My Israel Adventure

Embark on an exciting journey into Israel, the homeland of the Jewish People and my home for the next year! I will be adding my new observations and perspective of student life at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, Israel. Enjoy the ride!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Snow in Jerusalem!

Rumors were flying, as we were flying, that there would be snow in Jerusalem over the next few days. Well, I didn't believe it until I woke up this morning to a window filled with snow-flaked, snow-covered trees and sidewalks! Seriously, unbelievable. At first, I was excited to see snow in Jerusalem. "How pretty" I thought as I looked out the window, blow dried my hair, and put on clothes that I thought would keep me warm for my journey to HUC for the start of Winter Colloquium. Snow is not rain, I thought to myself, as my roommates and I decided it would be best to walk to school instead of take a cab. I mean, Israeli cab drivers are crazy, and our safety could not be guaranteed if we were to take one. So, clearly, walking half an hour to school seemed like the best option at the time. Well, how silly we must have been. After that "adventure," I can now tell my children that I once walked to school uphill, in the snow... and it wasn't pretty! I now realize that risking my life in a cab is certainly worth the dryness that would come with it. By the time I arrived to school, my jeans were completely soaked, as were my shoes and socks, which I hadn't thought ahead to bring another pair with me, and my beautiful hair with my cute new haircut was ruined. I was baffled when arriving at school and listening to my classmates talk about how happy they were about the snowfall. Now, granted, I am from California, but seriously, what is so great about snow?? I think I'd much rather have the choice to drive to the snow, or to stay in the sun where it is warm and my bones don't feel frozen. Needless to say, I took a cab home.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Israel Seminar 2

Reflection #2
Israel Seminar, Galilee Trip September 23-25, 2007
Overall, the Galil trip was wonderfully interesting, beautiful, and just what I needed for the time. Getting out of Jerusalem is more important to keeping my peace of mind, and something that I do not do nearly enough. The North has always been one of my favorite parts of the country, I think because of its seemingly endless fields and flowers, and the fresh air that I breathe so freely whenever I am there.
I am completely fascinated with the aliyot and the pioneers that came here when there was nothing. I constantly wonder what I would do if I was in a similar situation, living in a hostile environment in Europe knowing that there was a land that I believed held a more positive future for me and my family. I often say that I probably would have just stuck with the status quo, living in Europe, since in a sense I have not made that move in my lifetime now. I think that people still romanticize the idea of aliyah, however I think that it is different today in comparison to how the pioneers envisioned it back then. Today, I think we tend to concentrate on the political situation and the economic situation over the idea of living in the Modern Jewish State. I still toy with the idea of leaving my family behind and starting a life here, but living so far from my family in the US just still seems too much a sacrifice for me to make. I suppose one day that decision will be set in stone, but for now it will remain as a thought that more than occasionally crosses my mind.
Besides this, there were two moments during the tiyul that impacted me greatly. The first moment was in the romantic city of Rosh Pina, where there are still standing buildings and gardens from the time it was rebuilt. I was fascinated by the interplay between the halutzim and the funder, Baron de Rothschild, who basically saved the yishuv from going under. Perhaps this sounds na├»ve, but I didn’t realize how much impact private donors had on the welfare of the State of Israel even before it was declared a state. The stronghold that de Rothschild had on this particular yishuv certainly impacted the people there, in both good and bad ways, since it was run like a business. I was impressed that he was able to help the city develop into such a cornerstone, as it is named, of the settlements of its time. I was also surprised to find out how complicated the situation was between those in his administrative office and the pioneers there. This was just new information to add to my knowledge of the development of the northern part of the country.
Secondly, the briefing that Paul gave at the border of Metulla was both fascinating and depressing. The layers that he revealed about our Lebanese neighbors were at the same time depressing and uplifting. As he shared his personal experience with a Shiite (I think) family while he was based in Lebanon, I realized how complicated this whole mess of a situation is. While I strongly believe that Israel deals with political situations in the best way possible, a solution to the political problem seems almost hopeless because of the deep schism of sects in other countries. The border was also a fascinating place to be at the time we were there, since there happened to be a group of what looked to be military officers receiving an update on the situation. Paul explained the makeup of the officers, noting their age and rank, and explained that the army was taking more time to update their officers because of the possible conflict that will most likely come again.
While I am endlessly fascinated by this information, a part of me becomes more passionate about what we are doing here, and the other part of me is frustrated at the situation we are always facing here. This trip only deepened that yet again, and I am left with a deep love for this country of indescribable importance to the Jewish people and with hopelessness because we may never live in complete peace. My deep desire is that people will surprise me and I will say that I have underestimated them, but that is yet to be seen.

Israel Seminar

I realize that my posts have been lacking this year in Israel. Unfortunately, my schedule keeps me so busy that I barely have time to reflect on my life here or my studies. However, the beauty of school is that they assign you to reflect, and therefore I do! So, I decided that if I can reflect for my teachers, I certainly can include those reflections on my blog and hope that it will satisfy my readers for the time being.

I have to classes that require my reflection time: Israel Seminar and Education Seminar. This happens to work as far as my personal career goals, since those two things are my passions. I will do my best to add little things here and there besides my assigned reflections to keep you in the loop of my life. But, if you are ever wondering what I am doing here, you can safely assume that it is in the realm of reading, writing, or eating (because there is always time for that!).

Until then, forgive me for only providing you with this...

