Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Barmitzvah of the Year.

Far more grand than any wedding I’ve attended, the Barmitzvah I attended a few weeks ago was impressive, to say the least. Reut’s brother, Ariel, was turning 13. In Israel, Ariel is a boy’s name and a Barmitzvah is celebrated to the nth degree. I mean big people. I arrived at the party site, an outdoor garden near my Kibbutz. Walking in and expecting a patio and a big party room, I was in for quite a surprise. Over a bridge with a flowing stream beneath lie an expansive green lawn surrounded by white plush couches, and elegant serving booths full of appetizers; peppers and eggplant smothered in tsum tsum (sesame seeds), baby burgers on the grill, wok concoctions flung through the air, and sushi stacked neatly on the table. The open-air bar set in the middle of the grassy area was decorated with flowing white cloths from the top poles to the grass, giving the area an aura of grandeur. In any contest, it would've been Barmitzvah of the year, hand down. I was thirty minutes late and still arrived before everyone else. Quite typically Israeli. As the people began to pour in I met the rest of the extended family I hadn’t yet met through Passover events or Shabbat. Slightly embarrassed by my accent, I tried to engage with everyone in Hebrew. More than sweet, everyone taught me new Hebrew words and were quite interested in where I came from and why I was here studying Hebrew. (Which has become quite a common theme in my life) At the bar getting a glass of red wine for dinner, I turned around and saw Smadar- my roommate who I lived with in Haifa two years ago! What a reunion! We relaxed together all night, exchanged stories and caught each other up on our lives. Her Hebrew is so fast, she had to repeat a lot, but through it all, we managed to understand each other and have an amazing time.
For a few hours everyone mingled, enjoyed their cocktails, brimming beer on tap and the company of family, friends, and a celebratory occasion. Slowly but surely, the crowds began to meander into the main hall- check out my pictures on facebook if you can. It was ridiculously gorgeous. Green, water and silver decorations covered the tables, and I felt instantly transported to some kind of Slytherin event at Hogwarts. (Yes, I realize I am a super nerd) More appetizers sat on the tables and the other two bars inside delivered a steady stream of vodka red-bulls. Not that I indulged, wine is really more my style. I was surprised at how many adults were drinking them. Ariel performed his introduction song-“I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, and was astoundingly good. At first, I thought he was lip-syncing. The traditional candle lighting began, where Ariel thanked the special people in his life for shaping him into who he has become.
They served two main courses, one meat and one fish. Dancing was trickled in between each course, with all the young people grabbing their parents out of their chairs to join in the fun. Hebrew music reverberated throughout the night, pounding in our ears and causing our feet to move effortlessly. Champagne flowed, Israeli and American music played without rest and the before we knew it, it was pretty late. Only about 50 people left, I saw David (Reut’s sister Moran’s boyfriend) get down on one knee. I shrieked. Everyone gathered around in a circle while he proposed to Moran. Crying, happy beyond words, she obviously accepted and everyone was clutching their hankies, dabbing tears and giving hugs and kisses of congratulations. Seeing love and commitment really begin, and produce something beautiful was moving- I cried a little. Everyone did. Two in the morning rolled around and my old roommate drove me home while recalling the best events of the night. Lila tov!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Search and Rescue

Today instead of class our Ulpan took a trip to one of the neighboring Army bases where they paired us with a Search and Rescue Unit for the day. The age of the soldiers always seems to take me by surprise, though I see them everyday. Eighteen and nineteen years old, these young kids walk around with guns slung over their soldiers in their matching olive green uniforms, hats tied to their right shoulders, ready to defend their nation. Mandatory, service in the Israeli Army applies to all Israeli citizens. After high school kids are forced to grow up quickly here when faced with the reality of defending their livelihood and their country, the possibility of killing someone, and the reality of answering to someone other than their parents.
Entering through four separate gates, when we finally got to our destination, we were asked to file into an assembly hall and take a seat. The point of our seminar today was to acquaint us with the soldiers which we were paired with and to introduce us to their basic duties. They were clearly shy about speaking English, so spoke in mixed Hebrew and English. Two minutes after sitting down we were ushered outside a told to sit in a circle. Apparently icebreakers are an international phenomenon. You’d think that as an English Tutor in Italy and as a Cicerone I would love every icebreaker known to mankind. False. We sat in a circle, the language barrier almost literally tangible hung over the circle like a cloud. We had to introduce ourselves, share where we came from and name our hobbies. I felt like I was in high school. I tried to take in as much of the army base as possible, to see how they really lived. When we had breaks, all the soldiers would stack their guns in a square figure, on top of each other. I asked them why they did it in a square: “because they are less likely to go off, and someone can watch over them more easily than if they were in a big pile.” After talking to the soldiers, they expressed a less than enthusiastic view of their base. Most loved their unit, but hated the food and all the restrictions. But, all assured me that it was something that was important to them and they would serve even if it weren’t mandatory. (This is not true for all Israeli’s, by the way).
After eating in their cafeteria, I can say I understand the term ‘army food.’ Poor kids, it was awful. I got scrambled eggs and could only take one bite. How do you mess up scrambled eggs?!? We ended the day with a demonstration of their training sessions. Dressed from head to toe in their army uniforms; hard hats on, gloves strapped on their helmets, eye goggles set, they all reminded me of gophers ready to dig. All wore watches, clearly a product of living by military time (though they somehow still manage to be late.) For the demonstration, two teams competed against each other for the fastest time. They used a lot of heavy machinery to break through metal doors, concrete blocks, scale walls and then carried someone out on a stretcher through all of that. My team won! On a related note, this unit was the one sent to Haiti. Israel was the first country to send a search and rescue crew after the disaster.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Class Skits

