Friday, November 16, 2007

4 Missed Shabbats, Cry Babies, Jewish Trailor Parks, and One Hour in an Elevator

I'm done apologizing for not updating more. This is a pain in the ass to keep but I do feel an obligation to family and friends who read this so I keep it going. I love to hate this blog. Because in the end its a list of things I do more than a journal since I feel I have to edit certain strong feelings out of it for the sake of it being OK for everyone to read.

Soooo several shabbats ago (19.10.07) I was on the MASA Security Issues Shabbaton. Basically a bunch of students here for the year/semester on various programs and getting grants from MASA stayed in a hostile for shabbat. We had a professor from Bar Ilan speak with us on Iran, the top military analyst and reporter for Ha'aretz speak about Israel in general, a Palestinian-Christian speak with us about future peace, and four IDF soldiers who had a Q&A session and just generally hung out with us over the weekend. With regard to the Palestinian-Christian, it was on the one hand very nice and very hard/sad. Its exciting because it gives one one hope that there can be dialogue and progress. On the other hand the man spoke for some time about nothing. He talked about nice things like the need to talk and listen and want peace - all of which are certainly important. But the longer I am here and see news, the same news all the time, and the same raids, actions, speeches, conferences, and nonsense I feel like I realize more and more. That there is a lot of the same all the time. There are plenty of people read to talk, listen, etc. The main problem is groups of crazies on either side (not to say I think they are equally crazy or equally a threat, i don't). More than that the problem is a non-Western approach to conflict resolution which is to say that the solution is only one way or the other, no such thing as give-and-take. I think that people like those that lead Hamas in Gaza have very little chance of changing, maybe on an individual level but not as a movement, which means there cant be peace. I don't care if that wasn't clear, I should have written it three and a half weeks ago. Sitting and talking with one of soldiers on our shabbaton was interesting as well. She is an officer in the air force and works with Patriot missile batteries/missile defense. What struck me was she was not a religious Jew and from Northern Tel Aviv (associated with the heights of Israeli liberalism and draft-dodging) so it was nice to see that good things can come out of Northern TA and get her thoughts on changes needed in Israeli society. One of those people with whom I will try to stay in touch.

The next Shabbat (because nothing particularly interesting happens during the week) was in Katamon - a pleasant neighborhood of Jerusalem, with my chevruta's family. Friday night we went to the Breslev Synagogue were I experienced the greatest L'cha Dodi. It was really something, a packed shul, everyone singing in the strongest voice they could muster, with a fantastic tune that I've not heard before. Dinner was good. Three interesting things. One there was a woman there, a friend of the family, who had been on here way to the family's house a few years back during the mass terrorist attacks called the second intifada and had asked what she could pick up for shabbat. My chevruta's wife had told her not to worry and to just come for dinner. The woman responded that she would pick up rugelach from the very well know Marzipan Bakery because "they are to die for". Long story short she didn't show up that night because in picking up the to die for rugelach she was badly hurt in a suicide bombing at the bus stop next to the bakery. Her sight and hearing were damaged. She knew almost no one in the country (having just made aliyah) and was recognized in the hospital by her roommate only because they had matching nail polish, having had manicures earlier that day, since her head was wrapped in that for a downer. Anywho, interesting thing two. There were three guests who were going on the Alyn Bike Ride with my chevruta. One of them was on his first trip to Israel. He remarked that his wife didn't want to come with him because, though he was "a big Zionist," his wife saw a trip to Israel as equal to a trip to Italy, or Britain. She knew it would mean a lot to him and didn't want to interfere with that or something. BAM. Really, that is so sad. As in, I felt genuinely sad when he was talking about it. ...

....I didn't know what the Jewish people was before I came to Israel and before I started learning a bit of our history. Too many Jewish people don't know who they are, the amazing places they come from, the people they are descended from, what they have endured by virtue of being Jewish, and the possibilities that they have because of it. Too many people don't know the depth their lives can have by getting in touch with who they are as Jews. I'm not talking about Judaism that is an abbreviated Pesach (Passover) seder and presents on Chanukkah (which are certainly important ;) but about how we lived and struggled in Israel under Rome; how we were dispersed to not just Europe and the States but also Africa and India; how Jews fought in the Ghetto and the forests of Europe; how after the Holocaust we have a chance to stand up higher - not yelling "How could Gd let this have been?" but spitting in the face of people that tried to kill us by reconnecting to our long history and religious rites that bind us and being proud and public with who we are. Stop trying to be an Italian gangster like Corleone or a thug like 2Pac. Why should we be like other people when we can be like ourselves. We can be like every Biblical figure, learned Medieval scholar (secularly as well as religiously), and any variety of modern day Jewish figure. The more I realize how great a Jew can be as a Jew it makes it harder to hear about Jews who want to be great as something else. Hopefully it will also drive me more to show the Jewish people what they have .

...Anywho, on a lighter chevruta has very different ideas of child discipline than I was brought up with. His twin 6 year olds and 8 year old spent a good amount of Shabbat time crying and screaming without being told to stop. His 6 year old hated shul Friday night and cried and screamed in shul about it (in front of everyone), then cried and screamed home about how he hates shul and its bad. Then at dinner sat with a liter tub of chumus and cried and screamed while 5 guests tried to carry on normal conversation as if nothing was happening two seats over with chumus flying overhead. The whole time I felt like I needed tell the kid to shut up and drag him to his room where he could cry by himself and not disturb dinner. Don't worry I didn't.

Shabbat Three (2.11.07) was in Ariel. My roommates A, who set things up for Shabbat, somehow got us to be three for three having meals at houses where no English was spoken. It was good practice for us....or for me since he generally sat in silence and let me frantically try to keep things from being awkward by using the same questions/topics at every meal since my vocabulary is still a bit limited. The more interesting thing was that we stayed in what was a Jewish trailer park. We stayed in a part of Ariel that was a neighborhood for people who had been living in Netzarim in Gaza before being evacuated by the Israeli government in 2005. I was all for the pull-out in '05 but that said, this gave my a whole new perspective on the situation. The fact that the pull-out hasn't meant peace in the area for Israel (on the contrary) is not something I'll discuss here. The thing is, the government pulled citizens out of their homes, citizens who they told to go there, who farmed land that no one had been able to before, and then hasn't even taken care of them. A family with 7 kids with whom we ate Seudah Shlisheet (third meal of Shabbat) was living in a trailer and a half or so. It was quite difficult to deal with.

