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!

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…

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Parent's Visit and Pesach

April 14, 2006
Ironically, it somehow became April and Pesach has already arrived. I am sitting here in my hotel room in Tel Aviv, overlooking the beautiful seashore with my brother beside me, and I am having a hard time realizing that time has passed so quickly. The weather has finally changed from winter to spring, and the country’s landscape is waking up. Green meadows with flowers cover the highways, and the trees are growing back their leaves. Israel is truly beautiful at this time of year, and I am happier than ever to be here to experience it.
I realize now how much has passed, and how much I have not been able to write about here. I’ve had some technical difficulties for the last two months, but luckily my memory hasn’t faded so much that I cannot write about them. I promise to catch you up, but I first want to talk about what is happening right now.

I picked my parents up on Sunday, three days before Pesach started in Israel. I have to be honest; it seemed surreal to see them in the airport. When I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday, April 9, I knew that at that point it had been about 7 and a half months since I had last seen my parents and my brother. The truth is that I was really nervous to see them. Have I changed so much that they won’t recognize me? Even worse: have I stayed the same? The memory of our last meeting when I left California in August kept repeating in my head: my dad crying, my mom trying to withhold her tears, my brother of course standing tall and strong for them, and me sobbing as I gathered my things and checked into the plane. I knew that now they would see someone stronger, happier, much wiser about the ways of this culture, and I was scared how they would react to it. However, when I saw them, it was as if no time had passed between us. I was just happy to see them, and they were happy to see me. I felt strange as I was joining back into the Wheatley family unit, but something about it felt like home and comfortable. I felt so good to be back with my family.

The first three days we spent in Jerusalem, touring about the city, seeing the holy sites that exist there. My dad and brother’s reaction to everything was interesting; they have a curiosity for the ways of the country and the history embedded into everything that exists. I played “Tour Guide Tami,” and was quite impressed at how I knew what I was looking at most of the time. Rather than me explain in detail what we did each day, (I think I will let you ask my parents that), I would rather explain to you what I personally found interesting. First and foremost, I reentered into the world of Israeli tourism- the grossness of it all. I have to say that living here, I have learned to deal with swindling taxi drivers, slow hotel staff, Israeli restaurant food, and figuring out how to drive here. What do I mean about all of this? Well, let’s address the taxi drivers first, aka “the bane of my existence.” Okay, I am being dramatic, but honestly, I HATE taxis in this country. I never feel like I am getting a fair deal, and I am always scared for my life at one point or another. I felt bad having to expose my parents to the reality of dealing with these people, but we basically had no choice. They are the worst, especially in Jerusalem.

The first experience in a taxi that we had was coming home from the airport; boy, was that fun. My parents and I stuff all of our luggage into the trunk and backseat of this semi-old looking cab, and get in. We were crowded in the back seat, but we were fine, up until we start hitting traffic. Here’s the part of the ride where I start freaking out. We’re ascending up Route 1, the main freeway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and there is a sign for Jerusalem pointing one way, and the hills area (the name is escaping me) that takes you through to the backside of the City. We go the other way, which I know will take us through the West Bank territories. Now, according to the cab driver, this is the quickest way to go at this time in the morning. I let him drive, without being probing, even though I am fully aware of what is happening the entire time, and try to take deep breaths to release the building anxiety I am starting to feel. So, we continue driving, and my mom notices a change in my attitude. I assure her that I am fine, even though I am not, and my dad starts noticing things. My dad asks me,“Tami, isn’t that…(The separation wall/fence) (Hamas flags)(Guard soldiers with guns)?” “Yes, Dad.” I interrupt him sharply. “Just relax.” I assure him. Luckily, I think my brother is seemingly unaware of the situation and my mom isn’t exactly sure what is happening. We continue driving and notice long lines of traffic on the other side. I think to myself, “Thank God that isn’t us right now. We are close.” All of a sudden, we are waiting in a line, too… My dad asks me again, “Tami, is this a …(checkpoint)?” Again, I interrupt him. Damn him for being intelligent. It’s true that the first experience I gave my parents was a little educational tour of the West Bank, a place I am not supposed to be nor do I want to be. Army checkpoints are set up all over the place, soldiers are standing guard from the hilltops above, and Arab villages like Ramallah surround us. All this too after me explaining time and time again to them how “safe” I feel in this country. I was incredibly pissed at the cab driver for not asking if this was our preferred route, and I felt guilty for putting my family so close to the West Bank. Not only are we on the road I don’t want to be on, we are going something around 30 miles an hour. I knew the car looked old when we got in, but when most Israeli cab drivers do their utmost to get to their destination as fast as possible, I knew there was a problem. The truth is that there hasn’t been much action on these roads, but with checkpoints and a slow car, I was still a bit nervous. On top of all of this, I had to release some of the coffee I had to drink earlier. Badly. I asked the cab driver in Hebrew how close we were, and if we could possibly stop in a bathroom. We were still in the middle of the West Bank, but I couldn’t wait. We finally get through the checkpoint, and the closest bathroom is a Port-o-Potty at the Checkpoint. I suck it up, get out of the cab, and go in the “bathroom.” I had relaxed significantly. The cab driver and I were best buddies after this, and I dropped all my anger towards him the second my bladder had been relieved. We made it through to Jerusalem, and after the driver explained to us that the car in fact was not his and he was going to a repair shop straight away, I felt much better. Oh the joy of cabs in Israel. I just reaffirmed why I prefer riding buses, even if they are considered “unsafe.” Cabs don’t seem that much better.