Reflection #1
Israel Seminar, September 19, 2007
The reflection among the group participants today helped me to understand the place that I am in regarding my relationship to Israel. Hearing that others in the group had experienced similar life-changing events here, and then feeling somewhat disillusioned or unattached to the country this time around helped me feel better about the situation I have felt in since returning to live in Jerusalem for another year.
The truth is that I think my lack of attachment to this particular city stems from my ambivalent feelings that developed over the time I lived here two years ago. Granted, I lived in Jerusalem for 2 and a half months, which is really only time enough to develop somewhat of a feel for the city, but I did not develop a particular love for it. I grew to respect the history here, and the recognition that this is the central place of the modern state of Israel, but I would not live in this city in Israel if I had my choice. I feel like most of Israel’s problems are embodied in this city, and the intensity of that is almost too much for me to handle.
Besides this, the whole discussion of the new Jew creates even more feelings of ambivalence towards Jerusalem for me. The pioneers that came to settle the land years ago would cringe at the sight of this city. The idea of the new Jew of the second Aliyah was to create a sort of Jewish nationalism and strength different from that of the first, seemingly the exact opposite to what this city looks like now. The way the rabbinate has taken hold of holy sites, such as the Kotel, draws on the tradition of the old Jew, and separates the modern day from the past. The pioneers of the second aliyah, in my opinion, would be against anything that prevented the modernization of Jewish practice. The idea of the new Jew is embodied in places like the Golan, where the fields are still utilized for making wine and other crops, despite the fact that Jewish farmers are not working sweat to the brow like the Jewish farmers of the Aliyah.
My hope for this seminar, throughout the year, is to grow an appreciation for my multilayered relationship with the land of Israel and the State of Israel and a better understanding of my passion for this country despite my issues with it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sick and Bored

Well, it officially takes a little over 2 days for me to become bored of staying at home and checking the internet, watching movies, and sleeping intermittedly throughout the day. I think it is funny how one romanticized sickness when there are other committments like school or work that are general requirements of life. However, I've decided that I would much rather be sitting in on my 4 hours of Hebrew class and seminars after class than sitting at home, on my bed, itching myself whenever my body demands it.

Today, I finally sucked it up and decided to face the Israeli hospital system, in a desperate measure to get some relief from the awful rash that has overcome my body and tonsils that make food taste weird and undesirable. The good news is that I was pleasantly pleased, much different from when I had to take my Birthright participant (not me, sorry for the confusion) to the emergency room. I held out through the night so I could go into the walk-in clinic of English speaking doctors in Jerusalem in hopes that they could figure out what the heck my body is doing and give me some drugs to get rid of it. I almost succeeded, but as is typical of me, the blood tests and throat culture was inconclusive and I am at least stuck with my new best friend, Calamine lotion, and a new nick-name given to me by my boyfriend, "Petri dish." Cute, huh? So, tomorrow morning I will call the doctor at 9:30AM and hopefully she will tell me then to start taking some drug to get me feeling better.

Other than that, the good news is I have all this time to blog and attempt to bring you up to date on my life. I might have to stop every so often to itch whatever part of my body demands, but hopefully there won't be too much stopping. This would be an accomplishment.

So, first thing is first, I am officially a student with at least four hours of class and 2 hours of homework a night. For about 2 more weeks, I will continue in Ulpan, an intensive Hebrew course for the summer, and then other classes will start as well. I definitely appreciate the concentrated focus on Hebrew, but am disappointed that I really don't use it out of the classroom like I would like to. I thought Otzma was an American bubble, but this experience takes that expression to a whole new level. I really never have to speak Hebrew outside of class unless I am in a grocery store or in a cab. Other than that, all my friends are American and we all socialize together at the same restaurants and bars, so my Hebrew is pushed aside to make room for other deeper conversations.

Speaking of which, these deeper conversations are part of what has made this experience so much different than my Otzma one. Not saying that during Otzma deep conversations were not held, but the topics certainly were not what they are now. I cannot tell you how many first interactions with other students in my program that have been about the role of Reform Judaism, or the direction the movement is going, or the unique place of the rabbi, cantor, or educator in each different community. Everyone comes from a different community in the US, and in some cases parts of Europe, with a different perspective on these issues. A part of me was overwhelmed and annoyed at these initial conversations, especially with those that I would consider having "something to prove." I was frustrated that people would not generally show their personality before their perspective, and when someone does that it is sometimes hard to then look at them for their personality first. However, taken in context, everyone here intends to be a Jewish professional in either the capacity of a rabbi, cantor, or educator, and that definitely adds a sense of entitlement to express one's opinion's regarding issues such as this. Unlike in past group situations, however, I haven't felt the need to reach out and get to know everyone, because I know that is something that evolves with time. However, in my sickness, I have come to realize that I have met some amazing people that I do just click with. That is comforting.