Shabbat last week (9.11.07) was in Tzfat with Hillel. It was fantastic. Its hard to comment on it too much since a big part of it was the scenery which is hard to talk about. Shabbat day I took a walk up to the highest point in Tzfat with some people. You could see Ramat HaGolan (Golan Heights), the Kinneret (Sea of Galillee), the hills of the Galilee, and clear blue skies. I davened one of the best mincha (midday prayers) of my life by myself on the balcony of the hostile we stayed on, overlooking Har Meron (Mt. Meron) where Shimon Bar Yochai is buried. There are things I could complain about like the Hasidim who wouldn't dance with us at Havdallah but I'm running out of patience with this entry.

FINALLY - Shabbat of 17/11/07. My cousin is working at a yeshiva in the Old City and invited me there. Turns out the yeshiva was closed for Shabbat (i.e. was not serving meals, and most students were away). So after getting there around 3:45 Friday we walked over to Katamon, neighborhood of Jerusalem, and had dinner at the apartment of a friends of his, passed out there instead of walking back to the yeshiva, Shabbat day ate somewhere else, went back to the yeshiva and finished up Shabbat in the old city. ..
....I'm disappointed to say it was something of a difficult Shabbat. Despite the fact the meals and company and all that were good, through a combination of my surroundings and already existing insecurity about my religious identity - or more specifically my outlook -I finished up Shabbat nice and frustrated if not depressed. This brings me back to my love-hate relationship with this blog where I get to edit what I write and therefore not really let things out so that I can write so that anyone can read it. In short I kept having hearing things in regard to religious observance and how to approach it that are hard for me to think about since I have next to no formal education and haven't totally formulated my feelings on everything. That was a crap description of my problem but what can i tell you. Ask me about it if you're interested.

In other news B, my friend from school, finally was drafted. He just finished his second week of army. He is at a base up north for soldiers who came from other countries and need some background. They get lectured on history, Zionism, etc. Do a bit of light physical training. He spent a night in the field learning how to maneuver at night. He complained a bit about the Americans being the most annoying and the Russians wanting to leave and maybe move to Canada. The French on the other hand got only praise. In a week and a half or so he'll go back to BAKUM - the main induction base - and be redrafted with other Israelis into a regular unit

School is going OK. Its basically high school. Small classes, all in the same building - same two floors actually. I have classes two classes that are mostly freshman which means a lot of stupid questions and kids not knowing how to sit through a college class.

I was stuck in one of the two elevators in my building on Wednesday for an hour. Long story short is that after making a joke that involved me jumping in a moving elevator (very very stupid - agreed) it stopped and a friend and I sat there for an hour because A. the police call button didn't work....B. the intercom button didn't work.....C. there is no cell phone reception to call anyone....D. Sitting on the alarm button only served to annoy residents who for some sick reason came out, banged on the elevator doors (thinking someone was just playing around) then went back into their apartments. In the end a nice British girl called someone and we got out. Good job me!

OK, I have to figure out what I'm doing the rest of the evening - ideally work, more likely screwing around till its too late for me to be able to get up early and do more work.

שבוע טוב לכם -Shavua tov l'khem - A good week to you (pl.)

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hiking in Midbar Yehuda, Simchat Torah, Shabbat in Efrat

So I guess the whole plan to update more often isn't working out so well but I'll keep trying.

I went hiking with my friends from Maale Adumim in Midbar Yehuda - the Judean Desert. We went for a hike in one area near Jericho for about an hour, went home for lunch in the sukkah, then went out again to hike at another trail near a few water sources. It was interesting to see how packed the parks were (though I cant say it didn't take away from the hike a little) , there really is a difference in the involvement with nature here than I am used to from being around NYC. This isn't true everywhere in Israel but many many teens and families hikie in the different nature reserves around the country.: Golan, Galilee, Central and Southern Israel.

Another Israel moment came when we got to the second hike and walked down to the beginning of the path. Right at the start of the path there is a stream which one has to hike through for most of the course. There was a sign noting that the water was neither for drinking nor for bathing but because there were so many people in it I figured it was outdated. After finishing the hike, I pointed out the sign (signed by the Ministry of Health) to my friends father - "Oh, I should cal them, that was never there before." Well, that was reassuring.

Simchat Torah, already 2 weeks or so ago, was good. I spend Wednesday night with B at another friend, R's house with him and his family who were in visiting. R recently made aliyah after a year in yeshiva after high school and will be drafted in March or so and hope to go to a very competitive course that would require him to sign 6 or 7 years and would train him to become a naval officer. B and I passed on the mizrachi shul that R and his family were going to and went instead to Shira Chadasha, a liberal kind-of Orthodox kind-of egalitarian minyan. It was nice, danced a bit, prayed a bit, and went home. Dinner was good. Simchat Torah day, Thursday, was good too. B and I went to B's friends house for meals. Shul Thursday was rather unremarkable. Oh, Wednesday we walked to the Old City to the Kotel and caught the tail end of a group of yeshiva boys, hasidic men, religious students, tourists, etc standing in a circle that took up the entire men's section of the Kotel. We stood with them, arms around each other and sang (I also did a bit of na-na-na-ing and such since I still don't know a lot of words to religious songs - usually psalms i don't know). It was really really nice. Then B left and I sat with two other guys and just took in the wall for a bit before walking back to where I was sleeping that night.