Besides all the touring my parents and I did, we had the chance to spend Pesach with family in Ashdod. Pesach in Israel was surprisingly nice. I say “surprisingly” because I really thought that Pesach would be like some sort of government-enforced holiday, with everything being kosher and religious. However, I found the holiday itself to be really nice. Everywhere had kosher for Pesach options, which I found to just make observing it much easier. The restaurants that couldn’t make the switch from unkosher to kosher just closed, and even restaurants that didn’t even bother at least had salads and matzah available. My parents and I were invited to my cousin Sylvia’s for the seder, and she had invited her husband’s brother’s family, her mother, and other family that I can’t remember. This seder was one of the funniest ones I have been to in a long time. You know that at least for Pesach, I tend to lead “serious” seders. I require careful reflection on our long history of Jews as slaves in Egypt through different sources and activities, and come away from the seder feeling like I have done something traditional and meaningful. Well, that was definitely not this year. This year all the Hebrew parts that we generally skip at home were read, in the fastest pace possible to expedite dinner. The men weren’t even reading, it was Marek’s two nieces. The only thing the men were doing them was nagging them to hurry up so we could eat. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like I actually experienced much of a Pesach seder, but I still had a really fun time. I felt like I experienced a non-traditional “Israeli” seder, and that was just what I needed.

After the seder experience, my parents and I headed into Tel Aviv and took a tour of Old Yafo and the artist’s shuk. We had dinner at my friend Gitit’s parent’s house in Herziliya, which was wonderful, and then headed up North for a day trip on Shabbat. We visited Ein Gev, a beautiful kibbutz on the Lake Kinneret and did a tour of ancient ruins called Susita. It was a beautiful day, and gave my parents a quick glimpse of the north of this country. The next day it was raining, so the plan to lay and relax on the beach had to be swapped for something more educational. I decided to take my parents to the house where Israel was declared a State, and the army museum on Rothschild St. After the Israel education, we took a stroll down Rothschild St, which has a lot of “old meets new” history, and then to Sheinkin St for a look at the boutiques and fashionable shops before heading to Mike’s Place on the beach for an afternoon snack. This basically concluded the trip for my dad and brother, and they headed out early the next morning to catch a plane home. For the rest of the holiday, I spent quality time with my mom in Tel Aviv at coffee shops and shopping. Unfortunately, the day my brother and dad left, a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Old Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv, which changed the mood of things that day. We were sitting at a coffee shop when it happened at a different part of the city. We found out about it when we returned to our hotel, about 15 minutes after it happened, and turned on the news to a picture of the site. Awful. After reacting to this, I took my mom out shopping because it was important for me that she saw how Israelis react to this situation. They continue on with their lives. They shop, eat at coffee shops, ride buses, and continue doing what they would have been doing before the bomb went off. I proved my case when I took my mom to Dizengoff mall, one of the most crowded areas in Tel Aviv, and it was buzzing with life as I had expected it would be. Again, this is not what you see on CNN. Israel is full of life that CNN doesn’t show; CNN is only interested in death. For the end of Pesach, my mom and I returned to Ashdod and met more family from Brussels. After the holiday, we returned to Tel Aviv and relaxed the last day she was here. On Friday, I took her to the airport bright and early, and sent her off on her plane back home. Weird. The time with my family came and went so fast, it is actually hard to believe they were even here. I missed them terribly, and was glad to see them, but also glad to return back to my “normal” life here.

More catch up blogs to follow. Check out my pictures also!

