24 April 2007

22-24 April 2007

Sunday wound down quickly as everyone got ready for Memorial Day. As stores and restaurants closed early, I ventured out with a friend to the Kotel (Western Wall) for the official state ceremony. The original plan was to go to a local ceremony, but I got convinced to try to find a place at the state one. We get there early enough to get a standing spot by the barricade, several yards from the seats for select soldiers and bereaved fmailies, and appropriately far from the speakers' podiums. To our left were all my former students from Hebrew U -- a bit awkward but they were too excited to be there. At one point an Orthodox couple came up to us and the husband said to his wife "These nice people are going to move for us, so you can stand here and the men will move to the left, won't they?" After hearing the man huff and puff for a few minutes over no one's response, I turned around and told him that "that's not how it [gender separation, normal for praying at the Kotel] works on Yom Hazikaron." They left and I managed to calm down, furious at yet another American's insolent need to not speak Hebrew in Israel. Who's commemoration was this anyways?
The ceremony would get started in a few minutes, as the speaker a few feet from my head announced (I was the tallest for quite some distance in the growing crowd). The giggling yeshiva girls behind us were silenced by an irate Israeli woman, and in came the honor guard. Then the acting President & Speaker of Knesset. Then the IDF Chief of Staff. The one-minute siren went off. The ceremonial flame was lit with the help of a widow of a soldier from the Second Lebanon War, who it was announced used his body to shield his fellow soldiers from a grenade. The Israeli version of "Taps" was played. The President and Chief of Staff spoke humbly about consolation and security vs freedom. Mourner's Kaddish and the funerary prayer El Maleh Rahamim was said. The National Anthem was sung. And it was over.
In 30 minutes a wave of emotions washed over the attendees, myself included, in a way no other ceremony has. Short and meaningful, a great way to remember.
We decided to try for another commemoration, tihs one a night of classic songs about soldiers and lost loved ones. As we didn't reserve the free tickets in advance (as many didn't) we waited for a long time for any chance of getting in. After standing at the box office for a long time, many people had given up and gone. I was about ready to do the same, until we moved to the entrance door. More waiting, they finally found us seats which ended up being better than had we ordered in advace -- center orchestra.
The event was practically like Yom Hazikaron assemblies in high school: roses and candles strewn about the stage, readings and performances, and the Anthem at the end with no applause throughout. The difference? Besides two popular musicians' performances, there was the classic Israeli activity of communal singing. The words are projected on a big screen, but instead of the synthesized sounds of karaoke, there's a live band and everyone sings. All the classic songs of love, endless metaphors of gardens and beaches, and the multi-generational audience sang together songs as old as the State itself. A great way to end a powerful evening.

The next morning, after not sleeping well at all, I got up early to trek to Har Herzl, Israel's Arlington Cemetary. I was invited by a family friend and former colleague to go with her family to visit the grave of her husband's brother, killed in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. I ran to catch the bus, only to end up getting off to grab some water (it got real hot all of a sudden). At the central bus station, free transport was being provided to the cemetary. The traffic got heavier and heavier, and we eventually were let out to trek the last few blocks on foot. At the entrance teenagers were giving out bottles of water, flowers for the graves and booklets of the prayers -- all for free. What a potential moneymaker, my American mind thought, and here they were giving away expensive flowers out for free.
We met at the gate, and walked quickly to the section where the grave is located. As we're running to get there, the two-minute siren goes off and we instantly stop where we are frozen in thought. The siren ends and we walk to the grave, up on a terrace with other graves of soliders from the same war and lots of family members at each one. Each grave says the persons name, their parents, their place and date of birth, and where & when they were killed. Each family had their own way of honoring their relative, from cleaning the tombstone to the types of strewn flowers. Family reunions were taking place, a seemingly odd choice of location but incredibly dignified and warm. We listened to the official ceremony through loudspeakers, the event taking place on the other side of the ridge. The Prime Minister spoke well, the pomp ensued, a 21-gun salute punctuated the air, and everyone sang the Anthem in a loud unison. Shortly afterwards, we left with everyone else. Once again, powerful and brief.
The rest of the day was a communal daze, with few cars on the road and few people out and about. It felt like a religious holiday, but without the rabbinic prohibitions against work. After taking a nap, I started making plans for the start of Independence Day. The music on the radio was amazing as always: the classic Israeli songs from the army entertainment troupes, classic singers, and more. Hebrew may not be the best language to convey facts and science, but it dones a great job with poetry and emotions. Combined with a sound stemming from traditional Jewish themes and pop structure, true classics.
I slowly got myself together and off I was to Tel Aviv. I met a friend from college at his place and walked to a party thrown by high-school friends around the corner. Their place was a huge apartment on the up-market street appropriately called Rothschild Boulevard. I saw a friend from high school who moved back to Israel eight years ago, as well as people from all parts of my life, stocking up on drinks before hitting the town. The target: a block party in the gentrified neighborhood of Florentin. After some time, we were off.
The crowd got bigger and bigger, until we were surrounded by people dancing to music pumping from the nearby apartments, a blend of Jamaican dancehall and house music that provided enough ethnicness for the crowd. The intersections were full of 20-somethings and stands of alcohol on sale. A party like this could never happen in Jerusalem. Not just the huge gathering of people outside with little security -- but the hordes of well-dressed young people who can stay out until dawn at a party. I stayed out for a while, witnessing all sorts of drama unfold, until my ability to stay upright began to fade. Let's just say there's a huge difference between 20 and 25 when it comes to staying out late and partying. I made it back to Jerusalem very late (birds chirping and night slowly dissipating) and woke up too late for another party.