Right now we are doing skit in class. Can I tell you how awkward they are? The two Argentineans stand at the front of the room, leaning in, speaking in Hebrew the practiced dialogue they just wrote. Full of mistakes (like all of ours are) they are explaining the meaning of what they are saying every minute. Giggling, embarrassed and staring at the paper, confused with what they wrote- they finish out the dialogue. Next group. Our topics are- things you say to your husband, what a mother in law says to her daughter in law and what an Arsim (Israeli equivalent of Guido’s) says to a girl he is trying to pick up. My group was what a mother in law says to her daughter-in-law: we made the mother hate her daughter in law, and teach her how to make her husband happy. All trying to hold back laughter, we sit painfully through the skits that are both awkward and awful. The great part is that we are all awful.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kitchen Master

I arrive at 7:30. I leave at 2:45. 2000 people live on my Kibbutz. About 1000 eat in our cafeteria every day. 6 days a week. 1 meal per day. 50 tables. In the kitchen: 15 workers. 4 Ulpanists.The morning usually begins with vegetables. Tons of vegetables. We wash,, dice, slice, and prepare eggplants, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, beets and onions every day. Those are our staples. We use huge machines, clanking and whining while vegetables whirl through the blades. Arabic and Hebrew phrases are screamed from one end of the kitchen to the other. Samea, our boss screams “Lo!!!(No!)” at us, because one of us is always messing something up. I washed the mint leaves and they weren’t supposed to be washed. Pavlo works at the speed of a slug. Jonty doesn’t understand what they are yelling at him and Gisella just chops things at her own pace in her own world. We are quite a team. Sounds of Hebrew music drift through the kitchen, able to be heard when the growl of the machines isn’t deafening. We dance in our own little corners, knife in hand, well on our way to finishing the 25 pounds of tomatoes that need to be washed. The day is separated into three sections. Work till break. Work till lunch. Work after lunch till 3. I usually jam out to my ipod while slicing and dicing- though sometimes they put me in the meat section. Last time, I cried. I am not joking. For those of you who don’t know me, I usually don’t cry in public- not my style, but I was upset. The hunks of meat are thrown down on the table. They are huge. Last time, they tried to get me to cut up a huge cow back and that definitely didn’t work. 5 minutes later I threw the knife down and walked out. Then they put me with chicken. I deplumed chicken wings (is that a word?!?) for hours. Literally plucked the wings out of the chicken. I left with blisters all over my fingers from knife usage, mascara running, and hands that smelled like chicken for days. I will never eat another chicken wing again. I have yet to master my kitchen, or a chicken.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Literally meaning on the fire, Al-Ha-Ash(barbeque) is more or less the national event on Independence Day. The special thing about the Israeli Independence Day is that they commemorate Memorial Day the day before. So appropriately honoring the lives precedes the celebration of the sacrifices made for the nation. Ready for the celebratory aspect after days of poignant, but melancholy ceremonies, Reut picked me up midmorning with her sister in tow. We drove from Na’an to a little park near Beit Shemesh in the middle of a vineyard. Gaping all the way up the mountainside, I was in awe of the amount of families celebrating in this little slice of paradise. Our spot was overlooking a valley with rows of grape trees between two towering mountains full of lush greenery. We parked next to the lively game of volleyball and I quickly noticed in Israel, volleyball is a male phenomenon. I asked Reut why no girls play and she responded- “girls don’t know how. They kind of teach us in school, but girls here don’t play.” (leave it to me- later that day I was the only girl playing)The day was one of total relaxation and enjoying family. Spreading out big blankets and surrounding several picnic tables, we indulged in an Israeli breakfast followed by great stories, a game of volleyball with a neighboring family and, of course, the preparation for the big lunch. A family that we were camping with were the owners of all the vineyards, and, knowing the area well, brought with them their ATV and an off road jeep. For a good hour, we bumped up and down along the pot-marked holes of the mountainside roads. At some places only 4 feet wide, maneuvering far enough away from an edge with a drop straight down to the valley left my heart racing. On the ATV we sped down the mountain, breathing in air that only exists in places like this. Drooping trees, fields of blooming flowers and vineyards covered the mountain like a watercolor painting. Blending together seamlessly, the nature we were surrounded by reminded me of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Surreal, like the trees were dancing, the flowers were bending to whisper replies-we sped by, tickled by the prospect of escaping reality, even only for a moment.
Returning for lunch, the table was exploding with all kinds of salads, and the men cooked different types of meat for at least 2 hours. I tried hearts for the first time. A bit apprehensive when it was offered to me, I slowly bit into the heart of the chicken- and guess what? It tasted like chicken! Delicious actually. Listening to music, hearing stories of the families’ travels and learning some new Hebrew words was how I spent my Independence Day. One of the best things about spending time with my Israeli friends- there is never English. Every once in a while, if I look really lost, I’ll get a quick translation, but generally, everything is in Hebrew. Israeli Independence Day It is similar to our Fourth of July, minus the watermelon. We even roasted marshmallows. Though, believe it or not, Israeli’s have never had s’mores. In Italy it was the same. We just ate roasted mellows. Clearly missing out, I informed them of the necessity of adding the chocolate and cracker. Probably changed their lives. On the drive home, we noticed the sky had a covering of smog as far as we could see. The weather that day was beautiful, but by the end it was a fully covered in smog- from the barbeques alone! Apparently, every Israeli family barbeques today. I don’t think we saw one stretch of shady space that wasn’t occupied by a celebrating family. Well, Yom Hatsmaut Sameach (Happy Independence Day!)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Independence Day