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Departure from Tel Aviv and final Track 2 thoughts

Well, again the time comes to say goodbye to another sight, another part of my program. I must admit that one of the hardest parts of this program is making connections to the place I am living in, and then being told to leave just as I start to become really comfortable. As you can already tell I am sure, this was the last week of Track 2 in Tel Aviv. On Thursday, my apartment was packed up and shipped off to a storage room in Jerusalem for the next three weeks. As ironic as it felt, I was sad to see my home at the Rosalind and Joseph Gurwin Sheltered Housing for the Elderly be dismantled and moved out yet again. At 23 years old, I never aspired to live in an old age home until the time for me actually came. However, after getting a taste of an old age home for three months, I have come to the realization that I can wait!! I was happy to bring a little light into the lives of these people for the short time I was there, and admittedly I think I might miss some of my new suitors who have come to know me as "Bubba" or "Barbi." I received my last rugalach delivery from the old man down the hall, and disappointed him by saying that I wouldn't need any next week because I wouldn't be there. I am ready to leave the Old Age home, but am happy that I at least have funny stories to tell from my living there.
I love Tel Aviv. I apologize to those of you who read my email as well, because I am going to repeat myself, but I need to express my love yet again for this city. I feel at home here, more than anywhere I have lived in Israel as of yet. Before even coming to Israel, I had heard that Tel Aviv isn't worth visiting exactly because it is just like any other city in the world: big, crowded, modern, not uniquely Jewish. After my time here, I would have to disagree with that. Tel Aviv is special. Why? Tel Aviv is a modern, hip city with a Jewish flare. Shops still close on Shabbat. The atmosphere is still quiet and you can still find a lot of kosher food and restaurants around town. The history of the founding of Israel is in this city. Where as Jerusalem represents much of our religious history, Tel Aviv has much of our Zionist history. David Ben Gurion's home is here. Israel's independence was announced here. The top businesses and industries have most of their headquarters here. I think Tel Aviv represents much of what our founding fathers dreamed of when they envisioned Israel: a modern, bustling town that is intrinsically Jewish because of the people that live here. Many people argue that because of the modernities that exist in Tel Aviv, it loses its Jewish character. I would ask them to experience the High Holidays in this city and ask them what they think afterwards. Coming from my liberal roots, another thing I love about this city is it's openness towards all kinds of people. There is a large gay community here, and this is the only place they feel comfortable living in Israel. There are many foreign workers that live here. Tel Aviv is starting to recognize that these people exist and are offering them social services. Beyond my fabulous life of movies, sports games, fancy sushi dinners, bar hopping, jazz clubs, and trendy coffee shops, I love Tel Aviv because of the vibe and character of the city.
I should also briefly mention where I have been living for the last three months. My old age home is located in the neighborhood "Hatikva." Whenever an Israeli asks me where I am living, they respond to me by saying, "It's like Harlem there!" Not quite. The People of Israel live in this part of town. It is filled with characters; from the little boys with the trendy bleached hair, to the old grandmothers hanging laundry out to dry. This neighborhood in Tel Aviv is where it all started. The houses are small and built on top of each other. The roads are unevenly paved, and the pseudo brick-flooring sidewalks give it a particularly ancient feeling. I love it here. This part of town also lives. Running through the middle of this neighborhood is a large street called "Etzel." One can buy anything and everything that one needs on this street. Etzel is home to many wonderful meat restaurants, and I have become addicted to the fresh laffah bread and fresh fruit juices you can buy on each street corner. The Hatikvah Shuk is also located right off of this street, making it the center of this neighborhood. I think that Etzel will be what I miss most from my neighborhood in Tel Aviv. Even though it is not as trendy and cool as the center of town, I always felt like I was home.
