Gap Year

Michael Orbach


We descend like carrion birds.

We descend in overstuffed El Al and Delta Planes landing on blistering tarmac. We descend in Armani Exchange t-shirts, Tommy Hilfiger polos, Old Navy board shorts and Silver Tab cargo pants. Our oversized JNCO jeans flow into the seats next to ours. We—18-year-old religious Jewish teenagers who just finished our last year of high school—descend to a land—Israel, Eretz Yisrael—that for most of our lives, we have been told belongs to us. We descend because it is a gap year between high school and college and our wealthy parents, torn between the secular world and the religious one, have no idea what to do with us. We descend, parentless and occasionally pants-less, drunk on our entitlement and privilege. Also drunk on the complimentary alcoholic beverages that the flight attendants give us before the chaperoning rabbis stop them.

And the land, swollen with sorrow and years of history, accepts us.


The first few days of our year pass in a blur. We swamp bars throughout the city’s main drag and celebrate our new freedom.

We know each other from shuls or schools or summer camps; we play a game called Jewish geography and rattle off the names of overpriced sleepaway camps where we had our first chaste sexual experience.

“Morasha?” “Moshava?” “Lavi?”

Drinking is legal and a dollar is worth four of their currency. A thin layer of dried vomit covers Ben Yehuda Street after we arrive. An almost bioluminescent drink, called a Polish Butterfly, is 75 percent alcohol and costs three dollars. We drink it like water. Each night paramedics from Magen David Adom are called to pump our stomachs. We eat kosher McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC, though the KFC on Yaffo street is shut down shortly after we arrive because of health violations. (An entire yeshiva in Ma’aleh Adumim shits themselves silly for a week.) In a rare bit of unity, both Arabs and Jews hate us equally.

The boys from the more religious yeshivas are especially wild, free for the first time from both rabbis and parents. Strip clubs in the city are a sea of kippahs, the head covering all Jewish boys and men wear. We eat too much shawarma and falafel. The more adventurous yeshiva students visit Russian hookers in Tel Aviv. Anyone who fancies themselves creative has soup at least once in the small, book-lined Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem. Otherwise, we hook up in alleyways, urinate publicly, and take trips to the city of Netanya to lounge on the beach. We brawl and sweat and taste blood and, upper-middle-class children that we are, mistake it for freedom.

Almost uniformly, we don’t tip.


The clampdown begins after the first week. Attendance is taken. Boys attend yeshiva; girls attend seminaries. All the schools are single gender. We settle in, complain about the thinness of the mattresses, fight with the dorm counselors and sneak out at night. Parents are called routinely. Boys are expected at shachris, the morning prayer service at seven-thirty. Girls are expected to have prayed by themselves before their first class at eight-fifteen. The day is divided into blocks of learning called seders. Class begins after breakfast; boys and girls learn with study partners, before a lecture for an hour. Boys study the Talmud and girls learn Halachah, the laws, or Tanakh, the books of the Bible. The sexist reason why women don’t learn Talmud is spun unconvincingly into something slightly less offensive. A two-hour break for lunch and then more learning, though afternoon classes for the boys are based around the Bible. An hour off, then more learning, followed by evening prayers at nine-thirty. Initially, we laugh at the schedule, bewildered by its demands.

The High Holidays arrive. Rosh Hashanah first, followed by the ten days known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, The Ten Days of Repentance. The gravitas even affects the most cynical. This is the day our fate is decided, we are told. We are taken to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and told lightly fictionalized stories from Jewish history. National histories are invoked and exploited to give us guilt trips. We are introduced to concentration camp survivors and told solipsistic philosophical proofs of Judaism that we are unable to disprove. We are told over and over about western decadence and the evils of homosexuals. We are told that the cities with the least crime in Israel are the most religious. Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are never spoken about.

We fast during Yom Kippur in the synagogue. The doors are locked, but none of us want to leave anyway. Only repentance, charity and prayer will save us. We beat our chest. Already, some of us begin to change.

We all sleep on the beach during the holiday of Sukkot and have our last flings of freedom. Many of us fuck for the first time. We eat our first and last cheeseburgers at the only restaurant in the world that makes cheeseburgers with actual kosher meat.

By the time the drunken holidays end, something has changed in us. We are exhausted.


We begin by attending the evening classes; then meander to the afternoon ones after we work out in makeshift gyms.

We are put off by the certainty the rabbis expound and the enjoyment they seem to derive from the logic games in the Talmud. We attend one seder and then the one in the afternoon. Some of us begin to fall in line. Some of us attend a mussar class focused on self-improvement. The class reads Mesilat Yesharim, the Path of the Just, a severe and humorless text written in the 18th century, and that is the end for them as they begin to view themselves as lowly, sinful creatures. Still others are given new study partners. Frequently the partner is in his late twenties, has a beard, a large family and is only a few years older than us. Suspiciously, all of them have some story about how they used to party with a celebrity but found it empty and meaningless. They found the Torah, became religious, and their lives became better. They love their spouse and their children. Forgetful of specifics, they know just enough to have credence with us.