Creating new rituals where the background is Jewish is mesmerizing. Everything about the last 48 hours felt Jewish, depite its secular content. Aside from a great 48 hours of reflecting and honoring this new country of mine, it got even better: I got asked to work again for birthright israel and Hillel, coordinating four buses starting next week for a very good price. From being bored at school and the lack of school (strike keeps going and going and going...) to feeling deflated from my last job experience, this is exactly what I needed to hear. We'll see what happens should school restart, but it'll be great to be doing something again that brings me some satisfaction.

22 April 2007

21 April 2007

One of the purchases I made while in the States, which I previously mentioned, was a large stack of magazines. Among those purchased are what I would call “grooming” magazines. Yeah, I bought them, so what of it? Granted, they push a lifestyle that is bent on buying brand labels and looking one’s best.

You were expecting a counter-argument here?

While some of these magazines try to transcend materialism by writing about current events, some of them end up turning their columns into soapbox rants, with poorly developed arguments and nonexistent research. One of the magazines notorious for this type of writing, after an interview with Justin Timberlake and a spread of a man with slicked-back hair dressed in various Italian labels, decided to publish what reads as the intro of Michael Chabon’s forthcoming “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.” Chabon is the same author who wrote “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” the historical fiction novel that paralleled the origin of the comic book industry among Jews in the 1930’s.
The previewed pages spell out another dimension where there’s a Jewish states in Alaska, full of Ashkenazim who seem to have found familiar roots in the frozen tundra of North America. It reads like a combination of a season of Northern Exposure, an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, the Haaretz weekend section and numerous portrayals of Jews in American media, highbrow and lowbrow. While the average two hours of primetime American sitcoms probably contains a handful of Yiddish words popularized in popular culture over the course of a century, Chabon goes the extra mile in using terms and references that only Jews well-educated in their own history would know (e.g., “the big Litvak lady” at the “Polar-Shtern Kafeteria”). Even the setting in Alaska parallels the Jewish Autonomous Region in Siberia that Stalin set up in the hopes of solving “the Jewish question” through mass emigration to the other side of the USSR.
The chapter raises all sorts of issues, from usage of Yiddish or Hebrew as a Jewish lingua franca to Israel vs. Diaspora relations, written expertly by the author. After a few paragraphs of reading on a jetlag-induced narcoleptic afternoon, filled with streets named after Jewish thinkers and visions of a snow-covered shtetl with signage in English, I instinctively yelled out “WHAT THE...IS THIS DOING IN DETAILS MAGAZINE?!”
There are plenty of American Jews who have and do critique aspects of their identity in the mainstream media, much to the chagrin of the established Jewish community who becomes worried that these skeletons in the closet will be exploited by others or misunderstood by the vast majority out there otherwise unaware of the basics of Jewish identity, not to mention current issues and dilemmas. I tended to vaciliate between the two sides, usually based on whether or not I agreed with the the speaker. Living in the Jewish States, it's all viscerally academic.
I’m curious as to why a magazine such as this, otherwise hawking designers and high-end liquor, would not only choose to print literature but one so chock full of cultural essentialism. Is the readership of this magazine really the departments of Judaic Studies in top-tier colleges who swap advice over the latest in men’s fashion in between lectures on the Essenes?
I’m interested in seeing content of the May edition, even if it’s priced 400% more in Israel. In the meantime I’d suggest picking up a copy of Guilt & Pleasure. It may be funded by a mega-philanthropist, but it’s very insightful reading that’s meant to be discussed in a salon-style meeting and (hopefully) won't leave you itching to send a check to the ADL.