Some things I have done in the past few weeks... Two weekends ago, I spent the Shabbat in Kibbutz Yagur, a secular kibbutz about 20 minutes east of Haifa. The invite came from an Israeli rabbinical student also studying at Hebrew Union College, in the Israeli program which is separate from mine. He came to speak about his path to the rabbinate from his secular kibbutz upbringing to my classmates and invited a group of us to come stay for a Shabbat and see what he has been doing at his kibbutz. Kibbutz Yagur is the third largest kibbutz in Israel, and that being said, is secular. And, the truth is, when I say secular for an Israeli it is virtually the same thing as being secular in the States, except worse in some respects. Keeping kosher, Shabbat, or anything considered "religious" is frowned upon in the community, because in Israel being religious is only reserved for those who the government supports and the society hates. Therefore, the stigma attached to anything connected to that community is nothing to shrug off. So, for Gadi (that is the rabbinical student's name), his challenge was to bring a different kind of practice to his kibbutz that wouldn't turn people off but would still seem authentic to them. That is the other problem; any other "type" of Judaism isn't automatically considered authentic, so most Israelis also frown upon alternative styles of worship as well. So, Gadi started slowly, to build upon the Jewish year and began with Tu B'shevat in his kibbutz, the "tree-planting holiday" which Israelis might appreciate a little more than us in the States because of the vitality of trees to this country. He gradually moved forward and introduced other festivals to the kibbutz that people enjoyed, and now has a weekly Shabbat service. However, when I say Shabbat service, I certainly don't mean Shabbat like we are used to. They don't read from the Torah, although it is mentioned, and many secular Israeli songs are mixed into the other liturgical songs of a regular Friday night service. When several of my classmates and I were hosted by kibbutz families, some of the families joined for the services and others did not. The mom in my host family happened to be the secretary of the kibbutz, which is the same thing as the president, and she couldn't be more of a kibbutznik. Her hair was tied to the side in a long braid, she was wearing a straw hat and no make up, and her sandals just put the entire look of a kibbutznik together. She was late arriving home, so I actually didn't even meet her until after I had come and gone from the Shabbat service that Gadi led. I spoke with the "host dad" of the family, and his remarks about what Gadi was doing was that it was cute, but boring to him so he wouldn't bother going. I guess Judaism has to be "entertaining" to some, even in Israel. However, the interesting thing about this host family was that besides their frowning upon traditions, they still did a mini Friday night Shabbat service at their home prior to eating. The reason it was interesting was two-fold: first because it was at a Kibbutz, and they bothered to recognize Shabbat, and second because the service was led by the mother and daughter of the family, something definitely not traditional. The story of this family is that the "host mom," Ilana, came from a religious family and although she is not religious in that way anymore, she said that she wouldn't just throw it all away. It is fascinating to think that the one thing she preserved is Shabbat, among all the other choices of practice to keep.
The rest of the weekend at the Kibbutz was quite beautiful. My host family was more of like a hotel, not much interaction with the family or effort into getting to know me. But, I had a bed and a shower, and some food which ended up to be a great situation. I went to the pool all day on Shabbat, which was amazing, and ended up being adopted for Shabbat lunch twice by my classmate Aimee's family and my boyfriend Greg's family. I was stuffed, but the conversation was great and the people were wonderful. I definitely had warm fuzzies after leaving those two families, and feel like I would go back to that kibbutz for another Shabbat to be hosted by them again. Good times...
Speaking of Shabbat culture, it is something you really feel in this country, but especially in this city. Since I am in a Reform seminary of people who want to be Jewish professionals, each week there is a plethora of invitations to people's homes for Shabbat and different services to try out. And, considering how my weeks go, I start anticipating Shabbat on Sunday when the work week starts here. The set up of the week here truly makes you value your day "off" and find ways to make it both meaningful and relaxing at the same time. So, last weekend we had a required service by my school to go see Harel, and Reform shul in Jerusalem with a woman rabbi. I had been there before, I think with Rabbi Einstein on a tour, and it was very reminiscent of home. They offered us opportunities to be involved in their community, whether it be reading Torah or helping in the preschool or whatever. It was nice, and I may take them up on their offer. However, the best part of this night was hosting Shabbat dinner at my house after services! I volunteered to be the chef of the main course, chicken (traditional for the Friday night Shabbat meal), and my roommates and I ended up hosting around 20 people for dinner. While I was quite intimidated by this number of people, I chose an easy recipe to cook for everyone and prepared it before Shabbat so I would just have to heat it up when I got home. Well, I can say, it was great! The chicken was a balsamic vinagrette, olive oil, and honey recipe and turned out so tasty! I was so happy to see everyone enjoying the meal and complimenting me on a job well done. It was just nice to do Shabbat the right way and have contributed a significant part of it. I am happy to pass along the recipe if you are curious...

And other than that, I am still in bed, trying to get healthy so I can keep up the good work. I've been posting photos, so if you don't see a blog from me, you can at least see what I have been up to from my pics. More later... (and I will try to be better at updating...)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Birthright, Settling In, and Settling Down...

I have been here for almost a month, but it truly feels as if I never left. Except for a few things, not much has changed besides a few new restaurants opening, new stores, and some other barely noticeable things. What I have noticed that has changed, however, is me.

During Birthright, it was an amazing opportunity to be on the staff end of a trip of peers. Although I was frustrated a few times with a few participants, overall the trip was amazing and a great way to start my stay here in Israel again. This time, however, I felt as if I was playing the role of teacher. For each place that we went, I learned something new and remembered a lot of what I had been taught my first time there. The new, kind of wonderment that I used to feel for each place I went was gone, but replaced by an intense connection and knowledge of where I stood. Because of this, I had an ability to teach and answer questions from the participants on the side. While I encouraged them to listen to our tour guide, Marty, who was amazing, sometimes they required a shorter, more to the point explanation of a site we were visiting. Most of the time, I could give them an answer. I was pretty impressed with myself and proud that the time spent here last year was not lost or forgotten. By the end of the trip, one of the participants who had confided in me that she just simply did not understand the importance of Israel and didn't think she could ever feel connected to another land told the group that she understood afterwards. She couldn't say the prayer over the Shabbat candles, but I think she began to understand her connection to Judaism in Israel. I was amazed to see this happen to several of the participants. Literally, these were kids with barely any connection to Judaism and especially not Israel, but their experience on Birthright changed them. The discussions about Jewish identity and connection to the Land required their thoughts and contemplations, and I cannot even tell you what a relief I felt to hear their validations of what we had been showing them during the trip. So, although I lost a lot of sleep during the trip, and had my first visit to an Israeli emergency room, the trip was amazing and the group even more amazing. I felt so lucky to be a part of them and will continue to stay in touch and help them connect to their communities at home. To me, that is what this is all about.