Shabbat was spent in Efrat with B and A. Its really amazing the perspective that spending time in the disputed territories (Judea/Samaria, Territories, West Bank - take your pick) give you. You see how small the area is, how close Jewish and Arab towns, how beautiful the place is. It's just makes it much more real. In any case, its a beautiful community with a large Anglo/English-speaking community. We stayed at a house of a nice family I had been introduced to at a wedding at the beginning of time here. Its hard to explain how beautiful the community is and it being Shabbat (and therefore my not taking pictures) doesn't help me pass on the beauty. Shul was good, the building was beautiful, and the abundance of pistols was, sadly, not too surprising. Meals were great. Friday night I was given a brief tour of the area by one of my hosts sons. Among other things we visited his friend's house where one of the daughters makes cakes professionally. I was lucky enough to be able to sample some chocolate, fudge, coffee, nut cake. We walked over to one of the main squares where the communities teens hang out Friday night. There is a man there who started setting up a table with food and drinks a few years back when the area had come to be known as a hang out for kids who were becoming estranged from the Jewish community as a sort of grassroots outreach. Out hostess was so interesting. It was apparent this woman loved, loved, her community and was so committed to it. Similarly she was very involved with an organization devoted to taking care of soldiers. She took the opportunity to make it clear to B, who is being drafted in a few weeks, that he should think of the home as a second home for him. The numerous pictures of one of her sons, currently in a paramedics course for an elite combat unit, in uniform and the way she was holding him Saturday night at Havdallah (before he had to go back to his base for the week) was touching. The whole Shabbat was interesting because I was exposed to a kind of community that has a lot of spirit - precisely the kind Israeli society needs to become stronger and rebuild - but also a lot of problems - sometimes very right wing (but i don't want to get too into politics now).

Soooo the above has all been in written about a bit late....

I'm currently in my second week of classes. Things are going well. I'm taking 5 classes (more than I intended) - Hebrew (made it to the next level!), Medieval Jewish History, Modern Jewish History, Hasidim - A history, and a class on work or some nonsense like that to go with my internship....

I'm currently working for Yossi Klein Halevi at the Shalem Center! I got it! I'm quite excited that I have the opportunity. Basically I am assisting Yossi with research for a book he is writing about some paratroopers who helped liberate Jerusalem in '67. Its a fascinating project and I'd love to tell anyone who wants some more details about it in a less public forum (rules are rules).

I moved apartments!. Yep, it was time. I was with good guys but we had, to say the least, different lifestyles and it was time for real. I moved with a Brit, a Canadian, a Spaniard! (who I've yet to meet b/c i think he is visiting home), and - as of today - a guy from California who will only speak Hebrew to us (which is awkward since we know he speaks native English but prob better for my Hebrew). Everyone is religious which helps in terms of kashrut, and - maybe more importantly -clean. I'm very happy in the new place AND I have a bigger room because I'm in the designated safe room (i.e. Steel door in addition to my own, steel window cover in addition to my shutters, reinforced vents, and protected outlets and lights.)

I'm spending Shabbat with an organization that is going to take us around Friday to see the security barrier, and then have us lectured on various security issues by some military types, and discuss issues things among ourselves. I think it will be interesting but I've been on enough of these kinds of things to question how seriously I can take a bunch of teenagers and students in theirs early 20s being "briefed by IDF officers" on security issues. We'll see.

Today on the way up the stairs to my boss's office I passed a man who looked familiar. I said "Hi" (which is unusual because - though many people in the office do speak English very well - I usually don't speak to Israelis in English if I can avoid it). I realized after the man had gone that I had just passed the former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ayalon. Quite a well known man.

Peace !

Monday, September 24, 2007

Rosh HaShana, Abu Ghosh Hiking, Yom Kippur, End of Ulpan, Sukkot

Ok, I am going to try to update much more often because these monster posts are a hassle to write, i forget details and interesting things, you probably hate to read all of it - or just don't- and doing so more often will be more interesting.

So, though this is not in the spirit of the holidays and their value, I will try to quickly go over the biggest holidays of the year and some other stuff as quickly as possible while retaining whatever particularly interesting things happened.

I was in Ma'ale Adumim for both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. RHS was good, my family (for simplicity's sake though they are not related - sister of an uncle through marriage) follows Sephardic custom and so the beginning of the meal was a bit more involved then the "just dip the apple in the honey (to represent a sweet new year)" that I'm used to.
There were a number of symbolic foods, all of which had a particular blessing before them and represented a certain value that we hope for in the new year. A lot of not falling to our enemies, strengthening ourselves, and so on. Of note was the the fish's head (filled with gefilte fish - which i thought Sephardim didn't eat) which was to symbolize that "we be as the head and not as the tail" i.e. from Deuteronomy/Devarim דְּבָרִים ("things") where it says "And HASHEM shall place you as a head and not as a tail..." which is paraphrased by a commentator as "as a mighty one and not as a weakling." Other than that the holiday involved getting up for 7:30 shul, early starts on holidays and shabbat is one of the few things I can't say I love about this country though there are values to it.

In between the two holidays I went hiking near Abu Ghosh, an Israeli-Arab town know to have very good relations with Jewish Israelis. It was nice though there is something lost, the quiet of nature, when you hike with a large group as I did (it was organized through the school). The hike ended with us walking to a restaurant in town that, unfortunately, a few of us couldn't eat at because it didn't have kosher certification. Some people are surprised that there are places that a shomer kashrut Jew wouldn't be able to eat at in Israel though it has to do with the certification being expensive and simply unnecessary for business when the place is located in christian, Arab, or secular areas.

Yom Kippur was somewhat disappointing. Don't get me wrong, family was good, shul was good, break fast was good, and the fast was relatively easy. That said, Chabad at my school does a really really great job with services. It feels very intense and meaningful there. You'd think that upstate would have nothing on Israel but it is what it is. Perhaps I wasn't plugged in right.
Interesting about YK in Israel is that it is also called, by some, the Day of the Bicycle. During YK even many many secular Israeli's practice in some way. There is so little automobile activity (and in some areas none) that kids, one day a year, can ride their bikes freely throughout the streets. After services Friday night (YK is the only fast day allowed to take place on shabbat, all others are postponed until the next day or made early when they fall on shabbat) everyone was out, walking, talking, riding (mostly kids under 13 who don't have to fast), etc. It was another Israel moment - a mix of emotions - although I can't say I loved people doing many things prohibited by the holiday it was also something to see streets so empty of traffic and to see so many Jews involved in the heritage in some way.

There was an end of ulpan picnic Sunday which was nice and I was particularly impressed by Hiba, an Arab-Israeli in our class, who brought us a package made up of layers and layers of newspapers. Every other layer there was a small prize covered with a piece of paper on which was a question to answer. We all one some cute key chain or other, it was very very thoughtful.
Monday was the final from 8:30-12. We'll see how I do but assuming I pass I'll be able to advance to the next level of ulpan during the first semester (Gimmel, the 3rd level of 6, something like high intermediate or low advanced).