Last night was the Kibbutz Party. And when I say party, I mean hundreds of lawn chairs in every direction, Israeli flags in clusters around the courtyard, children running around with cookies, buffet lines filled with barbeque foods, and to top it all off, a huge ceremony somewhat equivalent to that of a really awkward talent show. (but in a cute way) The first part was quite tasteful; they shared the stories of all the people who were war heroes from our Kibbutz. Their families came up with flaming torches and lit a part of the menorah (like the Olympic torch). Followed shortly by singing and dancing, the children of Kibbutz Na’an proudly performed their renditions of classic independence songs, interpretive dances, and solo’s in honor of their country. It was quite awful. The best way to describe is: when a parent knows their child worked really hard on something, say a dance show, gets on stage and the choreography is just atrocious. But you love it because it is your kid, and you know how hard they worked on it. And, it is even cuter because it is a bunch of kids who were all really awful, but also awfully adorable? That was what is was like. Lots of awws and giggles throughout the performances. The reception was full of more food (by now it should be no surprise that Israeli families put food in your stomach every possible chance they get), popcorn machines, cakes and coffees. Fireworks blasted into the sky, in blues, reds, purples and greens, exploding into the night. I walked to the edge of a hill to meet my friend, and looked over the valley surrounding my Kibbutz. For miles, I saw fireworks exploding in every direction. Tonight was a night of Celebration. 62 years strong, the State of Israel has proven its determination as a country.
Following the ceremony my friend picked me up to go to her sister’s fiancés friends house for a barbeque. Typically Israeli, there were tables overflowing with different salads, pita, hummus and immeasurable numbers of coke products. The men sat by the barbeque, grilling the meat for everyone throughout the night. Old Israeli music drifted through the windows and the air was crisp. The night was perfect for celebration. I spoke with everyone, practicing a little bit of my Hebrew. I always entertain Israeli’s when I speak Hebrew- I probably sound like a 7 year old, with my vocabulary. (Maybe 8) They love teaching me new words, and correcting my grammar mistakes.
We ended up getting into a discussion about Israeli politics. Never a good idea, by the way. I definitely did not bring it up. They asked me why I was here, asked me if I was Jewish- to which I answered no. Astounded, they looked to my friend, and back at me, as if to say, wait, hold on- she’s not Jewish? Of course, more questions poured out. What does America think of Israel? Are there a lot of people who think Israel is full of terrorists? What do you think? Why do you learn Arabic? We don’t like the Arabs over here, you know. Do you like the Arabs? Are you going to convert to Judaism? Do you support Israel? I was a little overwhelmed with 15 people asking me all these questions. I always want to portray America as full of diverse views, peoples and cultures. But the questions were so general, I found I had to break everything down- get them to specify their questions in order to give an accurate representation of typical American beliefs on the Middle East, and Israeli specifically.
This was the first party where I think I left feeling weird about not being Jewish. Embarrassed is the wrong word. I am proud of my background, but at times I feel instantly disregarded when I say I am not Jewish. As if my perspective isn’t credible because I am not Jewish. It is extremely frustrating. The American stereotype doesn’t help at all. I hate that when people find out I’m American, two assumptions are made. First, I am easy. Second, I love to party. Incorrect and a little offensive. Even last night, I had this discussion with Moran’s friends in the circle around the barbeque- about their perceptions of American’s, about how whenever I speak in Hebrew I am ‘normal’ and when people find out I’m American, perceptions immediately change. Maybe 30 minutes later, a friend of the host arrived. After we left, I was told me that when the host introduced me to his friend, he winked at him with a nudge and said, ‘she’s American.’ I can’t tell you how much that upsets me. I wish I would’ve known then. Guest or no guest, I would’ve stood up for myself. I know stereotypes generally exist for a reason. There is usually a bit of basis in truth, but when you don’t fit that stereotype, all you want to do it prove it wrong.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Treading the Torah.

I am currently reading “Walking the Bible” where I ran across a quote that resonated with me: “it’s that tension- between being with others and being alone, between reaching salvation within a sometimes unruly community and seeking enlightenment on your own—that lies at the heart of the story of Mt. Sinai.”
Physically, a place like the desert represents this kind of conflict- the pulling between the chance of experiencing a spiritual peak in isolation, or immersing oneself in the (very human; flawed) behavioral patterns of a community. I whole-heartedly appreciate the rationale behind this classic conflict. In Israel and Egypt especially, I have felt an indescribable draw to the desert- to the unknown. To the untouched beauty, to the purity that sand washes away, and to the history of the wanderers that have been drawn there for decades. Similarly, the cities of the Middle East are brimming with religious diversity, aromas, historical monuments, and cultural anomalies that challenge your intellect. For centuries, people have sought the refuge of the desert: the Israelites, hermits, monks, and pilgrims in attempts to reach some kind of spiritual high. Traveling is my spiritual high. While I love the mysterious promise of the desert, my time alone from the world is found anywhere outside myself. I love escaping from the world I know into my version of reality. Throwing yourself into a place where you can’t communicate, can’t read the signs, don’t know the food, and have never walked the streets- that is what I crave. The plunge, those moments where you say to yourself- holy shit, what did I do?
I never truly appreciated the places I have been treading over for the last year. Without even knowing it, I have walked a significant portion of the Bible/the Torah throughout my travels in Israel and Egypt. I climbed to the place where Moses received the 10 Commandments, I floated down the Nile where Moses was, lived where Joseph reigned, traveled through the desert where the Israelites fled to, climbed the pyramids the Israelites built, and am living in the promised land where they finally arrived. I live in the place where the three major religions experienced their split. It blows my mind. And I love every minute of it.
I have discovered so much in these two years during all my travels and now have found myself inextricably obsessed with religion. The book “Walking the Bible” has forced me to conclude that my passion for understanding the three major religions is not something that will go away. I’m a woman obsessed. Anybody want to start a faith club?

