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!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Adoptive family and such...

Firstly, I do apologize for not posting pictures recently. I'm going to try my hardest to post this week, or today if at all possible.

Last weekend all of the Otzmanikim went to their respective cities to meet their host families. I was picked up in Tel Aviv at about 9:30AM by my "father," Yigal. We went to his car, and he drove me back to his house where I would be spending Shabbat with the rest of the family. We arrived at the cute little apartment on the third floor outside the center of the city in Tel Aviv, where I was greeted by my "mother" Chedva and "brother" Roy. I don't have any pictures of Roy, but he was a typical (or not so typical) Israeli 17 teen year old who did not hang out with his family unless he had to and basically did his own thing. He maybe said two words to me the entire weekend, so I think that meant that I fit right in with the rest of his family. He said about three words to them. Anyway, I am digressing. I walked into the door and put my things in my host sister's room, and took a nap because I was so tired. Yigal went to sleep too after we had chocolate cake and coffee for dessert with Chedva. I woke up from my nap, played on the internet for a while, and planted myself in front of the tv for like the next 4 hours until Shabbat came in. Normally I might be bored of this, but considering I don't own a tv anymore, it was relatively fun to do something mindless. An anecdote about my "mother" Chedva, she was such a typical Jewish mother! She comes from a Yemenite background, so everything she cooks has a certain flavor to it. She loves to cook and talked about all the different recipes she liked to try. I basically had no choice but to try everything put in front of me, and I have come quite a long way from my "spaghetti no sauce" days! However, I think Chedva thought I was too skinny or something (which is nuts) because literally whereever I went the entire weekend, there was food. I went to the computer to play on the internet, and there was a plate of fruit. I sat in front of the tv, and there was two kinds of seeds, more fruit, chocolate cake, chocolate, and coffee. I am not kidding. For Shabbat dinner, their cousin and grandfather joined us and we had about 8 different dishes on the table. I ate, and ate, and ate the entire weekend, and none of it was bad food at all! I fell in love with different Yemenite foods, like the pita like doughy bread that you put eggplant and tahina spread on. Amazing! I don't remember what else I tried, but all I remember thinking was that my parents would be proud of me! After Shabbat dinner, which was quite traditional despite the Israeli soccer game we were watching in the background, we all got dressed and went out as a family to the boardwalk of Tel Aviv. It was beautiful! Tel Aviv is not a religious city in Israel, and in fact I would say it was odd to see any shops closed given the amount of people and noise. The tayelet (aka the boardwalk) was completely packed with people strolling, street performers, and bars packed with people and loud music. We sat at Mike's Place, made famous by the terrible suicide bombing that happened in 2002, and drank beer and listened to the live rock music. I have to say, for an Israeli band doing American Classic Rock, it wasn't so bad! We got home at about 3AM and went to bed right after that night. One thing I haven't mentioned yet, my family only speaks a limited amount of English. I found the language barrier to mean two really neat things. First, you can communicate with someone and make them feel completely welcome without being able to understand tham completely. There were only a couple times that I didn't understand or participate in most conversations that weekend, and that was because they made me feel welcome in so many other ways. The other thing I realized is that they truly wanted to communicate with me, and would sit with a dictionary for words even if it was a little frustrating. I was forced to try to use my Hebrew more than I have to daily living with my Otzmaniks, they helped me say the words correctly and likewise. I think that they are just as excited to improve their English as I am to improve my Hebrew. Even though it is a little harder to communicate, I think it is going to be that much better in the longrun. On Shabbat, we walked around Old Yafo, which is the old part of Tel Aviv where it is about 50/50 Jews and Arabs, and along the other part of the tayelet in Tel Aviv. We were incredibly hot all day, so we went back to the apartment and rested until S'udah Shlishit. For the last meal, we went up to the outskirts of Tel Aviv to Yigal's sister's house, which is this huge house on top of a hill and beautiful. My first taste of the elite in Israel. The family was incredibly sweet, and spoke perfect English, so it was nice to be able to communicate more clearly than I had all weekend. I was dropped back to the bus by my entire family (except Roy of course) at about 11PM with hugs and warms wishes. I am going back there for Rosh Hashanah, and am really looking forward to it. I already have spoked to my "sister" Liron this week, and I know that this hopefully will grow into an amazing relationship over the year.
In other news... I did my first volunteer opportunity with the Atidim kids this week in their high school this week. About 20 high schoolers showed up, completely enthusiastic and happy to be there with us. They came from a variety of backgrounds: Russian, Ethiopian, South American, and Israeli. I am truly amazed to see the spectrum of backgrounds that people come from in Israel. This truly is a country of immigrants, especially in cities like Beer Sheva. We played games with them all including English, and they came away from it wanting to do more with us in the future. We are basically going to teach them about American pop culture, so I think our curriculum will include a lot of baseball, Kelly Clarkson, and MTV. I am excited! We have another session on Tuesday, so hopefully it will be as good as the last.
Finally, I don't usually talk about my love life on my blog, because it is a little awkward, but I feel I have to mention one quick thing... I met this French, Jewish, good looking, TALL, DENTIST named Michael at my Ulpan a couple weeks ago, and we have hit it off pretty well. Excluding all other details, I basically ditched all responsibilities and went on a bus (one-way, direct, SAFE) to Tel Aviv after Ulpan and went to the beach with him this Wednesday. Needless to say, the water was fantastic and the tayelet (the same one I was at on Shabbat) was absolutely breathtaking. I layed on the beach with this hot French man who seems to like me quite a bit, and just truly soaked in the sun and the rest of the day. As I was laying facing the Meditteranean Sea, watching the sunset, and taking in the beauty of the shoreline of Tel Aviv, I realized that I was actually having a "moment" with a cute Jewish boy in my amazing homeland. I think I am falling in love... with Israel. I cannot put in to words how that moment made me feel, but I just honestly couldn't believe that this is my life right now. I am so lucky.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