I went to friends' subletted apartment in the German Colony Wednesday night (sprinted in Naot to catch the last bus - thank Gd, maybe because of the holiday- he stopped for me, which is unusual a country of often rude bus drivers.
Walked an hour each way to a neighborhood next to the New Gate of the Old City. We attended a sukkot meal/party of about 40 young Americans. It was really nice. Plenty of food and I spent a lot of time speaking with a guy, also staying with my friends, who is currently in the army through Machal after studying at Haifa for a year (Don't worry guys, I'm coming home). I picked up a few tips for my friend B who is going in a month or so. The two interesting ones were to tell him to go to his induction with facial hair. At BAKUM, the base where soldiers are drafted and set up, you are given a photo ID. In the army you have to be cleanshaven and my friend told me that sometimes the commander would walk around scratching people's chins to see if they had stubble, then make them shave if they did. In any case there is a loophole, religious soldiers who feel the need to have a beard can get an exemption. Thing is, you have to kind of prove to them that you want/need a beard so... they look at your ID picture. Now my friend with whom I was speaking is not religious but he got it anyway. "One of the little things that makes your life much easier." The other thing was to pray three times a day (as Jewish men are supposed to) no matter religious or not, "its a great way to start your day, reflect and recenter yourself, and avoid [having to practice clearing your gun from any possible jam]."
Today we walked an hour back and forth again to the Old City to join Ezra on the roof of his house. I had lunch in the hippiest (though very beautiful) and most crowded (with hippies) sukkah for my second meal for my first sukkot in Israel."
Sukkot here is great so far. Its the first holiday I've been able to get into. I went to Geula and spent hours picking out arba minim (which was a bit much, but part of the experience i guess) and while traveling around during the week I love noticing how many people have sukkot up. Everywhere. Someone quoted another person as describing it like this "At home we have maybe one sukkah around, here even Burger King has a sukkah (many kosher restaurants put up sukkot during the holiday).
Of course I want to build in some message for the holiday. Ezra mentioned that many people loved the sukkah at his place, it was built using colorful tapestries for walls, its floor covered with patterned mats, and decorated with "trippy" pictures and artwork. He had been asked about certain changes that might be made, making the sukkah circular instead of rectangular, and noted that there were restrictions to building a sukkah including that it have a square or rectangular shape. Many people complain about the restrictions that shabbat, various holidays, and religious life in general come with. However it is possible to focus, instead of on the restrictions, on the opportunities that we have while dealing within the framework of these rules (if we cant watch TV, or go to the mall we have to spend time with family, talking, sharing, thinking). In the same way he was able to build a beautiful sukkah that people love AND work within the requirements of Jewish law we can build an amazing lifestyle while working with restrictions. We should all have a beautiful Sukkot holiday, filled with family and friends, and get the meaning of the holiday and be built from it.

Finally I think I'm sick after - my hypothesis - lowering my immune system during a really hard track work out Tuesday night, then more by sleeping with a fan to my head, then being exposed to a lot of people. I hope this doesn't mess up shabbat plans.

One more thing, on the cab ride back from HaMoshav HaGermanit (German Colony) I spoke with the cab driver about how his sukkot started, where he was from (Maale Adumim!), and managed to get something of a compliment on my Hebrew!!!!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Shabbat in Givat Shmuel, Matching the Ideal to the Real, the Jerusalem Running Club, and a Sweet New Year

I spent Shabbat with one of best friends from school who came to Israel about two weeks ago and will be drafted, if all goes according to plan, in November through a program called Machal. I packed quickly, bussed it over to the Tachanat Mercazit (Central Bus Station), then took bus 400 to him. The bus stop I needed was basically a small area on the highway that the bus can pull over to. I'm glad I didn't miss the stop or I would have found myself in Bnai Brak. Met up with B, nice apartment! Messy enough to remind of his place back at school but with a considerably nicer view of Tel Aviv. I tried quietly sneaking off to write an essay for ulpan but thats hard when there are a three people in the apartment. We spent some time preparing a salad which was supposed to be made exotic by going heavy on the craisins and then adding doritos (which, added to early, become soggy and ruin an exotic salad). We went to shul, had dinner, and just hung around. It was good to talk with him since our first man-date had been spent with an 18 year seminary girl/sister of a common friend. He is basically looking forward to the army though reading though the Lemon Tree put a bit of a damper on his being so excited. He is concerned about having to confront Arabs in a violent setting and being in a situation where he might accidentally hurt someone who is innocent. I told him, in my infinite wisdom, that I thought those were really legit concerns to be having and that I hope he wouldn't have to be put in any violent situation at all, and especially one in which innocent people could be hurt, but that in the end I felt that he could say he would be doing difficult work for the safety of Israeli citizens: Arab, Bedouin, Christian, Druze, and Jew alike. Long story short he decided to read Exodus to get himself amped again and he claims its working. Saturday we went to shul, came back, made another salad, brought it to the lunch he had gotten us invited to, came back read/slept. Ended shabbat and he saw me off with two of the guys we had lunch with back to Jtown.