It’s finally getting warm here, taking a walk on Shabbat for the first time in a while on a nearby path past rosemary bushes so full of bees it sounded like the NASCAR race on TV you inadvertently flicked onto with the remote control.
The student strike continues on, and on the docket now are the ultimate in Israeli experiences: Memorial Day and Independence Day, 48 consecutive hours that fill the average Israeli with an extra helping of intense emotions. Teenagers have been selling Israeli flags with clips for cars all along the streets, with cars zipping by with at least one or two adorned flags. The local newspaper not only put out an official guide to all the memorial ceremonies and Independence Day celebrations, but published their list of the 100 most defining Blue and White concepts (even after last year’s Top 10 versions in the Haaretz and Yediot Ahronot papers, this is a must read for anyone looking for an understanding of Israeli society).
Here sales for coolers and beachwear are for Independence Day and never for Memorial Day, not like we do back in the States where we turn both into a moneymaker. Somehow the idea of a Memorial Day sale on grills and women’s clothes doesn’t fit into a country where the jury’s literally still out on the last war, not to mention practically everyone in this small country knowing someone who’s died in a war or terrorist attack (also included in the commemorations). That being said, tomorrow I’m hoping to buy a TV (at long last!) before the first of two nationwide sirens sound in the evening that announces the start of Memorial Day. I may not get cable installed for a few days' more, all I need in the meantime is a regular broadcast channel to watch the ceremony marking the end of Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day. Called "The Torch Lighting Ceremony," this ceremony annually broadcasted live from Har Herzl (the national military and political cemetery in Jerusalem) is the height of patriotism and nationalist kitsch. Think every patriotic symbol, performance and speech you've ever seen witnessed and then condensed into a square plaza.

More to come in the next few days.

17 April 2007

17 April 2007

Part 1
I arrived back in Israel Sunday afternoon, exhausted and rather disoriented. The flight back from JFK via Madrid was decent, save the non-defrosted kosher meals and the Israeli who had to make friends with everyone on the plane. I shot him a look of annoyance every time he tried to make eye contact.
Flying on Iberia to and from Israel was an interesting linguistic experience, as my six years of learning Spanish flooded back into my immediate brainwaves like blood rushing to one’s head after getting up quickly. Soon I was mimicking the stewardesses’ Castilian accents, full of lisps that came in handy as they were just as adamant as Americans in speaking their native tongue. Spanish and Hebrew blended into one seamless language full of long vowels and absent of the sound of the letter of my first name. The Madrid airport was visually impressive, the duty-free extensive but not as good as Israel’s (not that I could afford anything) and the little food that wasn’t covered in Spanish ham decent (read: a salad and a thick omelet sandwich that makes the thin Israeli version even more pitiful than it already is).

But this wasn’t a trip to Spain. I landed in JFK several weeks ago. I watched the overweight family in front of me go through security and the TSA agents screaming and cursing at one another, and knew I was back in America. After a few days in DC, my parents and I drove to our relatives in Ohio – a nine-hour drive that I normally hate, but this was my chance to soak up some Americana. In no time I was immersed in drawls and Cracker Barrel and endless tracts of land. Pesach was its usual spectacle, at least 20 people per night at my aunt’s with the requisite family dynamics. I lead the s’darim, trying to keep a progressively fading crowd captive, and helped to instigate a family-wide debate over the nature of freedom and existence of universal values that left me as the more philosophically liberal voice at the heated table (moral relativism, onward!). Just as important, I took advantage of my cousin’s free drinks perk at Starbucks several times, not to mention making her blast one of the country music stations while driving around. A good yet abbreviated trip to the Midwest.

My inability to shop like an Israeli at duty-free (read: with abandon for the sake of a good deal) was made up for in DC stocking up on magazines, clothes and the always important Airborne.

Friends and family keep asking how the trip was, my first once since emigrating. As I summed up to one person, “It’s great to be there, it’s great to be here.” Coined in a state of delirium after sleeping for 16 hours, tihs line that would make Dr. Seuss proud best sums up my situation. Even though I know I made the right decision in moving here (a crappy school and lack of work situation notwithstanding) it was great being back in the States and it’ll be great to be back again. For me it took a trip back to the States to internalize how much I missed family & friends, and how much they miss me – a great feeling indeed. Despite the almost 24 hour voyage each way, I didn’t mind the actual act of flying, so there will be future attempts at creating a life Here and There simultaneously.

Part 2
Trying to stay up as long as possible to avoid jet lag, I pass out around 10pm only to wake up a few hours later still dressed. Ten hours later, I slowly get up out of bed in time to hear the siren marking Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Memorial Day. I was planning on going downtown to see life stop for a minute, crazy drivers and all – as it does every year – but all I managed to muster was getting out of bed and go right back to sleep. The siren, which will also be sounded next week for Memorial Day, is as much about a moment of reflection as it is about recognizing the fragility of everyday life here in Israel – the same siren, with its piercing winding-up and winding-down effect, is the same one sounded should something more immediate occur.

Several hours later, I forced myself to wake up after a self-record of 16 hours! The jetlag this time is fierce, overpowering even a second cup of coffee.

The Student Union began a strike before break was over, and continues at least through 18/4 with no reports of it ceasing soon. My interest in going back to working full-time grows with each day, as I’m finding myself more and more restless in a good way, wanting to get immersed in something impactful that can provide disposable income.
That's it for now, tomorrow's a new day of no school, a possible to Tel Aviv and the definite continuing of jetlag.