Masada, to build on our future…”  I tried singing it back to one of their members, as we bumped along in an airport taxi the next day.  Through her tear-streaked eyes, she gave me the look of cold death.

No sooner had I returned to the States than I found a letter waiting for me at home.  It was from Osnat.  She filled me in on piano, on her brother who missed me, on what she was planning to study.  She asked me numerous questions, bubbling with her characteristic enthusiasm, and ended by asking me whether or not I would like a string bracelet.  I had every intention of responding.

Two years later, before heading off to college, I was trying to settle my affairs, when I came across the letter.  I got out a sheet of ancient stationary left over from my Bar Mitzvah and wrote a reply.  I apologized for taking so long—school started, then life got in the way.  I told her how happily I remembered my stay at her house, asked if she was still enjoying English, and asked her to give my love to her brother and parents.  I didn’t ask about Merav.  Finally, if she still was able, I would be happy to get a bracelet.  Within a week, I had a return letter.  She hadn’t forgotten about me at all.  Everyone was well there.  And of course she would love to make me that bracelet.  What colors would I want her to use?  I never wrote back.

To this day, I wonder about that merry troupe I encountered on my Masada Teen Tour. Did Ben grow up to be a great leader?  Did Alex get a nose job?  Where is Jason?  Is he a Tea Partier?  Did Merav and Gil make it?  Does Merav ever think about me?  From a quick internet search, it looks like Masada teen tours, at least as it existed then, is now defunct.  I won’t lose too much sleep.  To be fair, I learned a few things from that tour: that I hated group tours, that I loved Israel, that I hated being uncool, that I admired Israelis, and that when you can be yourself, whoever you are, you become instantly attractive—unless you’re really, really not.

As for Osnat, I hope she forgave me for not writing her back a second time.  I hope she grew into the most beautiful swan in Israel, or otherwise found her dreams teaching English, playing piano, or making jewelry.  I hope she doesn’t think badly of her American visitor, and I hope she never regretted giving me that rose.

Daniel F. Levin’s essay Fiddler in the Rough was serialized in Frontier Psychiatrist in September. His latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, was called a “delightful surprise” by the New York Times. His musical, To Paint the Earth, about resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, won the Richard Rogers Development Award.  He recently completed work on his memoir, From Yale to Barbacking: One Man’s Remarkable Journey.

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5 Responses to "Osnat’s Story – Nonfiction by Daniel F. Levin (Best of FP 2010)"

I’m surprised that Daniel wrote back at all – all of us, I think, have those penpal letters we never returned. But, I am still sad to think of Osnat waiting for Daniel’s next reply, holding her colored strings, ready to make that friendship bracelet. Perhaps – as Wikileaks has shown us – this never made friendship bracelet is a metaphor for our world today – full of friendly comments on the surface, but when it comes down to it, we end up spending our time speculating about the illicit affairs of world leaders.

thank you Jonathan(sptly named)

the internet should make it easy to find her and (anonymously) send the bracelet. Perhaps she does not remember.

Living there for years i found many of my university friends had succumbed to cancer. One cousin to ‘friendly fire”. It is nice to know we are FRIENDS, not visitors or ‘friending’,

[…] F. Levin’s essays Fiddler in the Rough and Osnat’s Story appeared in Frontier Psychiatrist in 2010.   His latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, […]

[…] F. Levin’s essays Fiddler in the Rough and Osnat’s Story appeared in Frontier Psychiatrist in 2010.   His most recent work, What Really Happened, was just […]

[…] Levin is the editor of Nothing Special. His comic essays Fiddler in the Rough and Osnat’s Story were serialized last year on Frontier Psychiatrist. His latest play, Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful […]

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