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The land of Israel forged our friendship. We met in a gap year program: I an American, she an Israeli. She introduced herself as Danielle, but that sounded all-too-familiar for the foreign being she was. Instead, I chose to call her by her last name: Mazuz [Mah-zooz].
For a year, we studied the Talmud together. At first, we did not speak the same language. I was raised with the English of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary and New York Times crossword puzzles: formal, American, planned. She spoke Hebrew in a way that was natural and organic: she played with it, turned it inside out, and let it bounce off her tongue.
Despite our mutual efforts, some linguistic hurdles were too difficult to surmount: in Hebrew, there is no sound for the first letter of my name. “Rikki” begins with the letter resh, the sound of which is wholly different than the R in my lexicon. An R-sound is light, allowing a light gush of air to escape from the mouth; a resh-sound, on the other hand, emerges from deep vibrations of the throat. I could never quite perfect my resh, although Mazuz was a master. In Hebrew, she could identify me better than I could identify myself.
Throughout the year, she took me around the country to places only a native could have known. We went cherry picking and dirtied our hands and our mouths with sticky maroon juice. We went to a beer and song festival in the middle of the night, deep in a dark pine forest. I spent a weekend at her house in the Golan, a region known for greenery and vineyards.
We drove there on highways carved out of ancient mountains. Her back porch looked out onto sprawling fields, leading to paths of flat grass that had been compressed by those who had trod down to discover the stream. She dressed in the colors of the landscape, as if prepared to embark on an exploration of it. She wore baggy pants and loose t-shirts in shades of light brown, olive green, burnt yellow, deep orange. She pinned her tight reddish-brown curls on the top of her head, but some fell loose and careless to the side.
There was something carefree yet conscious in Mazuz that helped me to decipher the dynamic Israeli spirit. She passed through the land with ease and comfort, as if she could capture what was good in her hand. She managed to make me envious of life in Israel, and how she seemed to feel inherently at home despite the many complications of living in the Middle East: A constant water scarcity means showers cut short. Areas in her backyard still hold mines from the strife of previous generations. A dauntingly serious regional conflict takes place near her home, and politics promise her nothing but uncertainty.
However, the beating Middle Eastern sun is her battery, and I know no Mazuz anywhere else.
Last year, Mazuz was offered a job that would require her to live in America for the year to educate children about Israel. I urged her to come: a full year, together! I would take her to Times Square, Central Park, wherever she pleased. I was sure that the height of midtown skyscrapers would shock her, and the lush green of Central Park would fascinate her. But she turned it down. Her land is no host for her: it is a home. She can travel around the world, but she would prefer not to live anywhere else.
A friendship so inherently tied to geography is hard to sustain, and even harder to characterize or properly remember when I find myself in a wholly different setting. It is strange to know that I found a true friend with whom I can hardly communicate now. Hebrew no longer flows off my tongue, my lips; it gets stuck in my throat and emerges some mangled sound different from that which I vocalized in my imagination.
In college, I am immersed in broad discussions about the works of Eliot and Milton, making it increasingly difficult to recall idiosyncratic conversations in Hebrew about the Talmud. In a way, it is a comfort to have a friendship on reserve, a freeze-dried-ramen-noodles-friendship, waiting to be recommenced, revivified, redefined.
But I am left to wonder whether there is an expiration date on friendships that I tuck neatly away into the shelves of my memory. I can only hope that our friendship is rich enough to remain.
I cannot deny that there lies something foundational between us. And for now, at least, I remain here and she remains there.
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