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Amazing news is exciting to share. I am finally able to say that I am a scholarship recipient with the US State Department's Critical Language Scholarship this summer in Cairo, Egypt! Unfortunately, that means I am leaving Israel early in order to begin my program on time. We study Arabic intensively for 2 months in Egypt- so I will get to see my friends once again this summer and immerse myself back into Egyptian Arabic. It’s time to switch my brain back to Arabic. All these languages are actually starting to form a kind of organized system in my brain. What I mean, I think of my language acquisition stored in my brain like super market aisles. Each has there own section, but sometimes there’s a little overlap. You know, cheese in the refrigerated section but you can also find it in the aisles- but in a different form. Same thing with languages- different categories, but sometimes you’ll find variations or similarities with the same roots. Anyways, that is neither here nor there. Cairo, here I come.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

One thing I have done in Israel more than I ever have before- assess my feelings. About people, about myself, about the world, what people think of me. I’m not sure how much I like it, to be honest. I don’t know how people spend so much time contemplating their feelings. The more I assess, the more confused I become.
For example, for a long time, I really didn’t care what people thought of me. Maybe even to a fault. Then, I began to think, well, maybe I should. Not because their opinion of me is what I should think, but rather, to do a kind of qualitative self-analysis, to more or less review how I come off to the world. I usually care only about the opinions of people whom I respect. But, it is interesting anyways to look at a variety of opinions.
Maybe we ignore more of the bad things about ourselves because we surround ourselves with people who like us. Okay, so now imagine that is not the case. Surround yourself with people who don’t particularly care for you- not hate you per se, but you just aren’t their cup of tea. Now, surrounded by all of these people, you start to question yourself. Why don’t certain people like you? Is each person only supposed to have so many best friends in a lifetime? Is it important to develop strong relationships with a few people or have more people, overall like you? Should you care if people like you? Is it possible that people you get along with, that they bring out the best in you and that is why you’re friends? Or perhaps there is a subconscious affinity of some personality types to others? Now, I sit here thinking about all these questions, and have no answer. (Unless I decide to do a thesis in psychology, which is highly unlikely). Now I am left with more musings. I don’t know how introverts do it. All of this emotional thinking makes my brain hurt! (ironically)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Silly Little Nothings

I have this weird habit. I take a lot of language classes and have developed this nerdy habit while in class. I write down awkward/funny/interesting things people say in the margins of my notes in an effort to remind myself of a)silly experiences and b)the fact that I’m not the only one who lets really stupid things spill out every once in a while.
For example, my teacher, Khedva, who was raised as an orthodox Jew always enlightens us with tidbits about Judaism while learning in class. For example, there are 70 names for Jerusalem in the Torah along with 613 miztvahs (laws, but in modern times interpreted more as good deeds). In addition, we were discussing the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews and this kid is my class asked, “where does the word Sephardic come from?” His friend next to him responded quickly, “Safari…duh. (like Africa)” I almost peed my pants.
One of the funniest things about Israel is the bluntness that reigns. In Israel, anyone with red hair gets a new name. My friend Dave, a redhead, on the first day of class was immediately labeled gingey by the teacher. In America, it is obviously quite rude to call someone that- especially someone you don’t know. Here, its endearing, and quite common. In Jerusalem, Dave and I walked through the markets and the vendors would yell things like “hey gingey! Gingey, your wife is nice!” It always makes me laugh. Israeli’s are notoriously blunt. The language barrier probably doesn’t help with being politically correct either. Introverts, extroverts, old and young- when an Israeli has an opinion, you will know it.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Holocaust Remembrance Day

The sirens went off. Every Israeli stopped dead in their tracks. In the middle of the streets, on bicycles, getting out of cars, grocery lines. Everything stopped. An entire country. For two minutes. Sirens blaring in every town, everyone took two minutes out of their day to remember those lost in the Holocaust. It was a sight to behold.
Living in Israel on days like these, I am so grateful. Getting to understand a perspective completely different than my own, I love living each day with new things to learn. Holocaust Remembrance day was tough. Already decently bummed about other things, the somber atmosphere kept me at a steady blah all day. In the evening there was a special ceremony in our Kibbutz dining room. There were so many Kibbutzniks, all somber, and more quiet than I think I have ever seen a group of Israeli’s. The names of some of those murdered were read over the microphone before the ceremony began. In Hebrew, the ceremony opened with a beautiful flute solo on a black stage lit by a single spotlight. Rows upon rows of people sat, handkerchief in hand, staring beyond the performance, no doubt remembering the horror. Here the Holocaust is not just a history lesson, it is a recurrent fear. Many Jewish people believe the Holocaust can happen again. It is a very real concern. Throughout the night, there were readings from Anne Frank’s diary and poems. The service could’ve been in Ukrainian and it would’ve been universally understood. The depth of emotion that night breached anything I have seen in a while. Sadness, nostalgia and pain were tangible that night. Let us always remember. Let us always stand up.