However, the trip leads me to my next revelation... culture shock. I think it is possible that I am experiencing a bit of reverse culture shock! I came here feeling like I would know full well what to expect... and I still feel that way! But, for me, that is where the problem lies... I expect the cabbies to drive terribly and try to rip me off. I expect to push my way onto the bus and wait for another one to come when I get pushed out of the way. I am used to the way people argue with each other and talk over one another. I'm used to coming home from bars and having to wash the smoke smell out of everything. And, the truth is, it's hard to readjust back into this because in some respects it has lost the "fun." I hate smoke! Really, I do, and you just can't get away from it here. I get annoyed that I have to ask the cabs to turn on the meter when I get in because they don't do it automatically. And, I get more annoyed at myself when I don't speak up and let these annoying drivers take advantage of me. I hate that I think about my "safety" when I get on a bus but am sometimes more afraid of the cab drivers talking on the phone and driving like maniacs on the road. Life here is an adjustment and it isn't "easy." And, I know that, and that makes it more of something that I acknowledge unlike the last time I arrived in Israel.

But, on the flip side, I have had my moments these past few weeks. After settling into my apartment, I bought a new bed from Shlomo in Jerusalem. He sold me a cheap bed and it arrived on time to my place. Amazing. They came in and set it up and I now feel like a real person with a real room in my apartment. I LOVE that the name of the guy who sold me my bed is Shlomo. And then, on the way back from buying my bed, there was a cab driver who stopped, and another who backed up to pick me and my roommate off the road with all our stuff. We were in a predicament.... Which cab do we choose? So, we went with the one who didn't back up, but who stopped in front of us. While the two cabbies were yelling at each other over us, they recognized each other, realized they were friends, and started laughing about the situation. I think the economy here is what makes it the hardest to just be normal.

Besides this moment, I had to rush off to Tel Aviv to catch Maor in his play. But... Maor failed to tell me that there would be 4 other little plays before his... On the way to Tel Aviv, I had to hop on a bus I had never taken before. I didn't know exactly where I was going, so I asked the bus driver to tell me where to get off. Seriously, he was the nicest bus driver ever. He kept smiling at me, saying he hadn't forgotten about me, and that I shouldn't worry. Then he started telling all the other passengers about the cute girl from America. A woman then started pointing out where I was going as we were approaching it so I would find my way... I did and departed from my new friends, feeling like I had experienced what I had been missing thus far... Maor's play was brilliant, of course, and he was amazing in it. But, the cooler part for me were two of the dramas before his. My Hebrew is still not fluent, but I picked up from one of the dramas that they were doing an adaptation of Joseph's dream coat from the Torah. Another play was a satire dealing with the kidnapped soldiers. EVERYTHING is intertwined here, and it never ceases to amaze me how it all comes together. The Joseph play was deep, questioning, curious about the relationship between Joseph and God and his brothers. The play about the kidnapped soldiers was dark, cynical, and critical of the government's failing to succeed in bringing them home. The disappointment was palpable in this play and indicative of the feelings of many people in the country on this topic. To me, however, I just saw this collection of plays as an example of the modern state of Israel, struggling with the issues head on and using art as a form of release. I am lucky to have Maor bring me into this world of his, because I feel like I am experiencing it more like an insider. I love that there is a country that has Judaism so deeply entrenched in its psyche, and this coming from the "secular" city of Tel Aviv.

My life in Jerusalem is settling... I am just finishing setting up the apartment. We almost have working Internet and a stocked kitchen. My room is adorable, and I love it. I love my new bed and I think my roommates and I will get along great. They are both rabbinical students from all over the States, but both going to Cincinnati after this year. David is from St. Louis and was in finance for a while. He has a hilariously dry sense of humor, plays guitar, has a gf at home, and is a calm person in general. He and I get along great. PJ is from South Carolina, just graduated from college, is a huge social butterfly, and also has a gf at home. The more I get to know him, the more I like him. And, I can't forget to mention another character in our lives, our landlord Felix. I think he is about 85. He doesn't like contracts, but is totally trustworthy and a sweet man. He already replaced our semi-broken toilet, thank goodness. When explaining how things worked in the apartment, he was sure to make the boys tell me how to fix the stove, water the plants, and do the laundry. Thank goodness too, because I am the woman of this house! Anyway, that is the ongoing joke of the house, but I think it is funny and I don't expect it to be very serious at least among the boys. So, we are all settling and life at Hebrew Union College is moving along. We have had several pre-Orientation gatherings, and I have met some great people thus far. I've had interesting conversations already about Jewish life in the States and the state of the Reform Jewish community. These conversations have left me happy, frustrated, tired, overwhelmed, and all sorts of emotions, all in an informal setting! Class can only be that much more interesting...

Anyway, that is it for now! I'll be updating soon...

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Home

Life can seem surreal at times. Today is Sunday, June 3rd and I have just gotten home from a wedding at my synagogue of two members. As I looked around the room, I realized that half of the place were other members of my synagogue, people who have watched me grow up and whom I have known for years. Everyone was asking about my upcoming adventure to Israel... How long will you be there? What are you going to do? When do you leave? Even the bride and groom, on what is their day, were thoughtful enough to inquire. I have been on a whirlwind trip around California, and have really started to explore the idea of what home is. How do you define what your true home is? Is it where you grew up? Is it where your family is? Is it where your friends are? Is it where you found yourself? Is it where you are when you are there? What makes a home, your home? Is home truly where the heart is?