An Unexpected Multicultural Weekend

Well, they say that in Israel anything can happen, perhaps because Israel is the land of miracles, milk and honey, etc. ad naseam, ad infinitum. This weekend I felt like I truly experienced just how diverse this country can actually be on a regular basis.
Weekends in Israel for me start on Thursdays usually. My weekly schedule goes like this: Sunday-Wednesday I have Ulpan from 8:15AM-12:45PM. After that, I volunteer for a few hours and then come home. I haven't exactly figured out all the places I am volunteering, but I have one program that I am involved in. I am a group leader for a program called Atidim, which means "Futures" in Hebrew. This program works with the top 20% of kids who live in the periphery, which means outside the big cities like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, etc. and gives these teenagers extra classes after school in math, science, and English. The idea behind this program is that this will help the kids excel in subjects that they need to be accepted to universities in Israel. The kids who have gone through this program in the past have been more likely to be accepted. The hope is that after their education they will resettle in their respective communities and help create new jobs and a better economy. The hope is also that in 15 years or so, the cities in the periphery will be just as appealing to live in and able to provide the same jobs and opportunities as big cities. I am extremely excited to help these kids learn English and get to know them. I also know that this will be a huge challenge as well, but I am up for it.
Anyway, on Thursdays, during this part of the program, we either have education days or group volunteer activities. Last Thursday was a truly meaningful volunteer opportunity. We met with the other Otzmanikiim from Ashkelon and ended up in a greenhouse that had tons of plants that had been transferred there during the disengagement from Gaza. None of these plants had been properly placed or watered since they had been moved. We had the unique opportunity to help expediate the process for the former settlers by arranging these pots so they can grow and prosper as they did in Gaza. Although the settlers themselves weren't helping us rearrange the flowers, I couldn't help but think that perhaps we were giving them peace of mind so that they could continue on with their lives as best they can. I was happy to help.
My friends and I caught the next train out to Haifa, where we spent the night and most of the next day. The train is a great way to travel in Israel, I have discovered. There is a lot of room to spread out, and the views of the country are just beautiful. The only complaint I have is that they are COLD!!! I felt like I was in a meat locker the entire time, and will most definitely bring sweats for the next time I decide to take the train! We arrived in Haifa, which is located in the Southern Galilee, around 9PM and found our hostel, an adorable place located right next to downtown Haifa. We took a leisurely walk to the main street with lots of restaurants and clubs, all lit with colored lamps and lanterns. I felt very much like I was in downtown Santa Barbara, with the lights and the beach. We had a beautiful view of the Bahai Gardens lit up on top of the hill overlooking the street. I had a nice dinner with friends, and afterwards we went walking back to our hostel and heard music coming from a place on a side street. Like good travelers, we followed our ears and ended up at locals' bar in Haifa where everyone was dancing and singing along with the music. We weren't sure if this was a private party, so we hesitated at the door to walk in, when the manager came to the door and escorted us in! From then on, I felt like we were the sort of celebrities in the bar... Everyone came by our table to say hello, try to speak with us (although their English was terrible, and so was my Hebrew, so that was difficult). All in all though, the bar was my first real taste of smalltown Israeli nightlife, and it was wonderful to be in a space where everyone was dancing and singing Hebrew songs that weren't from Sunday school.
The next day we woke up and went on our own walking tour of Haifa. We tried to get on a tour of the Bahai gardens, but there was not enough space for us so we just looked from the outside. Breathtakingly beautiful. We'll plan better next time. We ended up visiting a Catholic church located on the edge of Haifa. It was not designed as grandly as those churches I have seen in Europe, but it was built in Israel in the 1700's by people who were seeking religious refuge. I honestly don't remember the details, but I bought some postcards to send out about it... We took the cable car down from the top of the hill in Haifa, walked along the beach, and then traveled on our way out to Tiberias.
Tiberias turns out to be a beach city with lots of restaurants, shops, clubs, and feels very much like a tourist town. We definitley overpaid for meals and such, but that was the sacrifice for a clear view of the Kineret. The Kineret is fresh water, so I basically felt like I was taking a warm bath when I swam in it. In Tiberias, we went out for a night on the town and then hung out on the beach the next day....
