For his year off before college, Avi Perry ’05 was half-Israeli ascetic, half-America cowboy.
The first six months of the year he spent at a yeshiva connected to Jerusalem by a single, winding road that was often closed because of people throwing rocks at cars. He prayed twice a day, studied Talmudic law from 5:30 a.m. to midnight, sometimes later. It was all self-motivated study, he says, “no tests, no grades, no status reports.”
The second part of the year, from March to July, he worked as a wrangler on a 90,000-acre cattle ranch three hours outside Denver, Colo. He went to a bar with Willie Nelson. He castrated cows.
Since three suicide bombers struck cities in Israel this weekend, members of Yale’s community of students who lived there have faced two distinct wars in their two separate homes. There have been twice the vigils, twice the threat of cell phone calls from family dusted across a spreading war zone, and twice the feeling of helplessness among those in New Haven.
Some nights in Israel, Perry says he stood guard on a fence that separated his school from the Palestinian villages that surrounded it. Lately, he says, within the last week, really, he’s wanted to go back and have his gun again.
Instead, he’s at Yale. He’s getting ready for his Directed Studies finals, reading an extra book about Augustine, playing a lost boy in Yale Children Theater’s version of Peter Pan. His orthodox Jewish family lives in New Haven, his friends are at Yale, and his girlfriend is at the University of Pennsylvania. But, he says, “it’s very difficult in a time of crisis to be away from your people.” Which is why he’s been fighting a weeklong urge to get on a plane to the Middle East.
“It’s just easier to be there when there’s trouble,” he says, scrolling through Associated Press wire reports on his laptop. “I remember when I was sitting in Israel, I felt a lot safer than CNN said I was.”
On his door is a Hebrew bumper sticker; on his head, a crocheted yarmulke he almost never takes off; in the corner, a pair of boots with spurs.
He was impressed by the turnout at Tuesday’s vigil, but most, he says, are preoccupied with the other war against terrorism.
“I don’t think most people here are aware or care about what’s going on in Israel right now in any more than in an academic sense,” he says. “That I can understand, but I do wish the Jewish community at Yale were united behind Israel.”
Mandu Sen ’04 grew up in Beer Sheva, Israel, and was active in the peace movement. Unlike Perry, she says in a telephone interview, she has stayed reclusive, avoided vigils, support meetings and even questions.
“My response is to stay away from it,” she says, “to not let it materialize for me. Thinking about it makes me very pessimistic. It’s definitely not something I want to deal with all the time, and I didn’t go to the vigil for that reason.
Sen, like Perry, talks about the feeling that a peace process she grew up believing was plausible — maybe even likely — has totally dissolved with the last week’s violence. Her parents are in Israel, her friends are there, her classmates and relatives and neighbors. But unlike Perry, she says, she doesn’t feel any compulsion to go back.
“It’s horrifying, but in a sense,” she says, “it was expected. All you can do is feel helpless, basically; that’s the main response I’m getting from people here. The situation’s so hopeless, there’s nothing I could personally do to improve [it]. So I don’t have a lot of guilty feelings about not being in Israel.”
But in comparison, she says, terrorism against America is perhaps a more manageable tragedy.
“I feel that the World Trade Center, with all its horrors, is possibly something the Americans can deal with,” she adds. “But I don’t see peace in the Middle East coming too soon.”
Ishai Eshkol’s ’02 father is an Israeli diplomat. He finished his last two years of high school in Israel, he says, and then he entered the army. He says he did not go to the vigil on Tuesday; he didn’t even know about it.
“I don’t go to Yale vigils or ‘Fight for Israel’ kind of things,” he says, “because I’m from there. I don’t need any kind of external ceremony to identify with Israel.”
He says he was affected more by the terrorism in America.
“Sept. 11 was more painful to me than anything that happened in Israel because it came as such a surprise. When I saw on TV what happened in Israel, it was an ‘oh no, not again’ kind of feeling. In a very routine way, I called my family in Tel Aviv to see if they’re OK. And that was it,” he says.
Gil Doron ’04 served as a diplomatic liaison to the Egyptian army, the Jordanian army and the United Nations; he went to the vigil and he says, “It warmed my heart.”
The great irony, as he says, is that joining the army doesn’t help. It is as Perry says and Sen repeats: there is nothing that can be done from within Yale’s ivy walls.
“Here in Yale, we’re kind of sheltered,” Doron says. “It takes time for any news to filter through the bubble. But people here do know, they’ve approached me and asked me questions. There is, in a sense, a kind of solidarity if you really think about it.”