These questions have been crossing my mind as of late as I have ventured to many of my past homes and have started to really think about this new journey in my life. I will attempt again to create a new home far away from the majority of my family and where I grew up with a group of new and old friends, family, and colleagues in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was my home for part of my Otzma year, but I never really took a liking to it. Yes, it is true, Jerusalem can leave a bad taste in your mouth and it certainly did with me when I lived there. For many reasons that I will put aside for a moment, this "bad taste" has left me with the challenge of discovering how to make Jerusalem my home.

What I take from where I grew up and have lived for the last year of my life, Fountain Valley, is a strong network of support from friends and family who have watched me grow and evolve. FV has always been a "nice place to live" (the motto of the town) for me since my entire family and best friends are here (or not too far). Since college, FV has served as a quiet respite from life whether I was in Santa Barbara for college or in LA working at AIPAC. I always felt at home here, cozy and calm under the protection of my parents, and that has even extended into this year. I know I will miss my parents' and brother's presence when I am in Israel, but I will carry their warmth and love with me wherever I go. But, especially after returning here, I have wondered if this is truly my home.

UCSB in Santa Barbara pushed me to grow into who I am today. In this home, I became comfortable enough in who I am to take risks and challenge myself to do things I never thought possible. I honed my passion for Judaism and learning, and really created my own community of friends and family at UCSB. I was involved in the greater community, and really felt like I was beginning to know Santa Barbara beyond the walls of my university. I really learned to pray in Santa Barbara. I am not sure if it was a combination of the gorgeous landscape, or the breathtaking sunsets, or the haunting melodies, but I really felt like Santa Barbara was my spiritual home, and the place where I could truly let Shabbat in my life. But, after I finished my Bachelor's degree there, I felt like I had to leave. So, I had created a home, and almost overnight it was gone. Was that my home or just the place that shaped me?

In LA I learned a lot, especially about the stress of working life. Is home where my job is? I began to feel like the work at AIPAC was my mission, my duty really to wake up each day to do something to protect Israel. But, one can hardly find peace and solace with the traffic and parking in LA. The excitement of a big city, and one with Jewish life, was exhilarating yet exhausting. Through AIPAC, I learned about the pro-Israel community, and what it means to truly dedicate yourself for the well being of the country. I know my experience in LA at AIPAC taught me a lot, and despite the fact that my grandparents lived there, I'm not sure I would ever truly call it home.

So, again, I am left with the same question... What defines home? I suppose as I embark on another journey to Israel, the home of my people and my history, I will uncover more of what home means to me. I found home several times when I volunteered and worked in Israel the last time, and created a strong family among my fellow Otzmaniks. But, I always wonder if it is possible to be so strongly connected to two places. My fear is that I will never feel completely whole in one place, that I will always feel something missing when I eventually settle down.

I suppose only time will tell, but at least for the upcoming school year, Jerusalem is my home.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Israeli Shopping Experience

Meant to be posted on May 16, 2006...

I have a confession. I am a shopaholic. One of my ex-boyfriends once diagnosed my sickness as “consumerism.” He had learned about it in one of his economic classes, and decided that indeed this was my condition. The truth is that I can’t disagree with this fact. For whatever reason, this character trait of mine has transferred all the way across the world and into Israel. I know this may come as a shock to you, but when I initially set foot in this country, my thought was that I would not shop. I didn’t think the clothes would fit me, and I wasn’t sure I would like the style. After living in Los Angeles among the fashion gurus, I couldn’t imagine that anything could resemble the malls and boutiques that are uniquely found in many different areas of the city. Well, according to my credit card bill, I made a wrong assumption before coming here. I began to learn my ropes around the fashionable stores in Israel like Castro, Honigman, and Tag Woman in Beer Sheva, and perfected the weekly mall stroll in Tel Aviv.

A couple things to note about Israeli fashion… Buttcracks are cool. This must be the case, or else they would make pants that actually cover your entire butt. However, this fashion law here goes hand in hand with the next. Underwear is cool. Thongs or briefs, both are acceptable to parade proudly sticking out of your way below your hips- hipster jeans. Next law: English writing on your shirt is a must. I personally cannot subscribe to this law, as I have always hated labeling myself according to a store, but here it is more than acceptable. Even when the store is authentically Israeli, like Fox Shirts or Castro, the writing on the shirts is still in English. These shirts even say more than just the store they came from, but other phrases that are just odd to read. My favorite example of this is “My mother says, ‘Go #%&* yourself!’” Further, these shirts are appropriate to wear anywhere. Whether it is a wedding or a funeral or the Western Wall, one will see them all over the country. Another rule: the tighter, the better. Now, this tightness is not limited to men or women, young or old, it applies to everyone everywhere on everything. Shirts, pants, or skirts, if you leave even a little bit of room for that extra bit you are trying to work off at the gym, you are out of fashion. Ironically, this especially applies to the men in this country. For the purposes of this fashion law, we will leave out the orthodox in the country. However, for all the other men, the baggy look is out and tight is in. In America this might imply something about the sexuality of the man sporting the outfit, but in Israel things are different. The only thing the lack of a tight shirt might indicate here would be the need for room for the overwhelming amount of chest hair on the guy’s body, or that he hasn’t been able to go shopping since his weight loss. Given that most Israelis are pretty fit and trim, I would guess that the former suggestion is the most true.

