31 August 2006

30 August 2006

I got up early to trek out to the Absorption Ministry. On the way, a bumped into a former colleague coming back from morning prayers. Although I knew he'd be in town, I wasn't expecting to see him, which is ridiculous in this small city where everyone knows everyone already.
After waiting 20 minutes after my appointed time, I finally got to see my metapelet ("case worker," for lack of a better term). She was very friendly, helpful, personable, and complimented me several times on my Hebrew and thought-out plans for being here. I then saw another advisor at Student Authority in order to get the approval for free tuition at the Hebrew University, who was equally helpful in letting me know what next steps I had to take (and also complimented me on my Hebrew). I think I'm forcing myself to believe that the oft-told horror stories of Israeli bureaucrazy will happen to me, though so far they haven't. I definitely don't want to tempt the Fates here, but it's going well.

After treating myself to a proper breakfast at a nearby café, I came back to rest for the inevitable task of the day: moving all my stuff into the new apartment. I'm staying at another friend's for a few days, which is in walking distance to the apartment. I decided I would try not to spend money on a taxi again and look bizarre in walking back and forth upscale Jerusalem with luggage. Up the hill, past the estates, and through the yuppie café-filled streets I went, with each leg of the trip ending with a huge sigh. Each suitcase became progressively heavier with each journey, making each drop-off all the more satisfying. I started unpacking, despite the lack of furniture.

I decided to grab some food downtown, waiting for an incredibly long time for bus back. Watching TV and thinking about passing out from exhaustion, huge explosive sounds reverberated throughout the town. I waited a minute before jumping to conclusions, and since the TV broadcast didn't break for the news, it wasn't any thing about which to be concerned. Turns out it was a huge fireworks display downtown during a concert for teenagers. Even though there are fireworks here every Independence Day, how OK are we with a sound and light display that mirrors the worst of days here, davka (roughly translating to " especially, now more than ever") after a month-long battle/war/wipeout?

Off to Tel Aviv for the weekend, updates to follow

29 August 2006

29 August 2006

After reading the discounted cooking books at various stores (including one I will definitely get in the near future, entitled "Ground Meat" in Hebrew) I appropriately became hungry.
I convinced myself at first that I was going to go to the shuk ( or "suq" in Arabic, the stereotypical market/bazaar of the Middle East, with crowded alleyways and merchants trying everything possible to get you attention) to get several pieces of fried kubbeh, a Levantine specialty of ground lamb and pine nuts wrapped and fried in a bulgur wheat shell. Think fried dough with meat inside, 'nuff said.
Before going, I did some wandering and stopped by the etrog juice man (Yemenite Jews use the etrog (i.e. citron) to sure many aliments – the "etrog juice man" is a landmark in Jerusalem who claims to be able to cure hundreds of illnesses with various anatomical parts of the etrog) for a juice called "Etrogat" which includes grapefruit & other juices and an herb called gat, which is the Middle Eastern version of coca. It's technically illegal in Israel, but that apparently doesn't stop the etrog juice guy from peddling MidEast speed.
Wandering around some more, I came across one of the many restaurants that are embedded in the shuk – this one was kosher, dairy, and Indian. For the equivalent of $7 I got a full thali platter and homemade lemonade with mint, not to mention a ring-side view of shoppers with their numerous plastic bags, a store-front synagogue with a full crowd for the afternoon service, and female cadet soldiers passing by, all within eight feet of my table. Incredibly pleasing with the Indian food complimenting the sweltering heat, and who knows if I'll be bale to find the place again in that market labyrinth.

28 August 2006

28 August 2006

Not much going on which explains the shorter entries appearing together. I'm learning to appreciate these periods of not having to run around. That will probably change soon, as the outgoing renter of my apartment leaves on Tuesday and I formally take over on Friday. As the place is unfurnished, I get to spend the next month and a half interior decorating and eventually making my way to the country's IKEA branch in the center of the country (here it's pronounced as "ee-KAY-a" because the American English pronunciation sounds similar to the Hebrew verb for "I'll vomit").

I changed my address and registered for free health coverage at the post office (you heard right, I also get to eventually pay my electric bill there) and finally got an appointment at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry for this Wednesday(for more free money and to get my waiver for free tuition at Hebrew U.).