Here is where the multicultural part of my weekend comes in. The whole reason we went to Tiberias in the first place was because my friend Brian has a friend in an Arab town next to Tiberias who was getting married. We thought that he was the only one invited to the engagement party, but he called us as we were laying out on the beach to let us know that all of us were invited to this party. So, in true traveler form, we changed at the local McDonald's bathroom and caught a sherut (shared taxi-van) to take us to our destination. We ended up meeting up with Brian's friend's roommate, Ronit, who welcomed us into our home an escorted us to the party. As I entered the party, there was at least 150 Muslim women surrounding this prestinely dressed girl who was dancing in the middle of the group. The girl, actually the bride-to-be, was dressed in an ornate purple gown, with each hair on her head perfectly placed, and her make up perfectly done. She was clearly the center of attention, and danced to the music that one could hear throughout the village. We were clearly outsiders at the party, but nevertheless everyone was incredibly accepting and invited us to join in on the festivities. About an hour into the program, the groom's entire family, and I am estimating about another 150 women, showed up clapping and dancing to the party to again dance with the bride-to-be. About half an hour later, the groom arrived, atop his buddies, and cheered as he entered to meet his bride. They danced together, and then exchanged dowries. The experience was topped off by the men serving the women traditional Arab pastries, fruit, and tea throughout the party. I ended up dancing in the group with the bride, and had the best time trying to imitate the other Arab dancers around me. It was fabulous, and incredibly mind- opening. I was reminded that Arabs and Jews do come from the same geographical region, at least the Sephardic Jews do, and we all party the same way!
After the party, we went back to Ronit's house and her mother made us a snack to take with us before we left. We still had some time before sundown, when Shabbat is over and transportation begins again, so we just talked with Ronit and her siblings about everything. We did get into a little bit of a political discussion, but Ronit shied away from delving too deep because I think she didn't want to interrupt the pleasantries of the afternoon. It was obvious to me that we wouldn't agree on everything. However, I also realized that these are not the people that are trying to kill us. Yes, they are sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but in the same way that we are sad for other Jews around the world that do not have the same opportunities we do. Moreover, she did express that the government of Israel helps her family since it is so large, and that she would not move to a new Palestinian State initially because she would not have the same opportunities there. Sadly though, in the same way Jews experience anti-Semitism in countries that are not our own, she experiences some racism at Hebrew University where she studies. She feels like she is looked down upon because she is an Arab Muslim, and that is hard for her to deal with all the time. I was deeply saddened to hear that racism is widespread, even in a place where I would like to believe it exists less. This was another look into how the conflict affects people's lives directly, and was extremely important for me to see it from the other side. We watched the sunset set over the mountains, and then left the Village to come back to Beer Sheva.
I was incredibly moved by my experience in the Arab Village, the name I will find out later because I don't remember off the top of my head. I was almost moved to tears several times throughout the engagement party because I realized how much Arabs also just want to live as regular people. As I write these thoughts down, I am scared to admit that I had many preconcieved notions about Arabs here in Israel. I'll be honest. Knowing the sensitivity of the conflict and the political situation Israel is going through right now, I have been a little apprehensive towards those people who are not Jewish here. I don't analyze every person on the street, but I definitely think about who I am passing by sometimes. This is hard to write. When I was witnessing the joy during the engagement party, and the pain that my friend (she is my friend now) Ronit experiences, it hit me that the Arabs were not celebrating death. They were celebrating life. They were not celebrating the amount of kids this new couple will have so they can then go kill more Israelis, but were instead wishing them a prosperous future and meaningful life together. I am almost ashamed to say that I really needed this experience to widen my world-view, and remind myself that people are all just people, who generally search for the same things in life. When Ronit and her sister were explaining what being a Muslim meant to them, they said it was a feeling that just came from deep within them, in their hearts. In Judaism we call that kavannah, or intention/feeling from the heart. It was important for me to be reminded that that feeling is universal. Interestingly enough, that day, a sheikh (a Muslim spiritual leader) who had just been released from Israeli jail after two years came to visit their village that evening to thank them for their support during his sentence. Ronit's mother made sure that we knew what happened to this man, and that they loved this man very much. According to Ronit, he was jailed for speaking out against the Israeli army after they had done a raid in the territories that had killed many Palestinians. One would imagine, since the news puts these images in our heads, that there would be green flags being waved and madness in the village to show their support for this sheikh, but there was nothing. Peacefully, Muslims walked to the mosque to hear their sheikh speak, and again this was another reminder of how everything is not always as it seems. I couldn't help but wonder how much we in Israel we may overestimate a situation, and let fear guide our actions. I truly hope one day that Israelis and Arabs can one day embrace each other's similarities, and work out our differences in a peaceful way. I can't say I think that will be soon, because I am unfortunately still quite pessimistic about the actual Palestinians, but I have regained some hope for the future of relationships between Arabs and Jews. This entire experience will burn strongly in my memory, and I feel relieved to have been able to have my eyes opened so wide.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