Beyond leaving all of this, I formed a strong bond at all of the places I volunteered. Honestly, I felt like I could have done more, but was always present and happy to be at the places I ended up. My last official day at Cafe Europa was hard. I had a really difficult time saying goodbye to these Holocaust survivors that I now feel so close to. When I was leaving, several of the survivors handed me their phone numbers and wanted to stay in touch while I was here in Israel and beyond. They even offered me a place to sleep for when I return back to visit Tel Aviv. This is the one volunteering that changed me as a person. It's true that we as Jews all have a connection to the Holocaust, especially existing in the generations that are still so close to it. However, for me, the Holocaust really was stories I read in books, pictures I saw, movies and documentaries, and the occasional survivor that I would feel obligated to go hear speak. Not saying that the Holocaust wasn't significant to me, because it was, but I just had such an abstract connection to it that in some respects I still didn't relate. This experience at Cafe Europa changed all of that for me. Slowly, as my time at this sight progressed, I developed relationships with these survivors and heard some of their stories, and the reality of this horrid event in history hit home. I never sought out stories from these people; that was never my goal of being at Cafe Europa. I always knew deep down that these people shared a common history, but that each of them has worked to grow beyond it. I was a part of their life now, and not of their dark past. Occasionally, however, my curiosity would overtake me and I would ask them what happened. I'll tell you one such story.
Shmuelik Mandelbaum had become one of my favorites at Cafe Europa. Each week he would come with a huge smile on his face, and we would always sit together and dance and talk. He kept asking me when I would be available so he could have a get together for people from Cafe Europa and Larry and myself. We finally made plans, and ended up at his house on a really cold, rainy day. Most people who were planning to come didn't due to the weather, which made the party more intimate. When I decided to leave at about 9PM, Shmuelik insisited to walk me to the bus stop and wait for my bus with me so I wouldn't be alone. So we walked, and talked, and ended up waiting at the bus stop for about an hour. During this time, I was asking questions about his life and eventually got to the topic of the Holocaust. Shmuelik was born in Poland, and when the war broke out he was about 13. He was deported, made one stop in Aushwitz, and then was sent off to a work camp. He learned to be a carpenter there, so he would be needed and not be killed ultimately. He was in the work camp when he was liberated. After that, he found his way into Italy and met up with other survivors of the war. They were in an underground plan to be smuggled into what was then Palestine. He ended up coming in on a British holiday, when they knew they Brits would be inebriated, and was snuck in on a small boating ship. He lived on a kibbutz in Nahariya, the far north, and trained on a kibbutz for the Hahagana. When the Independence Day War broke out, he fought to help establish the State of Israel. Ever since then, he has been living in Tel Aviv and has watched it grow into what it is now. I heard all of this while waiting for the bus.
This is really only one such story I have from my experience at Cafe Europa. I know that I have become a part of this living history of the Holocaust. It pains me to know that in 20 years from now, these people will be gone. It is my burden to never forget and pass along what I now know of these amazing people and their lives. I am planning to continue to visit Cafe Europa in my next track; Jerusalem is only 45 minutes away from Tel Aviv, but it won't be the same.
My other volunteering did not have quite as much substance, but I still developed strong connections with the kids I worked with and enjoyed the things I did. Unfortunately, my last day tutoring English was cancelled, so I wasn't able to say good bye to Nivin who I had been working with at Hassan Arafe. I hope that she enjoyed working with me in the same way I enjoyed working with her. She really was a lovely, cute girl and I loved watching her master concepts that we had worked on in English. At Golumb school, I became attached to the soccer crowd. I will miss being claimed by whoever saw me walking around the corner first, and impressing the kids with my soccer skills. They had such a hard time believing that a girl like me could play soccer well, and they reminded me about how I love sports with kids and being competitive! I might get back into that when I come home, who knows. These kids really did start to look up to me, especially knowing that I was volunteering and from America. I will miss their curiousity, and miss them in general. And finally, the nursery at Kfar Shalem for at-risk kids. My experience here just made me wonder how anyone could treat these children badly. By watching the behavior of some of these kids, it was obvious that their parents didn't know exactly how to treat them. They are so innocent and sweet at birth, and I am saddened at the social problems that some of them were developing at such a young age. However, the environment they come to every day is warm and loving, so I was happy to be a part of that while I was there. The babies started to recognize me, and I absolutely became attached to many of them. I guess they were good temporary subsitutes for my baby cousins at home that I miss so much!
All in all, Tel Aviv was amazing, and fabulous, and I am heartbroken to leave. I will always have a special place in my heart for this city. However, off I go to the army tomorrow morning! More to come next weekend...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Part 2, Finally, and more...

