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