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, October 22, 2005

My Sukkot Vacation Thus Far...

Sukkot is like winter vacation in the States. The time of this season is referred to by everyone as the "chagim," translating into "holidays." Sukkot is the "moed," or "festival" that concludes the chagim. This basically means that the entire State of Israel begins vacationing right after Yom Kippur is over during Sukkot. So, Otzma allows us to live like Israelis and have our first vacation of the year during Sukkot. Naturally, I thought I had my vacation all planned and ready to go. My friends Erin, Jen, Gittle, Sarah, and I were all going to the B'reshit Music Festival up north in Tiberias, and hiking from the Kinnerret to the Meditteranean for four days, and then spending Simchat Torah in Jerusalem. I should have expected that things would change, because that is what always seems to happen with my schedule lately.
I started my vacation on Monday, October 17th by traveling pretty far north to Tiberias for B'reshit. We left Beer Sheva, camping gear and backpacks in hand, and hopped on a bus up north at about noon. We didn't actually arrive in Tiberias until about 6:30 because the traffic was so terrible since everyone was travelling before sundown started Sukkot. So, we were dropped off at Chof Dugit, the beach where everyone camped, and picked our campsite right next to the little restaurant. As it turned out, the restaurant literally did not turn off the music all night long. So if you can imagine techno music with a little pop music mixed in pounding in your head all night long, that is exactly what my sleeping atmosphere was that night. I forgot to mention also, mostly everyone camping was in their teens, about 14-17 years old I would say. So, again, if you can imagine Jewish summer camp with a hippie twist and zero camp counselors, that is what it was like. Needless to say, I was in a pretty foul mood when I "woke up" (you have to sleep to wake up) the next morning. Luckily though, the rest of the festival made up for it. The festival reminded me of the OC Fair, with all the outside booths selling a variety of goods, and informational booths mostly promoting environmental/health conscious products and practices. There were different bands playing throughout the day, and lots of chai tea to drink. The entire festival was vegetarian, so meat eaters were out of luck. I defintely embraced my hippie side, which I discovered is pretty limited! I didn't shave anything, wore dirty clothes, and barely took a real shower the entire time I was there! However, I would say that I was cleaner than most! Anyway, all and all, I heard some really awesome Israeli bands and met some interesting people, and camping by the beach was in fact really beautiful, even though I am not much of a camper.
One sad thing to note about the festival is that there was a plethora of prostelitizing Christians. I was very upset to see this. The thing that upset me the most actually was that they were sly with their tactics. There was a Jews for Jesus booth, with literature all in Hebrew, and people with t-shirts on walking around handing these pamphlets out to the unexpecting kids at the festival. One guy approached us,and I am pretty sure that when he left he was sorry he had ever met us. My friends and I all were pretty much on the same page in that regard, that we just cannot accept the dirty tactics that these people take to try to convert more people to a false form of Judaism. The guy definitely felt that when he walked away from us. There also were Christian bands there. Granted, they were all singing in English, so we were really the only ones offended by their words. However, I was pretty upset by this knowing how much Jews have to deal with this in the States and saddened that these people just can't let us be even in Israel. Very disheartening.
Anyway, so on Tuesday morning, we awoke from our tents to pouring rain. Erin and I had borrowed a tent from one of our friends in Beer Sheva, who neglected to tell us that the zipper on the tent was broken! Sadly, that was a very wet morning for us. At that point, we reconsidered going on the backpacking trip and started to make other plans. We left B'reshit and stayed at my friend Jen's brother's kibbutz, Deganya, which is right next to Tiberias. We visited Hamat Gader, the resort and hot springs, that evening and then went to bed. The next day we woke up early and headed up north to do a hike through pools and mountains. Unfortunately, I don't know the name of the place we went, but it was truly beautiful! I was having a bit of a hard time hiking over all the rocks in my shoes, but I somehow managed to not trip and hurt myself. I have no pictures of this hike because at one point, you literally cannot pass through without swimming through ice cold water and engulfing yourself completely. I lost my sunglasses when I hit the water, because I just forgot about everything because the temperature was so piercingly cold.