I traveled back by Sherut aka communal taxi with Ya'akov, one of the guys. We got to talking and he had an interesting story that relates to the whole experience here for a year (and to most experiences). Having finished college and worked for two years he wasn't sure where he was going and decided to come on Taglit-Birthright since he was getting older and had nothing going on anyway. He came here and felt that he was home, after extending a bit he traveled Europe and said that it was there he realized he needed to go back to Israel. Walking around a former death camp in Germany that was in the middle of a neighborhood, part of which had been converted for use as an office for a business, he felt the need for the New Jew. This is an interesting idea that one finds many many young Jews, especially men, attracted to. As Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua discusses it: The concept of a “New Jew” has been a part of the Zionist enterprise since its inception and became one of the fundamentals of Zionist rhetoric. "The idea was that the Land and State of Israel would engender a “New Jew,” one different from the Diaspora Jew, who for the purpose of this discussion will be called the “Old Jew”...The “New Jew” would bear arms and defend himself and would never have to be dependent on the mercy of non-Jewish authorities. He would be proud and direct and clear about his identity." After working a few year in the states to make some money, he came here, went to ulpan on a kibbutz for 6 months, and is now working for a technology company in Jerusalem. It turns out his parents had made aliyah, he had been born here, and they had all returned to the states when he was only months old. This whole process was not as direct as some people do. He spent a lot of time thinking, didn't move right away, worked a few years to earn money, etc. He talked about balancing the ideal: the desire to live according to an ideal, make impacts, build the Jewish people, be a New Jew, with the real: the need to be patient, pay for all these dreams, and do boring and mundane things like laundry and open bank accounts. I think this is a really solid idea, and we often forget it to our loss. I wanted to come study here, have an amazing time, take in culture, learn a language, travel, dance, take beautiful pictures, find myself more and more. I've already done a lot of that and plan much more but sometimes I would feel depressed in the in-between, when I had to sit and do homework, laundry, buy milk, anytime I wasn't having a blast. Being aware has helped though. Part of experiencing the country, and living here -even for a year- is doing mundane things, after all Israelis wash there clothing (even if some not as often as they should). The Zionist dream is not just draining swamps, planting crops, and building cities. It's waiting for the bus, deciding between cereals, and sitting around wasting time (occasionally). Keeping this in mind will help me elevate my experience here. The ideal is impossible without grappling with the real and the more we plan for the real the easier and more successful the ideal is.

Finally we have yet another Israel moment. I called a friend to go running and she told me she was going to go to Givat Ram, another Hebrew U campus in Jerusalem, to run with the Jerusalem Running Club. I left myself good and plenty time to wait for the bus, which in this country - if you cant operate the egged site - is a guessing game and after walking around campus for 20 minutes found the track. There is only one track in Jerusalem and so everyone who wants to use it has to share. So there I was running with this club, another running club for faster runners, a group of Ethiopian kids aged 9-17 in an after school program, the second best women's distance runner in Israel, one of Israel's best sprinters, and a few other school teams. The best was after the workout (warm-up, 4x400s, 2x600s, 2x800s) we had a kiddush for Rosh HaShana. Then my friend and I were driven home by one of the members and he was kind enough to tolerate our Hebrew and give us a mini-ulpan session. Only in Israel.

I'm off to Maale Adumim for Rosh HaShana so that will run Wednesday night until Friday and then go straight into Shabbat. So I'll be hard to reach, you know, I have to try to be sorry and all.

If I've offended or hurt you in the last year now would be a fantastic time to bring it up so I can apologize and we can grow. I wish you a Shana Tova U'Metuka (Sweet and Good Year) and hope the year to come is one of real happiness, meaning, learning, love, and deeper relationships.

An early Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Beit Shemesh, Caves, Greek Jews, and the Zoo

Two weeks eh? I have to start trying to enforce my once a week blog policy. For everyone's sake. It will prevent mega-entries about everything and I'll remember more stuff. I hate to do this but would help if I got some love from those reading in the form of comments.

Tonight started somewhat early. Got in a nice run/workout - the novelty of going running around the campus's park with a view of the old city and the Temple Mount has yet to wear off. I planned to make my way downtown to meet one of my cousins studying here for the year. So I shower, dress, make my down to the gate and ask the guard which bus to take. This is when the game called "I don't understand one or more key words you're saying but I won't admit it so instead I'll nod and walk off like I'm fluent" started. Fortunately I had forgotten my ID so I had to go back for it. This allowed me to find another guard, ask him, and this time comprehend because he happened not to use any vocabulary out of my range. In any case I find that situations like these generally sear the word into my brain when I do learn it (you see, distinct memories are encoded more distinctly than others and therefore recalled more easily- thank you cognitive psych class). soooo קו or kav means line, in this case a bus line. Went to kotel where the Kfir brigade was having a graduation ceremony of sorts and visited my cousin who was there to watch. After a bit of that I walked on down to Ben Yehuda the well known and popular street for many young (a lot of post-high school, pre-college kids) and also a few bombings back in the day. Met up with a friends of mine who just graduated from my school and is joining the army in two months or so through a program called Machal. Went to a bar, had a drink - not a very good one though, and then walked him to the bus. OH, and I had a moment. So we sit down at a table, waitress comes over, asks if we want to order (in Hebrew), my friend responds in his accented English, and I take a moment, let out a short ehhhh - the Hebrew "ummm" - and say od lo - not yet. As she walks away we meet some more friends and I say something in English. As the waitress is walking back into the bar (we were sitting outside) she looks back and then goes in. I turned to my friend and claimed success for she had given me the "wait I thought you were Israel because your Hebrew was perfect and unaccented" look, he doubted me, AND ON HER RETURN to bring our drinks he, somewhat awkwardly, confirmed what I already knew. I had spit out two words of unaccented Hebrew. 100 points to me sir. After he left, and after my failed attempts to find other company downtown, I got some Moshiko's schwarma (see "popular street for many" link above), waited for a bus, and went home. I think when one starts eating Moshiko alone it might be a sign of crack. I realize this is like trying to explain a color to someone who has never seen it.

So I continue to become more and more used to being here and the schedule, finding my way around, traveling a bit, and speaking Hebrew basically to anyone who isn't in my age range. I was sick for the first time too. Quite a few people had been getting sick here and there, colds, 24-hour bugs, etc. I attributed my evading it to a superior immune system but this may not be as true as I thought. Long story short I didn't feel well and went to bed at 10:00, woke-up, puked violently three times (i.e. one sitting, three outpours - you're welcome). In other lifestyle news I am working harder on sleeping more since 6 hours is not cutting it and I can't afford the coffee it requires me to buy to stay awake in ulpan. Additionally I'm going to start trying more and more to run and exercise, particularly calisthenics, since, among other things, after three weeks or so without doing stuff I get antsy. My outlook has also improved despite the decay of our apartments cleaning policy.