New Photo Update

I realized after uploading my photos of Israel up until now that I am unable to narrate them on the album. So, here is little update to clue you in...
Pictures 1-8 are from the bar in Long Beach called Joe Josts. We have a family tradition to go to Joe's to celebrate any significant event in our lives. So, Uncle Gary, Aunt Cindi, my parents and brother all accompanied me to the bar for one last drink...
Pictures 9-17 are of my best friend Kim, Jenelle, Josh, and Kevin all celebrating again at Newport Brewing Company. Good times...
Pictures 17-23 are at Chimayo in downtown Huntington Beach with my God-sister Andrea and her husband Joe, Kim, Aunt Cindi and Uncle Gary, my brother Zach, and my parents.
Picture 24 My fellow Otzmanik from LA Michelle and me at the airport.
25: Larry and Zahava among all our luggage.
26: Otzma XX pictures!
27: All the Otzmanikim sitting for orientation.
28: North American director Marni Mandell.
29: LA cohort waiting for our flight... Brent, me, Michelle, and Larry.
30: Jen (from Texas), me, and Jenny (from Wisconsin) posing before our opening dinner at the Youth Hostel.
31: Me, Jen, and Erin (from Canada) posing in front of our dinner.
32: LA cohort.
33-38: Pics from the dinner
39: LA cohort and the Tel Aviv partnership staff.
40-48: A night out in Jerusalem. We ended up in this trendy 70's bar off of Ben Yehuda street and then a hookah bar
49-54: The Bedouin tent and camel riding. All I can say is that camels are seriously disgusting.
55-70: Hiking through the Negev desert on Nahal dov. We concluded that hike with a visit to Ben Gurion's, Israel's first prime minister who dreamed to "make the desert bloom," grave. After that, I floated in the Dead Sea. Ouch!
71: Top of Nahal Tamar.
72: We venture into the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jaffa Gate.
73-77: The Kotel (Western Wall) at night.
78-79: Hookah Bar in Jerusalem.
80-83: The carnival we planned for the kids at the Absorbtion Center.
84-95: The tour of the Israeli Supreme court.
96-99: View of the Old City from my hostel in Jerusalem, Beit Shmuel.

Just to update quickly, we had our first "education day" in Jerusalem on Thursday. We gathered both groups together to discuss the issue of Israel as a Jewish State. We looked at documents like the Declaration of the State that David Ben Gurion read as he was declaring Israel a legitimate state to the world. We discussed issues like growing pigs in Israel, Hatikvah as the national anthem, the Shabbat laws, etc. The discussion was fascinating, and I feel like I am just a little more educated on the internal issues that Israel has. We also toured the Israel Supreme Court which was cool, but a little on the dry side.

I am spending Shabbat with Julia and David at their apartment in Jerusalem. Jules planned a surprise party for David's 26th birthday with all his friends here. He was surprised for the most part, and the food was great! We are just taking it easy for the rest of the weekend around here, which is exactly what I needed. I feel like I am at a hotel compared to what I live in at Beer Sheva. It is so nice to have friends here.

I'll write more later... Shabbat Shalom all!