Take a glance

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The New Melting Pot

Assuming that Israel is a homogenous place because of its existence as a Jewish state is an incorrect assumption. Made up of immigrants from all over the world, Israel becomes more and more diverse every year. The first time I lived here, I didn’t understand how special the absorption process here is. For those of you who don’t know, any person of Jewish heritage can make aliyah (ascent to Israel) and decide to become an Israeli citizen. The government puts you in absorption centers, pays for you to attend Ulpan to learn Hebrew, and ships all of your things over to Israel for free. This in addition to countless other benefits. Coming to Ulpan on Kibbutz Na’an about 60% of the participants here are 20-somethings who have made aliyah.
We are now more than two months into the program and at least 6 more people here have chosen to make aliyah. Ulpans are funded partially by the Jewish Agency. Interestingly enough, speaking with friends who have decided to make the move, I generally receive one of two answers as to why they have chosen to uproot their lives and move to Israel. 1) I have always felt an inclination to Israel. I am Jewish and it just made sense. I want to protect and defend my country. Or 2) I needed a new beginning. Israel offers me that and they pay me to do it.
The second reason is what intrigues me. Israel is in essence, the new America. In the twenty first century, what other country has allowed mass immigration and financed people to do it? Similar to the property grabbing back in those colonial times, Jewish people come here, expectant of certain rights, property and opportunities available to them in this new land. Now don’t get me wrong, they give back as well. Israel has in effect become a true melting pot. Because of the Diaspora, Jews have been able to emigrate here from South America (Argentina, Brazil) from all over Europe (though that mostly occurred before, during and directly proceeding the Holocaust), African nations (Ethiopia, South Africa), the Middle East (Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco) and basically all of Eastern Europe.
Depending on what city you enter, signs will be proudly displayed in several languages. Rehovot, the country nearest to my Kibbutz is primarily Russian. Street signs, flyers, advertisements and bumper stickers are proudly displayed in Russian. There are pockets of concentrated nationalities scattered around the country. This lends itself to a rapidly diversifying culture; cuisines from all parts of the world, languages, dances, music and customs. I wonder, can the new generation, one that in a few years will probably consist of as many immigrants as original Zionists, be able to look beyond the quarrels of their Jewish brothers of past? Currently, much of the political climate is dictated by the ultra-orthodox politics, and pacifying the tension between those Israeli citizens who are religious and those who are secular. I pray that this trend of immigration also brings in a broader worldview with diverse perspectives that can be incorporated into the state.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Are you Jewish?

When I was working in the kitchen, getting introduced to everyone, one of my old people friends said to me, “you know there are Arabs right. In the kitchen I mean Only Samea is Jewish. Just to know, you know to be politically correct when you say things.” He knows I speak Arabic so introduced me to them prefacing with my language ability. So while I work in the kitchen, I am yelled at in three languages. I find this interesting because many people here forget I am not Jewish, or assume that I am and make political and social comments thinking as such.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, on Pesach, I asked a woman if I could borrow the prayer book sitting next to her on the little plastic chairs they provide for praying. Speaking in Hebrew for a while, she readily handed me the book and engaged me in a conversation about what brought me to Jerusalem. The inevitable question came up, are you Jewish? I responded yes, not in the mood to answer questions- merely attempting to say a prayer for peace in my favorite city; Jerusalem; the city that brings the three worlds religions to their knees.
“She said, oh well when are you moving here?”
“I need to finish my studies before I do anything else.”
“Isn’t it great that you are Israeli?”
Not understanding, I explained, “no I’m not Israeli, I’m American.”
She looked at me quizzically and said, “Dear, of course you are Israeli. Israel is for you. This is what we fought for. For you to have this.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Chef Hat?

That’s right lovely ladies and gentlemen, yours truly is now a chef. Not just any chef, a top chef. Okay, maybe not a top chef, but I am a kitchen assistant now at my Kibbutz and enjoy it much more than my other job. The days are much longer, harder and messier, but I get to work with my hands. (which are now red and sore) Today, for two hours, I rocked out around 200 peppers. Wash, slice and dice! Boo-yah! We do a little of everything- from cooking, to cleaning, to preparing food, to get yelled at; all very real elements of any kitchen setting. Salads are my specialty- I handle a lot of vegetables. Then there are the meats which get butchered, cleaned, and then either breaded, fried or baked. Oh and we get free breakfast and lunch. Not a bad gig if you ask me. I hope I get to start doing more and more actual cooking as the Kibbutz progresses. And when I come home, I’m sure you all will want to taste some of my Israeli cooking. (Family, I am talking to you!)

Friday, April 9, 2010


Most days here I am happy. But then there are days like these. We all have them. But being away from home, from my family has taken a wee bit of a toll on me. I haven’t had a stable life in almost 2 years and miss easy living. That sounds silly, but living abroad requires more effort carrying out day to day interactions- like going to the bank, asking for directions, reading labels --all in another language. Some days you just want your own kitchen with ingredients you don’t have to think about (like spices and flour and a cutting board) or you just want to have your car to drive and go grab a bite to eat all by yourself. But 9 times out of 10 it’s impossible. I know I’m blessed with all my adventures, don’t get me wrong. But today, It’s just an icky day. Meh.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

(Please Don't) Come Again, Thank you.