Last Shabbat I was in Beit Shemesh, a city in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with a large American/Anglo population. The trip was through Hillel at Hebrew U's Beit Midrash program I've been taking part in. We spent the day Friday crawling, literally, through caves used by Jews to hide from Romans way back when. We were then taken to our host families to get ready for Shabbat. I was placed with a really nice family of 7 or so and the other Hebrew U student was none other than a real live Greek Jew!!! Before I go off on him let me finish with the weekend. Services were OK though a bit dry as Dati/Leumi services tend to be here. I bumped into a rabbi from home on the walk there which was a pleasant surprise. Israel is a small country and you hear about these seemingly random encounters but its hard to believe until you experience it. Friday night I got a bit annoyed with one of the guests from the community at our group dinner. He is 17 and studying at a yeshiva. I asked him what he was doing next year (18 being the age at which Israeli men - except for certain religious men - are drafted) knowing full well what I might hear. He told me had to think about it and decide if he wanted to go or to keep learning. In a country that is, unfortunately, until now regularly under threat from various parties I think it a bit ridiculous that an enormous chunk of the eligible population is allowed to sit and learn all day when the army is suited to support even these people's religious lifestyles. Just tonight I was at a ceremony for soldiers of a brigade that has a unit for very religious men. The unit's base has no female commanders training male soldiers unlike most other bases, the standard of kashrut is held to a higher standard than in general (the army here keeps kosher as a rule), and the soldiers - when not training - can devote time to prayer and learning Torah. In any case, I realize the reason this problem of not being drafter is a matter not of it being impossible to live the lifestyle but a political problem since major coalitions in the government needs the support of the ultraorthodox and therefore continue to uphold the law that allows them to be exempt. All that said I think I also have to work to do less hating-on-Haredim. Its often said that the reason the second Temple was destroyed was because of the hate between the Jewish people (whereas the first was caused externally). Whether this is literally true or not is irrelevant. It can't be said that hating on your own people is productive. My Greek Jewish friend, who I will discuss in a minute, suggested that while I can and should deal with there political and social problems in the political arena I should leave it there and, for example, when I come to shul try to avoid so many thoughts such as "should i really be praying with these people (i.e. those who in many ways don't support the country"). So I'll need to work on that.

Back to my new Greek Jewish roommate. This guy is from Greece, speaks Greek, loves Greek culture, AND is a religious Jew. It was really interesting. He is older than I and a third year law student at Hebrew U. His mother is Sephardi and his father Romaniote. That means one side of his family has been in Greece since the Jews of Spain were expelled in the 1400s and the other side dates back to around 70CE when the first Jewish community arrived, accidentally, in Greece. We stayed up a bit Friday night talking, in Greek, English, and Hebrew, about my conflicting feeling of wanting to connect to my Greek heritage but feeling that the culture is so wrapped up in Greek Orthodoxy that as a religious Jew I could not or would not be accepted. He talked about being a Greek Jew (which I am not, I'm really a Greek.... Jew... but the conflict is almost the same) as a child who has one adopted mother, Greece, and one natural mother, Israel. The child can love both mothers and connect to both though they have different roles, and maybe in some ways one might be more important. Granted ones deepest roots are with Israel (or the people of Israel) but one can also appreciate a lot about the place he has taken so much from. "You can still love the language, food, songs, serve in the Greek army, tell the jokes... without needing to also be part of the church." I pointed out that, in fact, his families history in Greece might well have been longer than many Greek Orthodox Greeks. I felt good after speaking with him. While some people might think it is dangerous to make peace with a culture that is in many ways different than your more native culture, I think that more me this will help in several ways. I've spent some time worrying about my connection to my Greek self, time that could have been spent being more productive and growing in other ways. By developing this healthier view of how to treat my Greek self I free up attention to devote to other things. So by having this conversation I can at once be driven to come closer to my Greek family and heritage and
also have more confidence to develop my Jewish self more.

In lighter news, Ramah Bet (Level 2) took an Ulpan trip to the Zoo today. We walked around, had a picnic lunch, and each person had to present to his or her respective class about one of the animals. I spoke about the monkey in the bible (one sentence in one book - Melachim/Kings 1 10:22, and largely insignificant).

Finally I'll try to share something I learned a bit about for Yom Kippur, coming up after RoshHaShana. So in the Temple the high priest, on Yom Kippur, would take two identical goats, they had to be perfect and identical, to the alter, and pick lots. One goat, after the lots were drawn, was להי, for Gd, and the other לעזעזל, to Azazel - there are several interpretations but basically for the evil inclination/"devil"- kind of. So one was slaughtered in the Temple, the other was taken to the desert and thrown off a cliff after the sins of the Jewish people were transferred to it (where we get scapegoat from). So Shimshon (Samson) Raphael Hirsch, who basically started modern orthodoxy around the time of the enlightenment, says that this is like our potential to do good and bad. The goat that is able to be slaughtered for Gd, representing our potential for living a Gdly life, is only eligible to do so as a function of his also being eligible to be thrown of this cliff with all these sins, our potential to live a life without meaning or without working for something good. Plants, my webcam, angels, and goats, can only function in the specific role that they were assigned. We have free choice and can only do great things because we can also do bad. Rav. Hirsch says that the tragedy of sin is that in that exact moment when we did something wrong we could have chosen to do something good. The tragedy of the goat to be thrown off this cliff is that he could also have been chosen for an offering to Gd. I hope I've explained that well. I'm not so sure. In any case I think there is something to take from it even outside of a specific theology and a specific religion.

Shabbat Shalom


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ex-Christian Ex-Pagan Chassidic Hippie and Playing Catch-up

So its been a while and the span of time and my lack of will to update this has only further discouraged me from applying for some program that will pay me to blog while abroad. That and my missing the deadline to apply. I didn't need $500 (~2150NIS) and a prize pack anyway.

