It was 1987. The year of the Kings Cross Fire and the Hungerford Massacre. The year of Three Men and a Baby and Fatal Attraction. Walk Like an Egyptian was top of the charts, Moonlighting arrived on our TV screens for the first time and everyone had a copy of Bonfire of the Vanities. We had big hair, big phones and big ideas. It was 1987 and I was fourteen years old.
Fourteen is often seen as an awkward age. A no-man's-land between the innocence of childhood and the cynicism of maturity. Fourteen year olds don’t want to be kids. But they don't much fancy being adults either. And they struggle and fight and swear through all the uncertainty.
But for me, fourteen was a magical age. It was an age of independence, of discovery and freedom. At age fourteen, I spent five long, glorious months in a field school in Israel, a few kilometres from the coastal town of Ashdod and a million miles from anything I had ever known before. I left behind my family, my friends and my rainy hometown in the north of England and I moved to a sun-bleached dormitory building with a corrugated iron roof and windows that rattled with the daily fly-past of army fighter jets. I had only a rusty command of Hebrew and had never been away from home before for longer than a week. And suddenly I found myself in the middle of the Middle East, with a group of people I didn't really know, in a country that I had not visited since a two-week family holiday when I was eight years old.
There were twenty-five of us in the group. All of us were fourteen years old, bursting with hormones, away from our parents for the first time and eager to experience everything we possibly could without being caught and/or sent home. The idea was that we should experience real Israeli life. Attend school, go on tiyulim, meet the people and learn the language. The reality was rather different. We hadn't gone to learn Hebrew and visit the Holy Land. We had gone to smoke, swear, snog and sunbathe.
The choice of venue for this 'experience of a lifetime' was far from ideal. The school itself was a boarding school for troubled teenagers. Every dope addicted or anorexic adolescent from a fifty-mile radius was there. The offspring of every acrimonious divorce, alcoholic father or imprisoned mother was sent to that school. These were kids who had nothing - materially or emotionally - and into their deprived world the powers-that-be decided to parachute twenty five blonde, pasty, pampered British kids who had more electronic gadgets than these kids had had hot dinners. It was a recipe for disaster. Every day one of our group reported at least one item of clothing missing. We never got them back, although we'd bump into Israeli kids on the school campus a month later wearing our t-shirts and listening to our radios and we'd wonder how a girl from Dimona had been able to buy a Marks and Spencer sweater or a radio with a British socket-plug and adapter.
We studied in our own separate classroom so that we could stick to the British school curriculum. But the truth was that none of us had come to study. It was a five-month holiday and we intended to milk it for all it was worth. We were late for class every day. The girls sat at the back, chewing gum, plaiting each other's hair and making knotted bracelets with coloured thread. The boys gazed out of the window and stared at the gorgeous sixteen-year-old Yemenite girls and thought that they were the nearest thing to perfection they'd ever seen.
The billed highlight of each week was the weekly tiyul. We were woken at 5 a.m. every Wednesday for a day's trek through the Negev desert or across the Judean hills. (We had to start early so that we could catch the sun-rise before we began the trek). We'd clamber into the bus, bleary eyed, while the teachers repeated the words "Hat! Water Bottle! Camera. (Optional)" like some possessed mantra. We would then argue with the coach driver, and each other, over the choice of tape to play on the journey. We'd beg for Madonna (it was the year of Papa Don’t Preach) and the driver would insist on Arik Einstein.
The thing about trekking in Israel is that there is absolutely no point to the whole exercise. Other than physically doing it. There was never a final destination that we were aiming for - we always hiked in a circle. And it wasn't long before we began to question, feet blistered and calves aching, why the hell we were tramping up yet another dehydrated, rocky mountain only to walk down the bloody thing again and get back in the bus. Occasionally, places of national or historical interest were pointed out. The snake path up to Masada. Joseph Trumpledor's battle field. The burial place of the matriarch, Rachel. But mostly, we walked up a hill, ate lunch, and then walked down again. The tour guides (well meaning National Service girls who were totally out of their depth) did their best. But when you're fourteen, newly arrived from England and just want to chat about which of the boys in the group you really fancy, you don't much care about the geographical mechanics of a wadi. You just want to know if he fancies you back.
We were spotty, cynical and sarcastic. We were out to avoid as much study as we could. We were away from home for five whole months and we were going to make the most of it. We hadn't come to learn the language or meet the people. We'd come to go wild. We could smoke without getting caught. Swear at the teachers without our parents finding out. We were in the nearest thing to heaven a fourteen-year-old can get. And we drove the teachers and tour leaders to distraction.
Then, one evening in March, something happened to change all that. Or, more accurately, someone. We were sitting in the lounge at the end of the dormitory building, listening to Bruce Springsteen and planning an illegal midnight beach party in Ashdod, when a tall, lanky, bespectacled young man walked into the room. He was wearing kibbutz sandals and a scruffy crocheted kippa, and spoke in a strong (to our ears) American accent. He was the first American most of us had ever met. (In 1987, we were convinced that they all sounded like JR, our only point of reference.)
The young man was twenty years old and he had come over to the school from the neighbouring Yeshiva, where he was studying for a couple of years before beginning University. He strode into the centre of the lounge and a hush descended on the room.
“Okay guys, listen up!”