This leads me to my discussion about how Israelis shop, based on my observations just hours ago at a Castro store in Jerusalem. Different from my usual “just for pleasure” perusal, this time I had to check on a pair of pants that were supposed to be ordered for me a week ago. I had a brooding fear that this would be one of those times that I just wanted to return home to the good-old American customer service, and I was mostly right. As I waited in line to talk to the store clerk at the counter, the line seemed to keep growing in front of me, to my dismay. I have a new understanding of things when this happens to me. The idea of waiting in a single-file line after one has completed collecting his correct sizes and determined which articles to purchase simply doesn’t exist here. This actually applies to the bank, grocery store, and basically anywhere else where a purchase is being made. So, my annoyance level began to grow as I watched each customer whose spot was “saved” in front of me do their business at the counter. Now, if by exiting the line to finish business would enable one to have an easy check-out, I would be in favor of the idea. However, generally speaking, this is not the case among Israelis. My favorite example today was a woman who looked to be in her late 40’s, early 50’s, who initially walked up to the cash register with one red, Castromania t-shirt in size 2. The problem was that she actually wanted this shirt in black, in size 3. After this exchange was made at the actual cash register and not on the floor, she decided that she wanted two more in red and in blue, which again was brought to her by the salesclerk on the floor. In the meantime, the clerk at the register pushed her aside so he could help the next person in line. While she was waiting on the side of the register, she began looking around and examining everything else displayed on the counter for last minute purchases. She was helped again by the man at the cash register, and completed her purchases without buying anything on the counter. In a sudden move at the end, she headed straight for the far end of the counter opposite to her, cutting in front of everyone else, to look at a purse on display. She took the purse, examined it inside and out, and then did the same to a similar purse in a different color. She decides that she wants to buy it, walks over to the other side of the register, and pulls out her credit card and announces that she would also like to buy the bag. When the woman whose actual turn it was at the register looks up at her with a puzzled and annoyed look, the suddenly ashamed Israeli pushy lady apologizes and realizes that she must wait. Her second transaction is finally completed and she leaves the store.

Now, if that wasn’t enough to send my stress level soaring, there was more. During this ordeal with the crazy Israeli woman at the counter, I was being helped by another salesperson that was checking to see if my pants arrived. Bad sign: she keeps smiling at me while nervously looking at my receipt, back at the closet where orders are supposed to be held, and then back at my receipt again. In order to get anything done with efficiency here, I’ve learned that one can’t stand and look happy. Mind games help expedite the process. You must have a pissed off look on your face while you constantly check the time on your watch or cell phone, so your urgency and disappointment is obvious. Politeness doesn’t help, but only makes things worse because then you won’t take priority. So, even though I was having a rather good day, I put that aside and stood staring straight at the clerk with an almost scowl on my face until things were put in order. They kept looking at me with a sort of pained expression that said something like “We’re trying, we’re trying.” I continued to look annoyed until they gave me the unwelcome news: the pants had been sold to someone else and there wasn’t another pair left in my size in the entire State of Israel. Yep, just as I had thought, it would be one of those “Israel experiences.” I expressed my disappointment to them, which they understood, and proceeded to give me a full refund. Oh Israel, how I love thee. Let me count the ways…

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Yom Ha'atzmaut, Yom Ha'zikaron, and the rest of my promised updates

May 6, 2006

This week concluded an extremely important time of the year for Israel. I’m sure there must be a name for this season, but we just observed Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Memorial for the Soldiers and Victims of Terror lost), and then concluding with Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day). This time period took on new meaning for me this year. Why? I have gained a deep, internal understanding of each of these events the holidays have been set apart to commemorate.

Before Yom HaShoah, my group took a tour of Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum located here in Jerusalem. This was my third time visiting the museum, but by far one of the most meaningful. Firstly, the museum was packed with groups of soldiers, tourists, and school groups touring. I gained an inside look from specialized tour guides, and was able to gain a new perspective on the architecture of the museum and the exhibits themselves. Yad VaShem is located next to the Hadassah Hospital and Har Herzl, a cemetery that hosts the top political leaders of the country and soldiers who have also died defending Israel. The sheer location of the museum provides an incredible panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem, seeking to remind the visitors of the “answer” to the Holocaust. At the end of the extensive exhibits of the new museum, one walks out to see Jerusalem in all its glory, providing a look forward into what the Jewish People have gained after the misery and tragedy of the Holocaust. The juxtaposition is truly powerful to me, and I always need to take a deep breath to maintain composure after coming out of the museum. On the actual day of Yom HaShoah, a siren sounds all over the entire country for two minutes. During this time, everyone stops doing whatever they are doing at that moment and stands to commemorate those 6 million lost in the Holocaust. I happened to be at work when the siren sounded, and I stood with my boss listening to the wailing siren all over Jerusalem and looking out the window at everyone observing the same moment. This was incredibly powerful to me.