When we arrived back from the hike, I decided that I was finished with nature and being dirty, so I decided to hop a bus with friends to stay in Jerusalem basically until the end of the break. However, as I was sitting on the bus, I realized that I really didn't want to be spending that much money on hostels, and that I would rather go meet my family that I just discovered. I'll back up a minute... I forgot that I had family that lives in Israel! Before I was leaving for Sukkot break, I received a random phone call asking for someone named Jennifer. I told the woman calling that this was not Jennifer, but I knew many Jennifer's in my group, and perhaps she had the wrong number. She hung up, and then called back a few minutes later. This time the question she asked me was "Are you Leslie's daughter?" I was shocked, and then replied "Yes, I am." She became excited, "I'm Sylvia, your cousin! I know Mike and Dorothy, your grandparents, right?" All of a sudden, I began feeling this huge sense of relief almost that I have real, bonafide family members here! The conversation just continued, and we agreed that we would see each other soon after Sukkot break when I could come visit them in Ashdod. Sylvia concluded with "You have family here now. If you need anything, just call." I can't even explain the feeling I had. I just felt this enormous sense of gratefulness that now I actually do have real family, that know my history, my relatives, me, and I really did feel like I might have found my home away from home. Israel is wonderful, but can feel a little lonely at times.
Okay, so back to my story. As I was sitting on the bus, I realized that I really just wanted to meet my family and stay with them before travelling to Jerusalem for the chag. At about 4:00, I just decided to call Sylvia and see if that was possible. She was more than happy to hear from me, and said if I could find a way to come to Ashdod, that I was more than welcome. I decided that was what I would do, but I knew it would be difficult since public transportation basically stops after sundown on Shabbat unless you are willing to pay an enormous amount of kesef (money) to go somewhere. I didn't give up hope. We arrived in Jerusalem at about 5, and it was dark and deserted, as I had expected. I caught a cab down to Ben Yehuda, where there are usually cabbies or sherut (shared taxis) hanging out. I found a sherut going to Tel Aviv, which is close to Ashdod, and off I went. After travelling another hour to Tel Aviv, I found another Sherut to Ashdod and off I went again! Feeling so happy and relieved, I arrived in Ashdod with no broken bones or bruises, and waited to meet Sylvia at the Central bus station. I waited maybe five minutes, and Sylvia and Marek walked up to greet me!
I was overwhelmed. Family. I recognized Sylvia, not from pictures, but because she resembled my family, my aunt Virginia's smile. I knew I truly was home, and was going to meet even more of my family here in Israel that second. We walked to Sylvia's brother Eli's house, where I met his wife Yafa, his sons Roi and Edo, and Edo's girlfriend Moran. I also met Sylvia and Eli's mom, whose name I still don't know because they were calling her "Ema" the entire time. Dinner was wonderful. We all caught up on how the family was doing, which they were all quite inquisitive about. Eli was talking about how he spent a day in LA a while ago, and my mom drove him around and visited with him the entire day. Sylvia kept telling me about how wonderful my grandparents were to her when she lived in LA, and when she really needed someone to help her at the end of her stay in LA. Sylvia had pictures of my mom and grandparents and my family when we were young sitting on the kitchen table so we could look at them when we came home. I just feel better being in Israel now. I still miss my family at home terribly, but some of that void is now filled with people here that truly care about me and make me feel at home when I am with them. So, I am here now, sitting at Sylvia's computer writing emails and updating my life. We went on a driving tour of Ashdod today, which is situated on the beach and reminds me so much of Huntington or Santa Monica. We had lunch on the boardwalk, and now are just relaxing until shops open up again after Shabbat. What a wonderful, unexpected holiday!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