I actually took notes on what I wanted to write about, since I really don't want to forget a thing that has happened. However, the ironic thing in Israel is that even though my notes are pretty recent, only a week old, I look back at them and they seem outdated. So much can happen in a week here, and I sometimes feel like time flies so fast that I can't even keep up with it. Anyway, if I don't do justice to everything I write about, I apologize and promise to explain in person or via email anything that you have questions about.
Firstly, Hanukkah back in Israel was beautiful and festive. I had to high-tail back to Jerusalem after flying in from Paris to attend a seminar on Israeli Politics and Society, and thus, spend much of my holiday listening to lectures and taking tours of the country. Hanukkah is a minor Jewish holiday, something most American Jews don't realize. The holiday mood is created basically by hanging more lights all over the State, especially in Jerusalem since that is the setting of this historical event we are remembering, and serving fried foods to commemorate the oil that lasted 8 days (mostly by fried jelly donuts called sufganiyot that dont' have much jelly inside) at every bakery. However, the gift exchange that is so anticipated by Jewish youth in the States certainly does not occur here. I am convinced now that Hanukkah, the way I grew up celebrating it, is the creation of the American Jewish community, and is celebrated that way as a reaction to the Christmas season in America. Before I divulge the details of my seminar, I need to comment on one more thing. I also experienced the secular new year in Jerusalem during Hanukkah. In Israel, they call it "Sylvester," named after a Catholic saint. "Sylvester" actually is a reference to a man who ruled within an area in Israel and actually was a terrible tyrant. The day that he died, or was killed, I'm not sure of the story, was on the secular new year, so Israelis basically commemorate his death on this day. Hence, the holiday of "Sylvester." Another thing, since this isn't the Jewish New Year, it just happens to be another night where Israelis go out and drink with friends, and do a little countdown at midnight. That is it, though. The holiday is nothing here compared to the States, which certainly messes my internal clock up; I have only just made the adjustment to writing the year 2006 on things.
The Hanukkah seminar lasted for 5 full days, covering almost every sort of political struggle that Israel is dealing with currently. The truth is that terrorism is just one issue that Israel deals with in the Knesset regularly. What CNN doesn't report about this country is that there is one of the largest gaps between rich and poor here, and it is growing. The fights between the religious and the secular actually are one of the most intense, heated discussions where the results really affect the common man on the street. The education system is getting worse. Israel has problems. These problems are argueably just as important as the security situation here, however are not reported on the news or focused on by the US government. The religious versus secular argument has been one that has surprisingly intrigued and impassioned me very much so, because I believe it extends far and wide across the political spectrum, and the outcomes of these fights affect more than a person on the outside would be able to see. Briefly, in Israel there is no separation between church and state. This is obvious, right, because Israel is the Jewish State. Therefore, Jewish rules and laws from the Torah govern the land. Right. But who's Torah are we talking about here? Are we talking about the Conservative and Reform Torah, or are we talking about the Orthodox Torah? Well, as I'm sure most of you have guessed, we are talking about strict, Orthodox, halachic (meaning laws given by God) laws that rule the land of Israel. When the State was founded, ironically by secular Zionists who wanted a safe-haven for the Jewish people, most domestic laws were handed over to the Orthodox Rabbis to handle. So, you may think, "Okay, fine. So what if we go back to the traditional laws that governed our people for generations? So what if we let the Orthodox handle the laws of marriage, divorce, conversion, run religious sites, and immigration? What is the big deal?" Well, folks, the big deal is this: the Orthodox really only make up about 10 percent of the entire Jewish population that exists anymore. This means that for you and me, who don't wear a black hat and want our own Reform rabbi to perform a marriage, it can't be done here in Israel, the State for "all the Jews." I still find it ironic that the law in the US allows me, as a Reform Jewish woman, to have more power and more freedom to practice Judaism how I choose that I do in a Jewish country. The US was founded on the basis of religious freedom; ironically, that is not quite the case here. The details of rules that the Orthodox have controlled affect more than just social issues here. It is true that if a woman wants to get a divorce in Israel, she must have consent by her husband. This is based on the rules of a "get," or religious divorce, derived from the Talmud, and is upheld by the courts here in Israel. However, if she does not get that consent, and therefore approval from the Beit Din (the court of law), she cannot remarry or restart her life again. This, of course, is a huge problem which has sparked the birth of many legal agencies suing for the rights of these women, but exists only in a State where religion and the state are together. Inseparable. The morality of a situation such as this plagues the depths of my belief in basic human rights, and forces me to look at the implications of a State where such religious laws are enforced. In a Jewish State, is the separation of "temple" and state better? I don't know... However, I believe this struggle extends even further, to how the Israeli government has decided to deal with the issue of the settlements.
I just finally finished the book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, by Thomas Friedman. For anyone interested, I recommend this book highly to give you insight into some of the key Israeli and Arab political leaders, and an important history of what happened in this region from the Lebanese war up until he Oslo Accords (the famous handshake between PLO President Yasir Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993). However, I mention this book because Friedman discusses the increase of the settlement movement into the hills of Judea and Samaria quite a bit, and I found the points he touched on quite intriguing. The quick story, as I understand it, goes like this. After the 1967 war, Israel ended up with land in the desert of Sinai, Egypt, the Golan Heights of Syria, and the hills of Judea and Samaria of Lebanon. Sinai was given back to Egypt after a peace treaty was signed with Anwar Sadat. Israel has had peace with Egypt ever since. Even now, people talk about using the Golan Heights as a barganing chip for peace with Syria. However, the Golan has been developed with beautiful wineries and kibbutzim and other establishments that have made that area integral to Israel, and I doubt that it would ever be bargained for peace. This leaves Judea and Samaria. Many stories from the Torah are set in this terrain. The story of David and Goliath comes to mind, where David had to walk down a hill to approach Goliath in his city down below around the settlement of Gush Etzion. Sarah and Rachel (I'm not exactly sure about Leah) are buried in these areas, too, around the settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to the Arab city of Hebron. So, one cannot argue that Jewish history did take place in these areas, many thousands of years ago. However, currently speaking, and I will probably mess up these numbers, there are about 300,000 Jewish settlers living in these areas right now. There are about 2 million or more Arabs living in these "disputed territories," as they are referred to, right now.