Waking up before the alarm, I crept out of our cave-like, windowless, Zionist/hippy decorated room to the lounge to wake up with a cup o’ Joe. Dave wanted to see the Dome of the Rock so we made our way through the Jewish Quarter to get to the entrance of the Kotel (Western Wall). Unfortunately it was closed because of Pesach so we meandered back through the busy streets of the old city. Bustling with the Haredim making their way to the Kotel with their kids, stollers and wives trailing behind them. They dress in all black and white, with women usually covering their hair, but always covering their elbows and knees.
We wanted to see a German church with an amazing view of the city but that too was closed even though yesterday the guards assured us it’d be open. No worries, we did a pop-in of the Holy Sepulchre again. Well Dave did, and I people watched. Then we decided we wanted to do a walking tour of the city. We began at the old City, walked through countless neighborhoods and districts with distinctive ethnic and religious identities. We ended up in the religious neighborhoods completely by accident. All the Haredim were in the synagogues praying or playing with their children in the streets. The feel was different the moment we entered the neighborhood. Housing units were smaller, smooshed together with houses stacked on top of each other like legos. There were posters plastered on top of more posters, slowly disintegrating off the walls. Flakes of paper, brick, toys and signs littered the sidewalks where the children were playing tag. The only English we saw in a good hour and a half of was on two signs in the city which read: “Groups walking through our neighborhood severely offends us. Please do not disturb the sanctity of our lives.” & “Please dress modestly in our neighborhoods,” with lists of prohibited and acceptable clothing.
We felt awkward. And noticed. Even dressed modestly in jeans, a shirt and a fully covering sweater, one man turned his head away from me and covered his eyes as I passed. You could smell dishes warming on the heaters kept on during Seder and the families doing their normal family activities. We found ourselves way beyond where we thought we were and emerged farther up the hill from the Garden tomb. The general feeling I felt from wandering the streets was more or less please do not come again, but thanks for stopping in.
We ate lunch on the lawn by Damascus Gate next to the towering walls of the old city, in Hebrew known as the Ancient City. We napped on the lawn, journaled and napped some more. Finally gaining enough energy to move, we headed back into the heart of the Arab Quarter hoping to find hot nuts. Instead, we found a beautiful Austrian Catholic church. Well kind of a church. It was also a coffee house, a hostel, a garden and a museum. Turns out at the top, there is a flat roof which offers a stunning view of the city; especially the Dome of the Rock, the famous churches and the neighborhoods of the Old City. Reveling in the beauty of everything ancient, we lingered for a while; a long while. We relaxed in the shade of the garden, read, thought and reflected on our tri-religious Easter experience. It was time to go so we gathered our bags from the hostel and walked about an hour to the bus station. Jerusalem was still silent with all the stores still closed for Pesach. It was a bit creepy, like a ghost town. At 8pm exactly, everything shifted- cars were seen on the roads, stores opened, people emerged like ants coming out of an ant hill. We hopped on the bus to make our way back to our little slice of the world- Kibbutz Na’an.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Different Side of Jerusalem

Tonight, Easter night, was a complete juxtaposition from earlier today. We took a nap after the festivities of the day and proceeded to the Arab surrounded Damascus Gate because it’s the only section that was open today. Today, in conjunction with Easter is also the second Seder for Pesach so all of Jewish Jerusalem was closed. Farid, my Palestinian friend who likes me a little too much, came and picked Dave and I up. We drove up to his neighborhood next to the Mt. of Olives where we ate in a couch lined, domed ceiling, 500 year old restaurant in a cave. The owner, Farid’s friend who explained that the foundations under where we were eating were 2000 year old remains, but the Archeological Society wouldn’t let them dig anymore. We had an overpowering meal with way too much food and even more meat. Farid, well really Arab men in general always make me feel a little bit awkward. Male and female interaction is awkward, with cultural boundaries that seem to criss-cross and them slam into each other somewhere in the middle.
Flirting, jealousy and possession are three intense, and vastly differently viewed issues between Arab men and non-Arab men. Maybe due to rearing practices, or maybe just a cultural phenomenon, Arab women and men aren’t raised to interact with each other to the same extent as in the western world. The social and gender hierarchies exist to a greater extent and are most evident in one on interactions. We left the restaurant and traipsed through dark alleys surrounded by walls of Jerusalem stone, up back staircases and to a house that was the home of the guy who owned the restaurant. We sat on the couches in this domed home and smoked sheesha, watched music videos and drank while simultaneously conversing in three languages; switching from one to the other without thought. Farid stared at me all night, making Rob really uncomfortable since he was sitting in between us. Basically it was a typical night like one I would’ve spent in the Arab world- smoking, music, good, tv and political conversations. I later found out that one of the guys we were with had just been released from jail. I asked him what for. Nonchalantly, he laughed and said he wouldn’t tell me. Needless to say, I was a bit worried. Then Rob and I returned to our hostel and passed out.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Easter in Jerusalem

