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



Rachel said...

Nice to know that Hebrew U hasn't changed its ramah bet tiyul --when I went to the zoo I had to talk about the gazelle. Also, I live like 5 minutes from Ben Yehuda maybe you should call me next time. (Also also, I hope you're enjoying the Beit Midrash program. And when you get the chance to go the Carlebach Moshav, you must.)

Shabbat Shalom!

Eric G. said...

You explained the Yom Kippur thing fine. I was really touched by your description of what went behind that tradition, and it's definitely food for thought. Really interesting look into human nature/duality.

That cave trip sounds fantastic! It sounds like something I should have gone on, but I don't even think I heard about it. I'm glad you got the opportunity to go and to share about it on your blog.

Your uncertainties regarding a dual heritage are completely warranted, and I'm glad you've taken the time to try to resolve that tension. I look forward to reading more about it, if you choose to explore it here--or, you know, I could just talk to you in person.

And props on using unaccented Hebrew! That's exactly what makes all your work worth it, even if it was just a moment. Good times.

All right, brotha. I'll catch you later. Maybe I'll see you around more than 1.5 times a week down the line.

El Ba said...

I love reading your blogg, It contains part of you that will not find elsewhere.

Johnny Kosher said...

rachel- zoo was good. its really funny you had the same one. im definitely going to hit up the carlebach moshav one of these days

Johnny Kosher said...

eric - youre too deep for me. i have to hit up your blog more often.

ba - we'll talk.