In 1967, Israel did not originally plan to keep this land full of Palestinians stuffed in refugee camps, with no place to go. They couldn't give these people in these new lands citizenship, because that would threaten the Jewish majority of the State, but they also didn't have a solution of what to do with them. So, since there was no plan or solution on how to deal with this new people, whom Israel didn't want to keep, I must add, the decision was simply indecision. This is where all the problems started. The bottom line is that we now have Jewish settlements on top of Arab cities, staring them in the face, with their only protection being the Israeli army. I can tell you that on one of my site visits during the seminar, we took a trip up to an area right next to Hadera, a city in Israel that fell victim to several terrorist attacks during the intifada, to take a look at the Green line, the Fence, and the proximity of the Jewish settlements to the Arab cities. Scary. I've always thought that it was a crazy idea to live among people that don't want you there (aka the Arabs) and put Israel in a position where it can be labeled as delegitimate, or as "occupier". The recent departure from Gaza gave me some hope, but seeing the situation that exists in these other areas is truly disheartening and infuriating. Let me try to explain to you in words what I saw. One of the largest Arab cities, highly developed with housing and architecture, is located about a mile, maybe, next to two different Jewish settlements. You can see them when you are standing, looking out at the hills. Above these settlements, is another bustling Arab town, and another, and another. I couldn't believe my eyes. I just cannot get into the mentality of someone who would want to build a life in such a place. The implications of living in a Jewish settlement like this are huge, for your family as well as for the State of Israel. Most important, Israel is responsible for the safety and security of all its citizens. This means that whenever someone decides to leave the settlement, for any reason, they must have an army escort. This also means that they must have the army guarding the settlement, assuring that there are no attacks from its' intimate, close neighbors. This means that the common Israeli who lives in Beer Sheva might have to send his 18 year-old kid who just joined the army to defend a crazy settler going to the supermarket in a big city. That's fair, right? I think I can safely say that the majority of the people who live in the hills of Judea and Samaria believe that they have a historical and religious right to live there. This would be fine and dandy if this didn't impose on their neighbors, who outnumber them and don't really want to play fair or care about their historical claims to the land. Due to their zealousness, this makes the problem much more sensitive, and the solution even harder. I have come to the conclusion since I have been here that the pictures on CNN and the news reports that come out cannot possibly capture what really goes on in these areas. I don't believe anymore that the common Palestinian wants me dead, I just believe he wants the opportunity to live a normal life, and that Israel's presence makes that impossible most of the time. CNN wouldn't report that "Today nothing happened in Israel. That's right, folks! The sun was shining, the stores were full of people, and life is better than ever!" That is boring. No one wants to hear about how great the produce looked in the shuk today, or how amazing the Miri Misika concert was last night. They want bombs, conflict, gun shooting, you know, stuff that seems so scary that you would never imagine setting foot on this illegitimate land of the Jews. In my personal opinion, the land of the Jews is beautiful, worthwhile to experience and live. We need to remind these settlers to come back to the land of the Jews, the land where the Jews are the majority and we might want to kill each other, but not in the same way as their neighbors do in Judea and Samaria. Judaism is a religion of people with deep historical ties, but has never been a religion of people blinded by the stories of the past. We were forced out of the ghetto long ago, and can no longer afford to live with blinders on our eyes. So, I finish my little history lesson/ new outlook after the seminar just by reminding everyone, including myself, yet again that Israel does not have it all figured out yet. But, I think and I hope, we are working on it.
Whew! That part was longer than I thought, but I want to keep going if you are all still with me...
Okay, things to remind me to tell you about in person because I can't gather the strength to write it all:
Ariel Sharon- a quick note. This sucks. I was honestly scared when I woke up with a text message on my cell phone saying that Ariel Sharon had been medically put into a coma. I could feel the intensity around the country. Everyone had news blaring, and this was the topic of conversation. At this point, I haven't heard much talk of him returning to his post. I personally think it is impossible, and I think most people would agree. Ironically speaking, I was in a political lecture about a week prior to his brain and heart explosion, and the speaker mentioned that if something happened to Ariel Sharon, there would be a huge mess in the upcoming elections. Funny, huh? The deal is that Sharon left the Likud party, of which he has been a member since there was a State, and started a new political party, Kadima. Since this is a new party, he had the sole discretion to choose who would be on the party's election ticket. Since he is physically unable to choose the order of his new party's ticket, this presents a hugh legal problem. As it stands now, Ehud Olmert (who moved with Sharon to Kadima) is first in line and acting Prime Minister, but from then on who knows what will happen...
Recent bombing in Tel Aviv- Yes, I knew where it happened. Was I scared? A little. I was more pissed off than anything, though. I happened to be in my apartment when I heard about the explosion, and everyone I know was fine, but damn it, why do they keep doing this? These piguim, as we call them here, are just so pointless and accomplish nothing except getting publicity. I have concluded that at this point, that is all they are, publicity stunts. I'm sick of them scaring me and injuring my people, and I refuse to let them get in the way of my life. I went out on the town that night, and rode a bus as my way of giving the middle finger to those people.
Almost done- Last week, I went to a concert of Miri Misika, who is one of the big time Israeli pop stars at the moment. It was fabulous! The venue was a really cool bar in upper Tel Aviv, which is one of the most affluent parts of the country, and was relatively small so I could actually see her singing up close. Another thing, she wasn't a tiny stick figure of a person like most pop stars in America. Truth be told, I would have suggested that she wear another dress than the one she chose, but she looked like a normal human being and had a killer voice. This was very refreshing, especially since I only spent about $23 American dollars to see her. Fabulous.
Soccer Game- Yesterday, I went to a professional soccer game for the first time. I had a great time, but can honestly say that getting into the stadium was the most unsafe I have ever felt here in Israel. Why? Well, basically the pushing and crowding of trying to enter the stadium not only made me claustrophobic, but uncomfortable. However, after getting in, I really enjoyed watching the sport live, and staring at the hot hot hot Israeli players. In the end, Maccabi Tel Aviv won 2-0, so I was happy.
That is it. Whew, I am tired.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Christmas in Paris, Hanukkah in Jerusalem, Sylvester, and Everything After… Part 1