The best and worst of Israeli TV commercials:
Best: "Who Will Be the Next Uri Geller?" reality show
Worst: Black Americans have the monopoly on ads for chocolate here. Cereal, cake, even a new line of diet yogurt…it's one thing to trade ethnic jokes among friends in this country (a national pastime) but to showcase caricatures of women with cellulite pink lips, dark skin and bulging figures? Maybe this is another "comes with the package" reality, or maybe it's another "If more American Jews made Aliyah, things would change" ideal.
25 August 2006

Walking back from downtown….The rich, hypnotizing smell of jasmine at 1 AM coupled with the thwack-thwack of my flip-flops tipsily making their way back home and the endless fights among the feral cats, who use their vocal chords as a motor to rev themselves up for the inevitable fight between themselves and their closest opponent.

It's so hot today, you can't help but slow down. I found myself walking slower than I've ever done before.

Music plays a big part in my life, from my CD collection hovering around 400 to an ever-developing soundtrack playing throughout a day.
Examples: The same café that played Carmen on Sunday is playing Morrissey, the former leader of The Smiths with an incredible melodramatic voice. They're also playing two of my favorite songs of theirs. Now they're playing The Pixies.
The bus driver this afternoon was listening to the radio, playing The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" as we're driving through downtown Jerusalem. Don't get caught up on me taking a bus – how about listening about a punk song which includes lines like "Sharif don't like this!" and "This is not kosher!" in the Holy Land?

24 August 2006

23 August 2006

Everything is going a lot smoother than originally expected. Perhaps a bit too smoothly, but that could be my East Coast neurosis/Jerusalemite superstition.

Apartment: As I last reported, I was going to check out another apartment after the scare that was the Monk's Cell. It's located in a quiet neighborhood called Rechavia, seconds away from cafes and the Israeli equivalent of NYC bodegas. It's on the second floor with two rooms (one containing a mini-kitchen), a lofted space for a bed, bathroom (duh), and a balcony big enough for two people to sit across from one another. The floor is imitation wood paneling (parquet), and the pervious tenant had the place looking like a stereotypical Alpine farmhouse. Not my taste, but it made the place look very warm and inviting. The wood paneling also reminded me of home in DC, so definitely another plus. In the end I decided to take it, even with all my pre-emptive self-persuasion.
The family who owns the apartment is incredibly patient and, for being landlords, nice. The son sat down with me to make sure I understood the contract, even willing to translate it for me if needed (No thanks, I told him). What amazed me even more was that the original asking price was the price written in the contract: all the other places I contemplated taking had considerably upped their price. No need to haggle, the sticker price was the final price.

Bank: Opening an account at a branch nearby my new apartment was incredibly easy. Again, perhaps too easy. For being in an upscale neighborhood, the interior doesn't look like it fits. Granted, they're doing renovations on the place, which became abundantly clear when the occasional sound of something blunt crashing made all the tellers jump from their seats. "Shiputzim (Renovations)," my clerk told me, perhaps trying to reassure the two of us.
I've never signed my name more times on a single piece of paper (I think I counted a total of 25 signatures, most likely more), and more importantly I increased my spending limit before making any deposits. I'm not going to explain the absurdity of the Israeli banking system, plenty of other jangled immigrants have written about it.

Cellphone: TBA

It is hotter than average throughout the country. Because Jerusalem is up in the mountains, it's usually 20 degrees F cooler in the evening – definitely not the case last night. I'm spending as much time inside as possible, allowing me to catch up on one of the best past-times around – Israeli TV. I explain it to others as Telemundo in Hebrew – a combination of telenovelas (Pick your language: Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, English), less artsy commercials that are even more entertaining (think ads for Fanta Grapefruit and Melon sodas next to Police warnings to stay away from unexploded ordnance in the North) and this one low grade, Japanese anime-looking woman who promotes every product possible, some times being shown in several back-to-back commercials (she's been bought out by so many companies, I want to treat her to a free STD test out of pity).