High Holiday Quickie

Just when I think I am becoming more consistant, that updating this will not be hard to do, the High Holidays hit and all hell breaks loose! Okay, I am being overly dramatic, but things did all of a sudden become really busy around here. I apologize to all of you who avidly read my blog for the lapse in entries. I've just been really busy.
I know that some of you were wondering how my performance went for the Jewish Agency workers... In short, it was fabulous! It turned out it was a real performance, with real microphones, a real audience, a real sound system; you get the picture. There were about 100 Jewish agency workers from all over the State in attendance, and many speeches that I did not understand but were apparently funny since everyone was laughing. I performed in the same group that you see in the previous pictures, and I promise to post my pics as soon as I get a chance.
Rosh Hashanah turns out to feel much like the secular new year when you spend it with a secular family. I found it really interesting actually... In Tel Aviv, I feel like the atmosphere of a secular new year was even more apparent. "Shanah tovah" was on about every billboard, my favorite billboard showing the top of a pomegranate in the shape of a Jewish star and then the sign just saying "Shanah tovah l'kol anshai Israel" (In English: Happy New Year to the People of Israel). I spent the Holiday eating the entire time with my host family in Tel Aviv. Nothing was open, so the only thing to do was eat and hang out. The second day of the Holiday I went to the movies with my host sister, and finally saw "The Forty Year Old Virgin," a perfect way to start the year if you ask me. I really missed going to shul and being with my real family though; it just didn't feel right to not be with everyone.
Yom Kippur, in short, was amazing. I went with my group to Jerusalem for the Holiday, and stayed right next to Hebrew Union College (HUC is the Reform Jewish College that trains cantors, rabbis, and educators) where I spent the services. The sanctuary had an incredible view of the Old City, so as I was sitting through about a million hours of services, I had the pleasure of watching the different ways the light shines on the Old City. The view helped the cause of fasting successfully, as it gave me a fabulous diversion to the pangs in my stomach throughout the day. Another thing, the city was QUIET. There were no cars on the street, and everyone took advantage of it by walking in the middle of the street. No businesses were open at all, unlike Shabbat where a few still remain open. This was certainly a sight to see, and just kind of amazing that the citizens of the city were literally all in shul or in their apartments.
This was my experience on the surface. I am sorry I don't have time to explain more, but I certainly will touch on it when I get back. Monday night starts the Sukkot holiday, and everyone in Israel is on vacation, including me! I know I will have much to say when I return, and will do my best to not procrastinate. Just know that I am having an amazing time here, and that I miss all of you so much. Please keep the comments coming. Love you.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The Holidays are Coming...

I ended up coming down with my first real cold while I have been here in Israel, and I will tell you that there was nothing "inspiring" at all about it! I felt a little odd sniffling and blowing my nose in at least 80 degree desert weather, but nevertheless I am getting through it. I am at the stage where you only have to blow your nose a couple of times to make it through the day without being miserable.
I must say that this particular cold came at a very inconvenient time for me, not that colds are ever convenient, but you know what I mean! This week we had a Tekes (assembly) for Rosh Hashanah at the Merkaz for all the Ulpan classes and anyone else who wanted to come. I didn't write about this before, but about two weeks ago, the two Otzma Ulpan classes were combined and introduced to Gadi, who is the Merkaz's musician when he is needed. He handed out song sheets, and started to teach us traditional Israeli songs for Rosh Hashanah and the holidays. Innocently enough, we were learning "Bashana Habana" in class and he asked for soloists. Right away, everyone began pointing to my British roommate who sings in a band in London and is very open about her musical ability. After she sang, Gadi asked for others, and then the finger was pointed at me! Funny enough, not everyone in Otzma knows that I am a singer, because I'm still not sure how one shares that sort of information, but I ended up singing and also getting a solo! I didn't know this at the time, but the fact that I got a solo meant that I would be performing in front of the entire Ulpan and at a special performance for the Jewish Agency workers!
So, on Wednesday, we had our Tekes for Ulpan. The performance was a lot of fun, with apples and honey and everyone in the holiday spirit! The people from the other Ulpan classes were from all over: India, Russia, Canada, South America, France, and the States. I really thought it was amazing how we were all celebrating the Jewish New Year together. My cold definitely made my voice a little scratchy, and my performance not exactly how I would have wanted, but overall it was fine. I impressed some staff at the Merkaz, and my French man so that made it all worthwhile. On Sunday, I have another performance for the Jewish Agency workers which is apparently pretty important. I was joking that I thought I wouldn't be singing this year for the holidays, but it seems that I was wrong again!
The feeling around Israel these days is very much focused towards the holidays coming... Every cab driver I have encountered, cashier at the grocery store, the bakery lady, the salespeople at the mall, everyone has wished me a "Shanah Tovah" when I have finished my business with them. Everyone in the State at least acknowledges that the new year is coming in some way, regardless of how religious they are or not. Even the ATM wishes you a Shana Tovah after you take out money! This week I taught my last Atidim class before the Holidays, and I wished the kids a Shana Tovah as they walked out the door. The thought occured to me that was an experience that I did not have outside of Sunday school when I was a kid growing up in Orange County. I imagine that this experience is hard to have outside of a Jewish Day School or heavily populated Jewish area in the States.
For all the problems that Israel deals with, the fact that the freedom exists to be a Jew as one pleases seems to make all the trouble worth it. I've been taught to appreciate the little things in life. The ability to wish literally everyone a Shana Tovah, and not have to worry about getting work days off, or make up homework, or all the issues that we have to deal with being a Jew who wants to observe the Holidays in the US, makes me appreciate being here so much more.