So, the blog you all have been waiting for. I have been relatively busy, if you exclude last week, since I returned from break and the holiday, so that has been the delay in the recent update. The good news is that my roommate had her parents bring her laptop, so I can actually blog without paying for it. Time is money, so they say in the internet cafes, so I can now write more thoroughly without going broke! I know you are just as excited as I am.

Enough with the sarcasm, Paris was beautiful. I arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport on December 22 at about 9:30PM, as planned, and was met in the airport by Michael. Strangely enough, I felt like no time had passed between us, and it was just wonderful to have the opportunity to be with him once again. I was expecting to be blown over by some piercingly cold wind when I walked outside the airport to get to the car, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was sufficiently bundled up in my hat, gloves, and scarf. Phew! One of my biggest fears going to Paris in winter was literally freezing to death, ironically nothing concerning heartache, and so I was very happy when the weather indicated that I would be just fine in the clothes I had prepared. Anyway, I promised my aunt that I wouldn’t expose all the details of my Paris romance, because a girl has to guard some things that only she knows, but I certainly will give you some highlights.

My first impression of Paris was awe. I experienced quite a culture shock, because not only was I not in Israel but I also was not with Americans. Therefore, the only English I heard was the random person on the street asking for directions, Michael and my conversations, and the movie that we saw in English. Since I don’t speak a word of French, I felt a little excluded from any sort of understanding of anything going on around me, which was frustrating and annoying at times. I also could not get over the magnitude of everything around me: the buildings, the roads, and the architecture. Everything just seemed so big, and it was at one of those moments that I realized how different everything outside of Israel feels. I know I said earlier that I was a little nervous about how I would feel outside Israel for the first time in months, and truth be told, I was dead on. I wasn’t in my country anymore, and even though my company was familiar, everything else seemed strange. The perfect example of this that I can give you happened on Christmas. Ironically, the first day of Hanukkah also happened to be the first day of Christmas in France, except there were no acknowledgements of Hanukkah save for the little Chabad sign lit up on Champs-Elysses. Michael and I ventured out on Christmas Eve, after Shabbat, to stroll Champs-Elysses, which was gorgeous. This street is lined with only the classiest stores like Cartier, Peugeot, Louis Vuitton, Mercedes Benz, etc, ad nauseum, ad infinitum, and was packed that night with people just strolling along the way. The trees sparkled with white lights, and green and red bows created the holiday spirit that filled the air. And, I forgot, the Arc de Triumph, built by Napoleon after one of his victories, stands grandly lit at the end of the promenade. The sight was just breathtaking. Here’s where the culture shock comes in… We woke up the next day, and Michael decided (I suppose with a little suggestion from me before) that we were going to Montemartre. I was a little confused about how we would actually arrive at Montemartre, since it was a holiday and I thought that none of the transportation would be working. Only then did I realize that only in Israel does the transportation not work on holidays. Everywhere else in the world, a holiday can actually feel like a normal day if you want it to, so we, as Jews, were able to go out and enjoy a pretty normal day in Paris. Strange.