We still go out at night and drink too much, but struggle, bleary-eyed, into the shul and wrap our tefillin around the hands tattooed with the stamps and stickers from the clubs we went to the night before. Kabbalists and mystics are brought in to read our palms and tell us about our souls crying inside us.


The real change happens as soon as the money runs out: when our parents have had enough, and their credit cards are suddenly declined at the restaurants and bars we frequent. Another prevalent cause? When the person we were interested in swears off members of the opposite gender in a religious fervor.

The food supplied by yeshivas and seminaries is unhealthy and doesn’t fill us up, so we are always somewhat hungry. We make grilled cheese sandwiches in our dorms and steal milk from the yeshiva or seminary kitchen. All of us get a kind of light flu and are told to take hot showers as medicine. In the seminaries, girls are sent home midyear because of mysterious stomach ailments. Anorexia and bulimia ran rampant. We stay later and later in the study hall and arrive earlier.

Some part of us thinks this is what we came for. In our prior existence in America, we were contradictions: religious but secular, Jewish but awash in Americana. In America, we talked about Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek before prayers began. It’s easier to jettison one identity and let the other take its place. Our Jewish identities expand, filling all the space inside us where our secular selves once resided. We exchange our graphic t-shirts for button-down white-shirts, our blue jeans change to black pleated pants. For the girls, pants are replaced by skirts, the longer the better. Black, grey, or white are the best colors for tops, but modest pastels are also considered okay as long as the sleeves reach the wrists. Their t-shirts are thrown out or relegated to pajamas since they are considered immodest. We strip away the externals that made us who we are: our Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead, and Metallica CD’s; t-shirts and ticket-stubs from the concerts we went to.

Our white shirts become stained, but we do not change them. They yellow. We learn all day; our eyes become accustomed to the dim light of the beis midrash, the study hall. Purple half-moons form permanently under our eyes, but we wear them with pride.

You are no longer American Jews, but simply Jews, the rabbis tell us. We shed our personalities like adjectives.


One by one the crowds thin out in the main streets as winter arrives. Even the most rebellious and intellectually honest stop coming out. We call our parents to ask to spend a second year here. Acceptances to Ivy-league colleges are rejected. College is spoken of with disdain. Even Yeshiva University and its sister school Stern, hybrids of Jewish and secular learning, are considered tuma, impure.

In the main city, winter is cold, but not freezing. Rain instead of snow. The weather is unpredictable. A day begins in a t-shirt but ends in an overcoat.


Spring arrives with the holiday of Passover. Women, girls no longer, emerge from their seminaries like tulips. Old female friends are seen distantly in hotel lobbies, meeting men several years older than them. They are on shidduch dates, blind dates arranged by their dorm counselors or rabbis. If they deign to speak with us instead of a distant wave, they tell us that they have found purpose and meaning: to have children and work to support their husbands who will learn Torah all day in a Kollel. This is what our rabbis teach is the real feminism, they say. Some will be engaged within the month, married by June and pregnant with the first of many by July.

Many of us return back to America for Passover, wandering the streets of the tristate area wondering how the pizza shops, the social scenes, and the bustling avenues had once meant something to us. We lived in a new world now, a better one, cleaned of compromise.

The end of the year arrives.

Many of us will return for a second year, the new habits of learning and faith engraving themselves deeper inside us. Some of us will never return home; instead, we will marry and descend into a more and more dense labyrinth of yeshivas and rituals only to emerge into secular society—once a year, to throw eggs at marchers in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade. Others will return after a year or two and continue the path laid out for us. We will go to Kollel and learn all day for several years. Some of us will be supported perpetually by our rich fathers-in-law. When our money runs out, we will go to law school or learn computers or do something vague in a real estate company. We will live in either Monsey or Lakewood, though some of us will earn enough to live in the Five Towns on Long Island. Our wives will work demanding jobs, cook elaborate meals, and take care of our children. We will look back at this year fondly, as the year that we figured everything out. (Some will wake from this later, as if from a fevered dream; one or two of us will write a memoir after a messy divorce or a rude awakening.) Some of us will form a compromise, attend a yeshiva in the morning and take college classes at night, struggle with a tenuous balance.

And the rest of us? Those of us who wandered the streets all year, those who never found the meaning that our peers savagely engorged themselves on?

If we’re lucky, we will find each other.


Michael Orbach lives with his wife and son in an overpriced neighborhood in Brooklyn. His fiction has been published in St. Anne’s Review, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and He is working on a novel.




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