Hopefully I'll get an appointment with the Absorption Ministry this afternoon or tomorrow, as I have to start getting ready for school. After being scared by my admissions advisor that registration for the fall begins today, I called my department who calmly told me that MA students don't register until next month and that she'd send all the info regarding my departmental advisor and how to create a schedule. Whew! Nice to know that the different offices talk with one another. NYU was good practice for what I'm inevitably up against here.

One last note: Even though I haven't started school (and eventually a job) yet, I'm enjoying how much slower the day seemingly goes by here. The last time I wrote was two days ago, which seems like last week. Space here stays the same (and with the help of international pressure, it gets smaller by the day), but time stretches out like the teeth-pulling saltwater taffy from the East Coast. That is, unless you bump into another American who's so strung out they could use a few hours in the sun to get calm (and color).

22 August 2006

21 August 2006

The last few days have been surprisingly relaxed, especially since I'm storing up my first encounters with Israeli bureaucracy – Bank, Absorption Ministry, Cell-phone plan – for the middle of the week. Perhaps foolish, but I have my reasons:

~I'm getting a grant in NIS to become an Israeli citizen, and would like to open a bank account with a large initial deposit in order to build a higher credit line
~I can't go to the Absorption Ministry or a cell-phone company until I have a bank account

I spent the morning at a local café, self-caffeinating and checking up on email and apartment listings. 10.00 on a Sunday with quiet fellow patrons and La Habanera from Bizet's Carmen being played makes one forget that today's a week-day. I've looked at two apartments so far – one around the corner and out of my price range, and another that defines the real estate world's use of "cozy" and "fixer-upper." I'm exaggerating a bit on the second apartment – it's in a desirable neighborhood (Nahlaot) and has a lot of patio space of my own – but it's a studio that's in serious need of fresh paint and new furniture. As care-free as I was with packing all my stuff into three suitcases, two carry-on bags, and five boxes of books (to be shipped), I felt an inner hesitation to condense all of that into this ground-level square studio that needs a lot of work (yet would be my own and look like my own). There are few things on a silver platter to be had here, but the vast remainder should still feel right.

The two friends, who picked me up at the airport and live in Tel Aviv, have an attitude equivalent to New Yorkers towards the rest of America (the World?). As such, they called this morning to check in on me and persuade me to move to Tel Aviv. While we gave each other suitable reasons for living in either city, I eventually made my way to the computer to check out listings in Tel Aviv. Turns out there are flats to be had within my budget. Even though it would entail a round-trip commute to Jerusalem each day I have classes – one-way starts from at least 1 hour – I'm not against the notion. I've moved half-way around the world, what's another 40-minute move?

This afternoon I checked out a series of apartments owned by one guy that are advertised constantly on a popular English listing. Despite the advertisements of satellite TV, DSL cable, and other "perks," the fact that these places were still on the market three months after I first saw them were an easy cause for apprehension. I'd describe these apartments on a practical level as bordering on hovels, and on a melodramatic level as the End of Humanity. These places were so depressing – narrow rooms suitable for itinerant workers and the unsavory characters described by Charles Dickens – and made me think I would never find any thing in this city-town. The last apartment I was shown on the tour, located in the middle of the shuk and yet surprisingly quiet, peaked my anxiety. The place was decent for being located on the fourth floor of a dimly lit walk-up with a money changer at the entrance: a separate area for the kitchen and washing machine, space for the satellite TV and desktop computer, and a lofted bed. I tried to believe that I could do better than this place I might have to settle on, jokingly referring to it as the Convent or Monk's cell.

After wandering the shuk and deciding to stay downtown before the viewing the next apartment on my list, I began paraphrasing Annette Benning's character in American Beauty in my head: "I will rent this apartment." I knew the next place had to be a step up, and resolved to do whatever it takes to make it mine. Catching a quick bite at Aroma, a JDS classmate saw me through the window and came in. Turns out she's been living in Israel with her boyfriend, going back to the States to make some money, and return as a fellow Immigrant in the winter. We also have the same birthday, so my bubbling neurosis led me to believe that my karma was some how back on track after seeing my Monk's Cell.

This town is obviously making me even more superstitious than normal, noticing the several black cats crossing my path on the way to see the apartment that I self-affirmed would be mine. Since I'm being superstitious, I'll wait to describe the apartment until after I meet with the owners, tomorrow evening. All I'll say is after a long walk back, a necessary shower, and a breeze infused with a distant bonfire (one of the best smells of Israel), I feel much better.