Montemartre is in the northern part of Paris, and feels touristy, but quaint all at the same time. As we hiked up to the central part of the area, we were faced with the Sacre Couer, which sits atop the hill as the focal point of the scene. I didn’t actually walk inside the basilica, since it was Christmas, but the view from the steps of this building capture the incredible panoramic view. See my pictures (which will be posted soon, I promise) if you don’t believe me!! From there we just walked around, enjoying the artists trying to draw our caricatures and the random art galleries in the area. The next day, Michael and I ventured out to the Louvre, which I apparently pronounce incorrectly. For future reference, do not make the “ou” part of the Louvre with any sort of “u” in it. It is purely an “oo” sound, something I learned after mispronouncing it several times while Michael laughed at me. At the Louvre, I saw the Mona Lisa for the second time in my life, and was again unimpressed, and the Venus de Milo, which is still so stunning. A word about the Mona Lisa- for those of you who have never experienced it, you’re not missing much. The painting sits on a wall, which is generally crowded with too many people shoving to get a decent spot to actually see the painting. The reason people are shoving to see it is because it actually is a small painting, too small to take space and analyze it from a distance. The only interesting thing I can gather from this portrait is the smirk on her face. I have a feeling that the art critics of yore could just not figure out what the heck this not so beautiful woman was smirking about. This, in turn, drove them crazy, thus making the painting famous. This is my own analysis, don’t quote me on anything because I have absolutely no sources for this opinion, just my own cynical criticism of this work of art.

My final night and following day were, of course, my favorite. After recuperating from our long day at the Louvre, I had a night of lounging at a trendy bar in the Bastille area, sipping ice cold French white wine and savoring an apple tart with my gorgeous French man. Yes, the French do this scene right. To top it all off, while we were enjoying our time together, snow started falling outside. My first thought was “Shit, I am going to freeze!” After I got over that, I just watched the snowflakes fall slowly to the ground, and watched the cars and the sidewalk start to change from their colors to a fluffy, white. It looked like a scene from a winter Hallmark commercial that all of us in California generally laugh at because our winters at the beach just don’t get covered with snow the same way. The next day, we went to a central part of Paris, where you can see the Eiffel tower and other big sights, and went on the ferris wheel. The funny part of this outing was that when we left the apartment to go, the weather was bearable. However, literally the second we hopped out of the car to buy our tickets and get on the wheel, the snow started coming down faster than it had all day, and it was freezing! Even with my hat, gloves, scarf, and pea coat, I was freezing and our teeth were chattering while we called ourselves “stupid” the entire time we rode the wheel! The view from atop the wheel was amazing, especially with the freshly fallen snow, and I am happy my body thawed out enough so I could write this story down!

I took an early flight, and returned to Israel the next morning at 12PM after my five wonderful days in Paris with Michael. Needless to state, saying goodbye to him for the second time was awful and hard, but something I knew I had to do this trip. Men who cross my path in the future have much to measure up to, and I am so lucky that I had the chance to experience a relationship such as this. I still hate that he is gone, but I am happy to know that he is fine back in France and will be able to prosper and lead the life he deserves in the booming French economy. We did talk about the Jewish part of his life in France, which is extremely different, much less open, but I think he would say the French Jews have learned how to deal with it. He told me that the society cannot take away the traditions they create in their homes, which he personally demonstrated to me through his Shabbat and Hanukkah observances. I hate the fact that even today, there are societies that are not accepting of Jews, that we are still viewed as the “other” and as threat to societies in which we reside. However, I know that this is not something new for us, but something that we, as Jews, have adapted to our entire existence. This is yet again history repeating itself. The French Jews are dealing with this reality in the best way they can. Due to their bravery and courage to live Jewish lives in the face of anti-semitism, Jewry will continue to thrive and prosper in the French diaspora. I’m sure Michael will meet someone there who can make him happy; I just hope it takes him a little bit of time. ;)

To be continued...