Quite a bit has happened but i cant remember all right now so ill try to divide things by subject.
The domestic situation has improved and continues to improve following an emergency meeting convened by your truly after conditions were becoming horrendous. Let me try to paint a picture for you: I was starting my morning praying in the living room with high blood pressure. why? ashes from various things smoked after i went to bed are sprinkled around, and often not even close to, the ash tray. Tea mugs, warm glasses of soda, and empty bottles are around the coffee table - appropriately called for the stains left on it when tea is spilled and not cleaned. Dishes are stacked in the sink and sit unwashed for 24 hours(extra credit: dishes and utensils designated as for milk or meat or other by Jewish law are mixed in the sink - something that can lead to violations of dietary laws to which i try to hold myself). Moving on to the hallway the are stains on the wall from pizza crust thrown in anger and a chunk of avocado that made its way away from where it was prepared. Continuing to the bathroom we find too many toilet paper rolls that were too heavy to take to be thrown out. A 3 inch spot of dried body fluid is on the floor and after shaving hair seems to be better left in the sink. Heading back to the kitchen we find the garbage. When filled it isn't really full so often the garbage would pile higher than the can itself. When gravity took its toll the garbage would spill onto the floor and start new piles. This went on to such an extent that one day when attempting to do something about the situation, and lifting a bag off the floor, i found - to my delight - a piece of lemon, or was it cucumber, with some interesting specimen growing on it. I wish my friend in public health were around to give me his opinion. I trust my words to horrify you but allow me to illustrate more literally (see pictures - bear with me as i figure out how to post pictures)

In other news the first shabbat was spent at the apartment. On Thursday (equivalent to Friday in the States) we went shopping in Machane Yehuda - the open market in the city. Most characteristically it has a few blocks of sales people yelling at you to buy their goods - any combination of the following: fruits and vegetables, fish, breads and baked goods, and nuts and spices. When shopping for Shabbat one need to go out early so as to avoid being forced to buy the challah that everyone and their mother has squeezed to test its freshness. Dinner was nice though seeing as how none of us have significant culinary experience it left room, lots of it, for improvement. It was in good fun though and it was nice to have dinner with the apartmentmates. One of my roommates is Yemenite a few generations removed and hearing him make kiddush in Yemenite hebrew was great. Shabbat day two of us made the one hour walk into the city to catch a minyan and then have lunch at some guys house. Some guys house? In Israel it is not unusual for people to invite others relatively casually to their house for a meal on Shabbat - even many people who are not so religious (which has different meaning all together in this country). So two of us ate in a large hotel suite of this wealthy American family that was vacationing here. It turns out this guy funds quite a few kiruv organizations including the Maimonides program that I participated in at school. I danced carefully as he inquired about the rabbi who runs it at my school who I am not fond of - i.e. I feel like he is always trying to hawk Judaism to me. As opposed to the walk to the hotel which was in the cooler (relatively speaking) morning, the walk back was rather unpleasant.

The second Shabbat was spent in Maale Adumim, 10 minutes east of Jerusalem. A really beautiful city that makes it easy to forget how controversial it is. Dinner was spent with friend's family. I find myself being increasingly able to eat things I would not otherwise when I am a guest at people's homes. I ate an entire serving of broccoli, bottom included!!! Dinner was followed by a few games of Rummikub since more entertaining things like ghost riding are prohibited on Shabbat. Shabbat day I went to the nearby synagogue which was ok. Unfortunately most dati/leumi synagogues in Israel are a bit dry and lack the enthusiasm that one sometimes finds in chassidic or Carlebach services. Lunch was with my pseudo-family (My Aunt's husband's sister's family). The daughter of the family I was by Friday night hung out with friends Saturday and was kind enough to invite me. It was great chance to hang out with Israelis rather than the usual American/English-speakers. They even forced a bit of Hebrew out of me which is difficult since my Israeli peers are the last people I am forward about speaking Hebrew to. After Shabbat I was driven back to campus. There is something that really sucks about getting to Saturday night and realizing you have school the next day.

Not to Shabbat everyone out but last Shabbat was something. The Student Center (in no way connected to the actual University) took a weekend trip to Tzfat. We went kayaking on Thursday where I lost my favorite kipa. Also where I met a female convert to Judaism from Kentucky with long armpit hair who made aliyah and lives in the Negev. First off, Tzfat is a beautiful little city. Its one of the four holy cities in Israel and the is the center of Kabbalah - the real kind (i.e. not the Kabbalah Center). Two stories:

One of the rabbis on the trip took a group of guys to the Ari's Mikvah (please note it was not as clean and empty as in the video). We go in to the small building, those of us who were going in disrobed and then, awkwardly, got online to immerse ourselves. If you can imagine a slightly more surreal situation than standing online naked with chassidim and your fellow study abroaders please let me know. I should have mentioned that this is a mikvah that as you walk into the changing room the smell hits you in the face like the changing room in a gym but worse. Then you get into this water which is darkened from the tens of men who use it before shabbat. As you dunk yourself in a few times as one does traditionally you have two bad experiences. One is that on the second or third time out of the water you realize how cold it is (this is water that comes from underground springs) which makes you gasp - leading us to our second experience, tasting (despite your efforts to keep your mouth closed) the water in which tens of men immerse themselves. All in all this was a rather quick in and out job and I was soon dressed and outside joking about this "spiritual experience" with the other guys. How luck am I? Im so lucky that I realized i forgot to remove my watch before going in whereas one is supposed to remove all articles from his body including jewelry, glasses, etc. So I told myself that if i was going to do it I might as well do it right so to top it all off I got to do it again.

#2 story of shabbat: Friday night, after a nice evening of singing, prayers, dinner, and hanging out, a Breslov chassid came to Hotel's balcony/lobby and was talking to the madrich - counselor - who is a bit of religious hippie. This guy seemed like a cartoon character from a distance so and I had heard funny things about some Breslov chassidim so I went over to talk. WELL long story short his guy was born in Astoria, Queens and originally a Christian. At 20 he got into being a pagan, and at 30 or so found himself becoming a chassidic Jew. At some point in his life he did too many drugs, particularly acid - this he himself told me - and it showed. He had buggy eyes, an Adrian Brody nose, was missing a front tooth, and had a high pitched voice. All the time he was telling me he could help me find Gd he was sniffing snuff - as smoking is prohibited on shabbat. Long story short again he asked us at 2:15 am if a group of us wanted to come with him to the woods to pray. I thought we were going to do hitbodedut - a kind of freestyle prayer, i.e. without a siddur (not dropping beats and spitting rhymes). I've done hitbodedut before and it can be nice though takes getting used to. However I was wrong. At 2:15 am this past Saturday morning I stood in a forest in a circle with 8 guys (a chassidic guy, two christians, and more Jews) and yelled at the top of my lungs with the kind of effort one puts into anything a ex-pagan snuff sniffing chassidic guy tells you to do. I don't think I reached any new spiritual heights although it was an interesting experience anyway. only in Israel.