Yom HaZikaron is an even more somber day to experience here. As my friend Brent said best, “Israelis actually mourn.” This day, if you have lost anyone in war or in a terror attack, you visit their grave and have a short memorial service for them. Depending on whom you are and whom you have lost will make the day more or less hard to get through. I felt a certain distance from this particular ritual because I myself do not know people who have been lost in war or an attack. I suppose this is a good thing, but it certainly separated me from the majority of the Israeli public who unfortunately has had to go through something like this. For this holiday, there are two sirens: one in the evening at 8PM and one the following morning at 11AM. I was in a cab going to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv for a memorial service for the first siren. The cab driver stopped the cab, and we all got out and stood in silence with the rest of traffic while the siren sounded. We continued on our way after the siren stopped. When I experienced this again, I couldn’t get over the idea that the entire country at that moment was stopped and sharing a common experience. It tied the entire country together for a moment, and created a community of people who were all sharing in the same pain. Something like this can only be created in a country this small that has had to endure such horrible things in order to simply survive. This was the thought running through my head the entire time. On Memorial Day in the States, I could never imagine the entire country standing together just for a moment to appreciate the freedoms we have because of the sacrifices we have had to make. I realize that to compare Israel’s history to US history is simply impossible, but I was just moved by the ability of the Israelis to be able to put aside their politics for a minute and remember the losses that transcend the political body making the decisions for the country. In the end, the Israelis understand that they are in this fight for survival together, and I will take the memory of them standing in solidarity just even for a quick minute with me forever. After the siren, I arrived at Rabin Square (called Rabin Square because this was where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 10 years ago) for a memorial service for Yom HaZikaron. The place was packed, room to sit on the ground only because you would block someone else if you stood. The Tel Aviv Municipality that sits behind the Square was lit with a huge Israeli flag of lights, and one word saying “Yizkor” or “Remember.” The night was filled with well-known songs of mourning sung by popular Israeli artists, and testimonies from family members of fallen soldiers interspersed between the music. The mood was solemn, internal, as I am sure each person there had his own mourning to do. Each soldier that died was no more than 24 years old, which really impacted me to think that someone’s life could end at the same age I am right now. I started crying when a young girl came on the screen and began talking about her brother who was lost. This felt too scary for me to even imagine, and I just could only begin to feel what she must have felt when she lost her brother. That is quite possibly one of my worst nightmares. The ceremony concluded, and my friends and I went home because everything in this normally busy city was closed for the night. This holiday I have always felt hard to relate to at home, because in some respects it is authentically an Israeli holiday, but when I realize that these kids my age are fighting for the survival of Israel, the true safe-haven for any Jew in the world who needs it, the holiday will always take on new meaning.

The next day comes Yom Ha’atzmaut, similar to the Fourth of July, but more outwardly joyous, festive, and fun. Israel celebrated 58 years of existence this year. 58! That is it! All over the country Israeli flags had been hung in anticipation of this day. At sundown, when Jewish holidays start, the flag rises from half-mass to full-staff as a signal that the celebrations are able to begin. This was quite possibly one of the most fun times I have had yet in Israel. Everyone is out on the streets celebrating the birthday of Israel, the existence of this State. I started this night out by Israeli dancing in front of the Tel Aviv Art Museum. There were many, many people who all knew the dancing, making me feel even sillier when I tried following along. I initially stood on the side until one of the Holocaust survivors from my volunteering recognized me and pulled me along to dance with him. After this, my friends and I moved on to Rabin Square, where we had been the night before for the memorial ceremony. The feeling was completely different this night. There was a rock concert, with a popular Israeli band, and everyone was dancing and enjoying themselves at this show. There were kids running around spraying foam on each other, which unfortunately I experienced as well when a 16 year old decided to hit on me. Upon his rejection, I got shot with foam spray. Fun! The observation that I found quite interesting was the change in mood from one night to the next: utter sadness on Yom HaZikaron and sheer happiness for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I know it is done this way on purpose, but the juxtaposition is an interesting cycle to put forth each year. The Israeli custom for the day of Yom Ha’atzmaut is bar-b-que either at the beaches or parks. I went to my friend Gitit’s parents house to eat fabulous meat and relax all day in her beautiful backyard. What a great time of year!

I’ve sort of come to realize that the subconscious reasons for me not writing about the major “changes” in my life since moving out of Tel Aviv, to do army service in Sar-El, and then to Jerusalem are because they haven’t been and weren’t as life-changing as everything else has been thus far.

The summation of Sar-El goes like this… I was stuck in the middle of the desert, close to the Egyptian border, doing mediocre work in dusty warehouses for three weeks. Okay, that description is a little harsh because overall I did have a great time, but some days that was how I was feeling. The only thing worse to imagine would actually being assigned to this army base, Q’tziyot, as one’s three-year army service. The base is a supply base for times of war. So, all day, every day, the soldiers here are preparing for wartime. They reorganize warehouses based on new orders, clean warehouses, paint tanks and jeeps, organized medicine supplies, and whatever else is assigned to them. The commanders on the base are career army soldiers, and are generally looked down upon by the rest of the soldiers since they never advanced to officer status. Therefore, the respect level is generally low since the soldiers have no other reason in that they must respect their supervisors. The base itself, as I have been alluding to, is not a respected base and people don’t want to end up there as a rule. It really is kind of sad. I just kept imagining how I would feel towards a government who had assigned me to a seemingly useless base for the entirety of my service. I doubt I would feel warm and gooey.

Despite all this, we knew that the soldiers’ moral was raised by us being there and we had a great time working among them and entering into their psyche for a while. Our madrichot (counselors) were two adorable Israeli girls, Galit and Yael, and they busted our butts and tried to keep us motivated to do the monotonous work assigned to us on the base. Each night, after a long days work, we had education sessions with them on various topics relating to the army and Israel at large. We had guest speakers come in to teach us different things as well, and as a whole I gained a lot from those sessions as well. In order to get my volunteer appellate, we were taken on a night mission at 1 in the morning where we had to run all over base and carry one our friends on our backs to the center. I was exhausted after completing this, but felt very satisfied having experienced a minute glimpse into what a night mission might be like. We squatted, flung ourselves to the ground, jogged, sprinted, whatever the commanding soldier told us to do, we did, and I really enjoyed it.