This morning, fog covers the hills of the valleys like whipped cream as we ascend to the holy city. Smelling of cigarette smoke, my sherut winds up the roads crossed by untold numbers of people over the centuries. Sometimes I feel like I don’t truly appreciate the history of this place. Emperors, slaves, diplomats and prophets have walked these roads I now climb. The Turks, Egyptians, Israelites, Hittites and countless others have traded along this passage, have been healed, converted, robbed and even slaughtered.
The source of religious conflict for over two thousand years, this piece of land has produced the most important and consequential historical events in the last 2000 years. I, for one, am completely fascinated by religion. It is one of the only things in the world that produces vast chain reactions; extreme reactions in general. People die out of religious conviction, settle in war zones because of religious principle (settlements in Israel), start revolutions, create cults…it is one of the only things in existence that completely controls people. People are often more critical and apprehensive about trusting other people as leaders but will give anything and everything for pleasing a higher power.
Easter Sunday. 9am. Getting of my sherut, I walked bags in hand to the Old City. Quiet, the city was beginning to awaken. Even smelling holy, Jerusalem emit ed all the new smells of morning. Stores opening its doors, shops pulling up the metal fences and opening, and cafés busy with travelers on their way in need of a caffeine fix; I descended down the slippery steps of the Old City to David street where my friend Dave and I were meeting to drop off our things before heading to church. [Dave and I go to Ulpan together and he was raised Christian so we decided to celebrate Easter together.] Entering the New Swedish Hostel and walking to the front desk, the manager asked me why I was speaking in Hebrew. I responded in Hebrew, “Because I live and study here.” Disgruntled he said “we do not speak Hebrew here.” Puzzled only for a moment I replied, “in Jerusalem?” He says, “Yes this is an Arab city, here we speak Arabic.” I accidentally giggled out loud and he wasn’t pleased. Fixing my mistake quickly, I responded in Arabic telling him I also study Arabic. Much happier, he told me where I could leave my things and went back to sipping his coffee and ignoring me. I met Dave and we ventured to the church, met a priest in training from Florida, got lost and eventually found the beautiful stone church situated quite obviously beside Jaffa Gate. We met some fellow travelers and were early for the 9:30 service. Anglican, this church was built in the 1800’s as a Protestant place of worship with clear Jewish roots, as exhibited by the wooden rerodos at the front of the church, where a synagogue usually keeps the Torah. The priests were all funny, sarcastic guys and seemed to live in the real world, which is quite refreshing to see especially among Christians who live in the Old City.

The church was definitely not as crowded as I had expected it to be on Easter Sunday. We began the service by reciting the Schma and singing traditional Protestant praise songs. This was the first time during my trip I ached for home. Singing those familiar songs made me teary, nostalgic of Easter in Jupiter at my church. But most of all, I missed my family. This is the first Easter in which I’ve been without any family or for that matter, away from home. I tried to concentrate on the service, on experiencing Easter in the city where Jesus died and rose again. A lot of scriptures we read that morning pointed out that we were in fact celebrating Easter in this holy place. The sermon was just okay, about remembering the Resurrection every day. But during the sermon the preacher kept squinting and I kept asking myself, is there sunlight in his eyes? Can he see when his eyes are so squinty? Does he have to go to the bathroom? Anyway, I left the church happy but still missing the familiarity and holiness I feel when I am at my church.
Afterwards, Dave and I wanted to go to the Garden tomb, the actual site where Jesus tomb was. We made it for the French service at 12:30. Listening to familiar songs in French and snapping photos, we observed all the Frenchies for a while. After about a half hour Dave and I both looked at each other with a look that said- I’m done, I hope you are too. Too hungry to concentrate on a church service in a language we didn’t understand, we headed back towards the Old City still walking the streets of East Jerusalem. We noshed on hummus, falafel and pita before making our way through the Damascus Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the ‘remains’ of the original cross are; where the cross once stood. Crowded with tourists and different ethnicities celebrating in their unique ways, we entered where woman gather at this marble plankon the ground called the Stone of Annointing and bless all kinds of things, sob, clutch their crosses and pray pleadingly. Moving further in, Dave and I were awestruck at how many people were waiting to enter the Edicule where the tomb of Christ also is. (There is much debate among Christians because there are claims from both sites to be the actual tomb)The Syriac Orthodox Arabs were in charge of the church on Easter- they were keeping the line to enter orderly by clocking all the people with a huge wooden plank. Mob like, people were pushing, cutting and yelling. It detracted a bit from the sanctity of the place for me. Men in Fez’s patrolled the corridors keeping passages clear and escorting important people to the front of line, much to the dismay of those waiting. Also, at one point they kicked this Israeli guy and his girlfriend out of the church- to the point of him revisiting and them physically forcing him out. Rather uncomfortable. We left that section of the church and migrated to a large, ornate room called the Catholicon where a ceremony was taking place. Some kind of Bishop or Archdeacon was wearing an ostentatious gold, jewel encrusted crown and was blessing those gathered around him and leading prayer. Clutching crosses and moaning personal prayers, people were enraptured by this silent blesser. Experiencing enough hierarchical holiness for one day, we went and met my friend Emily from UF for coffee who now attends Hebrew University. We grabbed some snacks and went back to the hostel and indulged in a lovely nap before our evening activities.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Reminiscing before Easter

