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, 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…

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