Another aspect to being on a base with soldiers for three weeks is getting the real chance to get to know them. I made a really good friend in a soldier named Shaul, who had already served for a year and a half and had that much left to go. He was one of the best on the base, and was put in charge of helping a group of “special” volunteers who come weekly on the base to do work. He and I shared many talks of his hopes and dreams for after he gets released, and his feelings towards being there in general. As a whole, I really feel like Shaul is an exception to the rule because he was always so positive and wise for his age (he is only 19). He was dealing with being at Q’tziyot in the best way possible. He is one of my most cherished friends here in Israel, and we still keep in touch even since I left the base. As a whole, I loved my experience in Sar-El where I would wear no make-up during the week, shower with a hose for a nozzle and no shower doors, and eat really awful food that literally made my stomach hurt. Boy, did I appreciate the weekends and simple things like laundry! I am so happy to have this outlook on the experience of the soldiers, but was glad to get on with the rest of the program and start my internship.

This of course leads me to the last leg of my journey in Israel on Project Otzma: Jerusalem. I must say that moving into Jerusalem was somewhat of a culture shock for me. This city is unlike any other city I have lived in yet in Israel, and to be quite honest, the jury is still out on it. Most tourists love Jerusalem. This makes sense given that there is Ben Yehuda St., the Old City, charming Emek Refaim, the infamous King David Hotel, and lots of history to take in and see. Most people notice the crazy religious people here, but they don’t really get annoyed by them, maybe just more amused. The beggars on Ben Yehuda St. are there, but they don’t really annoy you because you only run into them once or twice. People also love Jerusalem because of the quiet that pervades the city on Shabbat: everything closes, traffic slows down, everyone is out walking to shul and saying Shabbat Shalom to everyone.

The irony of all of these reasons that I just listed is that these are the reasons that I have a problem with Jerusalem. I’m not sure if it is because I lived in Tel Aviv previously, which is not religiously driven but more Zionistically driven, but Jerusalem and I do not get along. I really get annoyed and agitated by the religious people that are here. I feel a little bit more oppressed in this city than I do anywhere else because of the presence of the religious. I try to cover my shoulders a little bit more, make sure my pants are not as tight-fitting, and generally pay more attention to how I present myself to protect myself from being harassed by a Haredi (one of the black hat religious) man at his whim. Now maybe you guys are laughing and thinking to yourselves that perhaps this newfound conservative dress isn’t such a bad thing, but I personally hate it. The religious also can be some of the most pushy, obnoxious people at the shuk or on the bus, and I have really grown to resent their rude nature to anyone who isn’t living in their century. Besides this, I feel like the religious represent so many of the problems that exist here in Israel, so a large part of me is just agitated whenever I see them. I have become really good at recognizing fake hair from real hair, and I give kudos to the religious that are able to dress well given their restrictions, but other than that I hate that there are still Jews stuck in the far past. I know I am sounding rather harsh here, but this is honestly how I see these people. I think this change came somewhere from my understanding of the way the State works, and how much the religious rely on taxes from the government and nothing else to live, and still manage to control immigration and marriage laws that really just anger me in general. I obviously take these feelings and superimpose them on every religious person I see, but I just can’t help it.

I usually don’t spend Shabbat in Jerusalem. I am convinced that the reason everyone goes to shul on Shabbat is because there is nothing else interesting to do. There are times I want to go to shul, and I stay in Jerusalem for that, but if I want to do anything else other than pray, I go to Tel Aviv. For the Shabbat observant person, this is the perfect city. For me, it isn’t. The way I like to spend Shabbat usually starts with my favorite sushi bar, and then to one of my favorite bars for some white wine and the rest of the Israelis in the city. That is what I call “a day of rest.” In Jerusalem, the Shabbat crowd is much smaller and less fabulous, so I prefer to be in my home in Israel.

Besides this, Jerusalem has a different culture than Tel Aviv. The city’s weather is windier, less humid, and more unpredictable. The winters here are incredibly wet and cold, and usually last until about the end of April. The city is also based on a bunch of hills, and I feel like it is much less convenient to walk from point to point here. For these reasons, people are more like homebodies and less likely to go walking around. There are not trendy streets to window shop at, and malls to roam around. There are only hills and religious people. That is it. On nice days people hang around certain areas like Emek Refaim, the German colony with restaurants and cute little shops, or Ben Yehuda Street with all the Judaica stores, but other than that they are inside. Boring. Not my style, and therefore not my kind of city. I knew I was going to miss Tel Aviv so much when I left, but I had no idea I would miss it the way I do now.

For this particular track, I intern every day in Jerusalem at the American Joint Jewish Distribution Committee, or JDC, in the Russian department. In my department, I hear Russian, Hebrew, and English all day long, sometimes even in the same conversation. The JDC itself is an amazing organization, huge, in fact. Their work spans all over the world, helping impoverished Jews to get the services they need like health care, food, and warm homes during the winters. This is particularly important for the department I work in, where the Russian winters are extremely cold. I will be honest in that my actual work is pretty boring, but I like the people I work with so it isn’t too bad. I have just basically reinforced what I already knew, that the non-profit world is not for me. I want to make the money, and donate it. After they have the money, they can do whatever they want with it. This is my new attitude.

And so I conclude my enormous update on my life. My current project is planning my trip to Europe, which is turning into a really complicated puzzle that I am trying to tackle, but I am optimistic it will turn out great. As soon as the details are completed, I will certainly post them. I also feel the need to recommend Idan Raichel for any of you looking for new Israeli music. I just went to a concert of his band, and the show and music is really unique and ethnic sounding. I love it.

Signing off for now…