Stay tuned for the eventual apartment find and inevitable saga-like anecdotes of how I picked it.
18 August 2006

I keep using the word "surreal" to describe this experience, for a lack of a better word. And I dislike using aphorisms, similes and metaphors to describe my feelings – I think it means one doesn't have any thing original to say – the image in my mind that I kept expecting to exemplify was from "Contact" with Jodie Foster: After she's approved to travel on the mysterious machine, she slowly walks the gangplank into the travel apparatus with the only organic sound heard by the audience being her breath. She travels to another planet – another dimension? – by passing through a "wormhole."
While I like the romance of this visual, it never manifested in reality. The Boeing 747 that took us to Israel was filled with a motley crew of fellow American Jews, from babies with bone-rattling cries to 20-somethings with no post-landing game plan. Perhaps we did go through some wormhole-like dimensional divide in the course of the flight, perhaps during the 20 minutes that I was able to fall asleep during the 10-hour flight. I'm clearly not knowledgeable about quantum physics, so I'll stop speculating.
Even after landing, the reality of the situation hadn't sunk in.

Some of the many note-worthy moments:
-Having an empty seat between me and another young guy sitting on the aisle: Great for spreading out, bad for the missed opportunity of one more Oleh Hadash.
-Landing, with the standard Israeli music mix EL-Al plays for all flights.
-Being met at the outdoor hangar by my two good friends from college, with a welcome sign in Arabic (Welcome, You've Arrived Last, Dinner's On You) and a bottle of the finest cheap champagne.
-The IDF Chief Rabbi's band singing a mix of songs (Shuvu Banim, Ratziti SheTeda, etc.) whose messages made my Israeli friends uncomfortable with their thoughts also linked to friends in Lebanon.
-The stirring speech by Minister of Absorption Zeev Bo'im in Hebrew (and only Hebrew), quoting Psalm XXX, whose power was probably lost on the majority of Olim who do not understand Hebrew on a working level.
-The electioneering done by the Prime Minister….this way to your immigrant papers and Kadima Party registration forms.
-The Absorption Hall in the old arrivals terminal. Think classic Israel (parquet as far as the eye can see + filthy white walls), with all the signs in Russian, faded posters from the 1980's, and little cubicles where we lined up to receive our Immigrant Certificates, assorted forms, and the first installment of a government grant to make absorption easier (aka a huge wad of cash).
-Absorption Ministry was a breeze; Interior Ministry took forever. In the time it took to get to the front of a 5-person line to verify my signature, I had a 10-minute phone interview in Hebrew with a TV station and fielded several other calls.
-Getting driven by my two aforementioned friends to Jerusalem in a car that clearly had a bias against any place outside of the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area. How we got up the Judean Hills with three people and 150+ lbs. of luggage is thanks to God and 15-year old brakes.

What else?
I was interviewed in Hebrew live on Channel 1, which has the same reputation of CBS back in the States: a senior-citizen friendly channel. Afterwards, we returned so I could promptly pass-out from exhaustion. I'm house-sitting for a colleague of mine from Hillel, which worked out very well: besides she's definitely one of my role models, she has a very nice apartment.

In looking back at the process of making Aliyah with Nefesh b'Nefesh, they've definitely made the process easier – I get my National ID in a few days, and never have to wait in line at the Interior Ministry.
While I wasn't surprised by the lack of outwardly-looking "secular" people on my flight, it's still a real disappointment. In this country Jews are "secular" or "religious" with varying degrees existing only in the latter. While I hate both terms – I hope to make my "Just a Jew" label stick here – this country could use more "secular" American Jews as citizens. The quality of life they enjoy and their varying relations to Judaism as a religion would bring a breath of fresh air here. I have nothing but respect for those identifying as religious who come here out of religious reasons, but to be blunt/Israeli about it, tapping into the American religious community for Olim is like shooting fish in a barrel. At some point those numbers will run dry, and the vast majority of American Jews – Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated, etc. – will all the more disconnected. Watching all the Nefesh b'Nefesh staff and not seeing a single "secular"-looking one in the bunch doesn't help in the least.