On a sherut to Jerusalem (It’s Easter Sunday) I am musing over the memories of the weekend. Spring time in Tel Aviv means the hordes of people take over the beach. Bikini clad- every old and new bathing suit style since 1920 can be seen on the sandy stretches lining the Mediterranean. Men sporting banana hammocks gather crowds while smacking paddle balls back and forth in designated sidewalk area’s. The constant ping and pong echo from Jaffo all the way to North Tel Aviv. Police officers patrol the sidewalks on rollerblades gliding on the top of the pavement like pretend grown-ups on a power trip. We laid on the crunchy sand til sunset meeting Itay’s friends and soaking in long anticipated sun rays.
The night before was tons of fun, but a little fuzzy from French Riesling, we walked 10 blocks to meet everyone for Asian-fusion cuisine. Devouring whole bowls of food, from appetizers to entrées I think only one person actually finished their food. We sluggishly made our way to an alternative bar on Basil Street with great music from all genres and plenty of beer on tap. Talking with people about their different reasons for being in Israel and crazy stories from where everyone comes from kept us up all night. By the end, I ended up explaining the basics of Christianity to some friends who didn’t understand the differences between Protestants and Catholics and were curious about the role of the Pope and the history of hierarchy in the Church.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Friday rolled around and I was more ready than ever to leave the Kibbutz. While I love the escape and the forced tranquility it has provided, I needed an escape, a release, a rush- something to do. I woke up to my phone ringing on Friday morning. It was my taxi driver, waiting to take me to Tel Aviv. I completely forgot the time change and my phone (which is a piece.) did not automatically change. Running out the door, I had packed and gotten ready in 10 minutes. I wanted a gold star for how well I did! Unfortunately for the rest of the world, I now consistently work on Middle Eastern Time. This translates into me always being at least 20 minutes if not 2 hours late. I went to a Bikram Yoga class in North Tel Aviv, a beautiful, wealthy suburbia north of the bustle of the city. Surrounded by cafés selling fresh breads infused with cinnamon, nuts and other spices, coffee, and organic food markets, the area is at the same time like a neighborhood and an industrial area with uncountable office buildings.
Doing yoga in another language was again, interesting. I didn’t realize how much I understood and how much language acquisition I actually absorbed- but it was definitely a lot of body words. 4 days in a row of Bikram Yoga when you haven’t been going definitely impacts your body. Now, I can not move. In a good way though. Full of Israeli’s, Russians, Ethiopians and Brits, the studio really represented the fusion that makes Israel so special. I made Shabbat dinner and lit the candles to usher in the Sabbath. We relaxed, played scrabble, walked along the boardwalk, and chilled. I met with Sierra again and we found the most interesting stores- stores full of antique dolls, stores full of plastic roses, gigantic explosions of designer goodwills in a nameless hole in the wall, and stores selling tea pots. I love it!

The Night of Passover

Monday night I went over to the Zuerkel families’ house bearing a bottle of French Reisling wrapped in lavender wrapping tied with a beautiful purple flower which I purchased from an organic market in Ramat Aviv. It was warmly received, of course. Myself, Reut, her two sisters, brother and parents made our way over to Reut’s uncles house on the other side of the city. The roads were packed with cars like sardines in a can all in a hurry to not be the last arrivee at the family gathering.
Gathering there before the whole clan had gotten there, we exchanged kisses, hugs and formalities. In Hebrew, I explained to everyone who walked into the door (and there were about 30 people) that I was Reut’s friend and we had been roommates in Haifa. All this was in Hebrew. For those of you who know me, you know I am rarely reserved or shy. I felt so out of my element surrounded by Hebrew speakers in an intimate family setting on a Jewish holiday…all things which I love but at the same time stressed me out a bit. I just sat back and observed more than I usually do.

Reut’s father led the Pesach dinner with every family member reading different sections of the story of Passover. The men sat wearing kippas (yamacas) all in a line. Reut’s father headed the table, leading the dynamic that set in for the whole evening. Raising your voice for your opinion to be heard is the norm. Even the reserved family members had learned throughout their lives in Israel that it is an absolute necessity to speak up, and loudly in order to be heard at all. Politeness is dismissed. If you want to speak, just continue speaking until everyone else gives up. Hands are decoration. No good story is complete without flying hands, exaggerated facial expressions and maybe even an uprising from the table! Meals with Israeli’s are anything but dull. The dynamics between the family are amazing to watch. Grandpa and Grandma sit at the end of the table mooshing their food around with the teeth they have left. The son and his Russian girlfriend hold hands and snuggle while engaging in conversation with the rest of the family. The women of the family are constantly moving, refilling the bowls with various salads- eggplant and garlic, lettuce, carrots with pecans, liver, radish, every salad you could think of. They check on the children, refill the table with napkins, drinks, and of course more wine. The kids scream in protest of vegetables and joy when they receive their presents.
The men huddled together on one side of the table, murmuring the blessings for the Seder. One began and another would follow, finishing his sentence. We leaned to the left to drink the wine with our right hands, sang all the Seder songs and ‘amen’ed when appropriate. The food was a blend of Turkish and Moroccan cuisine because her family is half from Morocco and half form Turkey. At the end, we sang a special Seder song in Hebrew and then again in a dialect of Turkish with Spanish influence called Ladino. Passover dinner is always quite lengthy so the teenagers became a bit restless. Jokingly, the men reciting the Seder began throwing wine corks at the kids who were talking, in a half-serious attempt to make the Seder more serious. By that time, everyone was enjoying the company, the food and the general atmosphere of the Seder. Huge fail. Giggles ensued every time the men would miss a throw, especially when they landed in various household objects. Throughout the course of Passover dinner each adult consumes four glasses of wine. Add the wine with the typical conversation style of Israelis and what is produced is an amusing evening. The cousins all got a little tipsy from the wine and then desserts come. Everything is brought to the table; desserts without yeast, coconut cakes, mint tea from the garden, even pictures form the grandma’s fashion show.

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