Finally in most recent news: ulpan is going well, im awake in class - if only for the coffee I've taken to drinking, im doing my homework and understanding almost everything. Yesterday I went to the Kotel for the first time since i got here. its a shame it took me so long to go but it was nice to daven mincha there and then do a little of my own thing. I stopped by Yeshivat HaKotel to see my cousin who is teaching there for the year, walked through the arab quarter's shuk and then went outside the old city where some friends and I got some falafel and stopped by a camping store where I investigated my next adventure: buying a backpack and going hiking from yam l'yam. There was also an 'only in israel' moment when, while sitting on a wall waiting for friends to finish their chat with someone they ran into, two young kids, about 6, climbed up and started speaking to me in Hebrew. This would be unremarkable if one wasn't black and the other not asian.

if anyone has good advice on backpacks let me know.

till next time

Friday, August 3, 2007

Settling In, Nodding Off, and More Shopping

After successfully moving in (did I mention the lack of a view while my roommates see the old city?) and doing some shopping we started ulpan.

I'm placed in כיתה ב which is the third level and is proving a challenge. particularly when I'm tired in a hot room and nodding off, snapping awake just in time to hit my head on the wall. My work ethic is proving less hardy than that of my Taiwanese and South Korean classmates. I spend a lot of class time watching the 30 year old university teacher try not to cry and in awe of the Israeli Arab who wears layers down to her feet, ankles, and over her head. Classwork is the usual mix of נחון ו לא נחון (nachon o lo nachon - true or false), stories about farmers, and rounds of asking each other the same questions. I need to a. sleep more and b. actually study and not be tempted by these hooligans telling me to go out and enjoy myself since you only go abroad once.

Roomates and I went shopping machane yehuda -the open market - to buy stuff for shabbat. I was reminded of the need to work hard to get an education by the many men and women who spend their day yelling the cost of their respective food and goods. I felt better when i saw the security guards at the entrances of the street market chatting with their friends rather than watching the gate. Bussing around is good as long as you make sure not to get on the bus that goes to Isawiyah - the arab village next door to the university.

surreal moments have so far included walking to class and seeing the temple mount on the way there, walking to the bus and hearing the muezzins call to prayer, and the usual yet remarkable ultraorthodox neighborhoods your ride through to go to town. speaking of which i've yet to go out since ive been busy buying pans and other such necessaries.

any adivce on how to respectfully yet firmly tell my roommates that smoking in the living room isnt cool with me even if the window is open?

but otherwise everything is pretty tight. this will all be easier when i dont have to sit in the courtyard outside to use the internet.

Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום


Edit: I live on Ghetto Fighters St. WHATTUP (the better translation is Fighters of the Ghetto)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Yom HaRishon - The First Day: Thoughts on Israel travel, Israir, and being back in Ha'aretz

Wow, there is something about the communal kvetching, multiple minyanim and ease with which i get into a conversation about Israel's political future with the person next to me. Chassidic families, secular couples, children, the elderly, yiddish, english, hebrew, black and white Eastern Europe, and trendy aviators above sleeveless shirts is a partial cross section of Israeli society that you can find just on the plane.
The only unfortunate thing about noticing all the people around was the absence of the unaffiliated and largely uninterested Jew. Talking to a friend at my going-away-gathering last night I was really having a hard time understanding the disinterest. I mean you can have a free 10 day trip to Israel. FREE. I would go to Syria for free. What's to lose?

In other news my flight was two hours late in leaving. This was made somewhat less annoying by the free orange slippers I received. Also my fat carry-on had to be unpacked and repacked several times while I was told that I'd have to check it but hamdu lillah I made it onto the plane. As usual I enjoyed the mini interrogation provided to me by a young accented Israeli security guard.

Got out of the airport met my cousin, took a sherut (communal taxi) back to Jerusalem. Dropped the bags off at the apartment where my cousin is staying. Had BURGERS BAR dinner followed by some sorbet. As much as I wanted to make it to campus today to leave my stuff it didnt work out. So tomorrow first thing Im there to register, sign in, move in, shop, etc. As usual I've got the feelings of oh my Gd i bet everyone is meeting and having a blast without me, might my year be ruined?. normal. My enormous popularity has resulted in three different groups signing me up for their dorms (truth: two groups and one that I was assigned to by the school). Either way it seems I'll get my wish of staying in the Kfar HaStudentim (Student Village - the new dorm complex with individual bedrooms, 5 to an apartment.) everyone has been assigned there.

I've noticed something, at least so far, that seems different about this trip. On previous trips I've had this feeling of being really awash in excitement from the moment I land and for the first time I'm driving through the country and coming into Jerusalem. This time it was somewhat absent. It feels like I haven't left. Like this is an extension of my last visit. In someways thats dissapointing - who doesn't want to feel tingling and hyper. On the other hand, it means I've come to know Israel that much differently. Like its beginning to normalize and become real to me. Like you have to get over puppy love to build a real relationship (which is ultimately more fulfilling that constant butterflies in your stomach) so I need to get over the first feelings to know Israel on a different level. What a nuts year this is going to be.

That's all for tonight.


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Pre-Departure Introduction

Test Post. ya heard? this is not even my real first post.

Had some of my friends over last night for the send-off BBQ. I must say I'm sorry I wasn't able to spend more quality time with a few people.

As for my upcoming travels...I'm beyond excited. As I've mentioned to a some of you. I think the excitement comes from the opportunities that are coming that encompass nearly every aspect of my life. I have a year coming up that is going to offer incredible experiences for personal growth and exploration socially, academically, religiously, professionally, and so on.

I'm lucky enough to know a few people on the program from school as well as a collection of other contacts from a variety of places including people I met at ulpan, volunteering trips, people living here, working here for the year, and serving in the army. That said I have no doubt that the hardest part of this year will be being away from my family with whom I am so close. I'll appreciate all the love, comments, and emails that you might be able to spare me.

The blog will be an interesting balance. In addition to having to make time for it I'm going to have to keep in mind my audience. I'm writing for family, friends, teachers, classmates, rabbis, guys, girls, the possible unknown googler, and occasional extremist. As such I'm going to keep the content rated PG-13 or so and edit myself and others to limit certain information.

I can't tell you how excited I am for this year and I hope I can transfer some of that to you.

Johnny Kosher