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!

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thing in Israel is that even though my notes are pretty recent, only a week old, I look back at them and they seem outdated.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...