Twenty five English fourteen-year-olds, in stunned silence, looked at him, then at each other, and then at him again. We’d never been called ‘guys’ before and we had no idea where the phrase ‘listen up’ came from. We didn’t know who this chap was, what he wanted or why he was standing on a chair in the middle of our lounge with an orange in one hand and a siddur in the other, asking us to listen up. But we listened up.
He had been asked to come over to the school to run some informal programmes. The kind of ‘Jewish education by the back door’ that only half-crazy Americans are capable of imparting on cynical English fourteen-year-olds. With no formal training in education or youth leadership he managed to turn a bunch of disaffected teenagers, who were intent only on having a good time and getting up to mischief, into a cohesive group of self-aware and engaged young adults, who were open to new ideas and challenging opportunities.
After that first evening in the lounge, he came with us on every tiyul. While previously we had moaned and whined our way up hill and down dale, we now found ourselves singing nonsense marching songs as we hiked along, or playing ball games over lunch. He encouraged the stronger members of the group to help the smaller, weaker ones to cross the difficult patches of terrain. He persuaded us to stop and marvel at the scenery. He made us feel that the hills that we were walking on were our hills, a part of our heritage, hills that Jews had prayed and dreamed about for centuries. We stopped asking for Madonna on the coach – we were happier singing together as a group or taking the microphone to start our own traveling radio station.
In the evenings, there was no longer any time to plan a break-out to the beach or to smoke illicit cigarettes behind the dining hall. We were too busy decorating the lounge area, creating a group newspaper, learning about the country we were visiting. We stopped splitting up into mini cliques or getting ourselves bogged down in that tiresome pattern of break-up and make-up of adolescent friendships. With his encouragement we started to gel as a group and became a tightly-knit bunch of teenagers who genuinely cared about ourselves, each other, the land, its history and this very special (though clearly slightly deranged) American.
There were some in the group who could barely read Hebrew. Others had never before heard anyone make Kiddush. Most had no idea how to keep Shabbat or which way to put on tephillin. But somehow, (I can’t even tell you how) this geeky American, with his flailing arms and his Chesire-cat grin, inspired us to give it a try. He would happily sit for hours listening to one of the group read two lines of Hebrew in slow, faltering mispronounced syllables. When homesickness set in, as it sometimes did, he’d listen, and occasionally advise, but mostly just listen. He was old enough for us to look up to and respect, but young enough to gain our immediate confidence and trust. He was a conduit between out-of-control teenagers and our exasperated teachers.
At the time, I was obsessed with the Beatles. Posters of the Fab Four were hung on every inch of my wall in the dormitory. I would listen to their music on an almost constant loop on my walkman. I would celebrate their birthdays and drove my room-mates mad with anecdotes and stories about them. My friends would lose patience with me and beg me to shut up. But this funny American would talk to me for hours about why I loved the music. What was it about them that made me feel so passionately? What was my favourite song? I told him that my favourite track was Here Comes the Sun and I made a copy of the song for him. On every tiyul, as we drove in the bus towards our starting point, the sun would rise and he would come over to where I was sitting and say, “Hey, Here Comes the Sun!”. He knew it was a ridiculous obsession. He knew it was a silly phase that would soon pass. But he knew that it was important to me. And he treated it with respect.
Maybe it was his infectious laugh that made us love him? Maybe it was simply because he made it all seem like fun? Maybe it was because, deep down, we knew that smoking and swearing was all very well, but once the novelty had worn off, it really wasn’t that clever after all, and he showed us that we could behave and enjoy ourselves and make the most of this amazing opportunity we’d been offered. Maybe it was simply because he made us feel great about ourselves and he taught us that we were worth it. It’s hard not to care about yourself when someone so inspiring cares about you too. Or maybe, it was because we were fourteen years old, confused and misunderstood, and he just listened. He always had time to listen.
I don’t know if he expected to become so important to our Israel experience. I’m not even sure that, to this day, he’s aware of the effect that he had on us. But looking back, almost twenty years later, he remains the central figure of those magical five months. He held the group together, showed us how to bond as a team, so that when we got back to school and sat in England, thousands of miles from those dusty hills, we could look across the room at one of the other members of the group and know, without saying a word, that we had shared the most amazing five months of our young lives.
But five months passes by in a flash. Before we knew it, we were back in the UK, studying for our exams and re-acquainting ourselves with life in England. The lanky American made his own way in life and we moved on with ours. We grew up. Went to University. Fell in love, got married, had children. And those magical days in Israel, when life was simple and the future was as vast and open as the starry middle-eastern sky, became a distant memory. A chance remark or a reminiscent sight would occasionally take my mind back to those days. But, for the most part, it was locked away in the dim and distant past. Happy days, but gone forever.
Years later, I find myself in London. Working hard and, for the most part, happy; the mother of a wonderful eight-year-old boy, and the writer of a modest blog, Suburban hymns. Out of the blue I receive a message from another blogger. His name, he claims, is Jameel of the Muqata, and we begin a tentative email correspondence, blogger to blogger, about the Beatles. He tells me that, long ago, a friend gave him a copy of Here Comes the Sun and, to this day, it remains his favourite song. He asks me which is my favourite track? And what am I doing now? And how old is my son? And I smile, because I know that, somewhere among those dusty hills, where I had trekked so happily at age fourteen and watched the sun rise, that lanky, smiling, slightly mad but inspiring American, is still listening.